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Public Transport: Face Coverings

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 25 June 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the requirement for passengers to wear face coverings on public transport, what assessment they have made of compliance with that requirement; and how that requirement is being enforced.

My Lords, we are working closely with transport operators and the British Transport Police to monitor compliance. As we expected, initial reports from operators suggest a high level of compliance, and there is strong public support for the measure. More data will be available in the coming weeks. We expect to see a gradual ramping up of enforcement, supported by a significant communications campaign, over the coming months.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister says. I am surprised that she points to that level of compliance. There is growing evidence, admittedly anecdotal, that not everybody is complying. This week, the BMA, among others, urged the wider use of face coverings as an important mitigation measure once social distancing rules are relaxed. The Government made face coverings on public transport mandatory from 15 June, with the potential of fines for non-compliance, yet, as I say, there is growing anecdotal evidence that many people are not complying. Can the Minister say a little more about what the Government will do to ensure that a strong, unambiguous message gets through to everyone? Can she say what support and training are being offered to front-line staff, such as bus drivers and ticket inspectors, to help them deal with non-compliance?

I thank the noble Baroness for her follow-up question. I assure her that compliance is at around 85% to 95% on rail, 90% on TfL and 70% on non-London buses. This soon after the mandating of face coverings, that is a pretty good return. We are looking at ways of explaining things, engaging with people and encouraging people to wear face masks. At this moment in time, heavy-handed enforcement would not be appropriate. Part of that explaining element is making sure that transport workers work hand in hand with the public and the police to explain to people exactly why they should wear a face covering and that they may not use public transport if they do not have one.

My Lords, to what extent are the Government hoping that the travelling public will help to police this policy?

My Lords, I do not expect the travelling public to police this policy. It is important to be aware that there are exemptions to it. Gentle guidance from transport operators will be absolutely key, as will them working hand in hand with the police and, for example, TfL-authorised personnel.

I believe that the present public transport policy is killing public transport, particularly buses outside London. Some 40% to 70% of normal capacity will be available after next weekend. The Government need to stop sending the message that it is unsafe and dangerous to use public transport. It is important that people wear face masks and that people avoid the busiest journeys. Transport companies are striving to do the right thing but it is up to the Government to use their publicity machine to draw attention to the positive things that can be done.

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. The Government support public transport. Indeed, we are funnelling vast amounts of taxpayers’ money into making sure that the services are there for the people who need them. He mentioned 40% to 70% capacity; I have no idea where those figures come from. Capacity is nothing like that on public transport. With 100% of services, we are looking at capacity of less than 30%. There is a balance to be achieved. We want people to use public transport in future but using it right now would be counterproductive and may risk our ability to control the virus.

My Lords, I support the use of face coverings in principle but are the Government fully aware of the challenges that this presents for people living with disabilities, including those who need to lip-read? I know that exemptions are in place but they are not clearly advertised; nor are staff adequately trained to deal with them. This has left people with disabilities being refused entry and being reported to police by fellow travellers; some have had to pay for GP letters that prove their exemption. Will the Minister commit to reviewing communications and mandating transport staff training so that people who cannot wear face coverings can travel safely without further questioning and harassment?

The issue that the noble Baroness brings up is extremely worrying. We do not want people having to get GP letters. That is not what is intended. When we put these regulations in place, we did an equalities impact assessment and took advice from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee to make sure that we understand fully the sorts of exemptions that are needed. We are working closely with operators to put in place exemption schemes, which may include badges, lanyards or cards that people can show to other individuals—and, just as importantly, to transport operators and police—to show that, for whatever reason, they are exempt from wearing a face covering.

Despite the impending reopening of museums, pubs, cinemas and hotels, there has been no clear updated guidance on whether people can use public transport to reach these destinations. Can the Minister clarify the guidance? Will individuals and families be encouraged to or discouraged from using public transport to travel to leisure and hospitality facilities? If they travel, will they be required to wear a face covering? If they do not do so, will they be stopped from using public transport?

As I mentioned previously, wearing a face covering on public transport is mandatory. If a person does not have a face covering on, they can be denied service or removed from the service. On the reopening of various facilities on 4 July, the Department for Transport and broader government are continually looking at the demand for transport and our transport capacity to see whether we are in danger of demand exceeding supply. If there is capacity on public transport, the Government’s messaging may well change, but in the short term, we cannot suddenly open up public transport to everybody because there simply is not the capacity.

My Lords, the case for wearing face coverings on public transport, particularly on commuter services, appears quite strong. However, to be effective, face coverings must be of sufficient quality in their design and manufacture to help stop the spread of Covid-19. Will the Government consider making the manufacture, import or sale of coverings that do not meet the defined British standard an offence, as they have for surgical face coverings being used in clinical settings?

My Lords, the Government are working to the advice of SAGE on face coverings, which is that face coverings worn in enclosed spaces are at least partially effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus to other people. That is why we have said that face coverings can be made of various materials. We do not have a specific British standard, which I feel would stop the supply to people across the country who need to use public transport.

Does the Minister agree that to minimise the risk to fellow passengers, it is imperative that face coverings are worn on public transport, but if a passenger with an urgent need to travel arrives without one, drivers or staff should be able to provide an inexpensive covering that can be recycled at the end of the journey?

I agree with the noble Lord that it is essential that people use a face covering when they travel. We have been working with the rail industry and other transport operators on the provision, on a one-off basis, of a supply of face coverings that can be given out in the circumstances he has described, particularly while people get used to wearing them. We are also looking with the Cabinet Office at longer-term supply options so that members of the public can purchase low-cost face coverings at various outlets. For example, Network Rail has installed vending machines supplying face coverings at many of its stations.

My Lords, what consultations took place with bus, coach and train operators and their representatives before the announcement about face coverings was made? Turning to enforcement, does the Minister expect front-line staff to turn away would-be passengers who for any reason are not wearing face masks? What other consultations have there been with the police, particularly the British Transport Police, about the enforcement of the wearing of face masks on railway services?

I think the noble Lord will understand that at present, all Ministers have a close ongoing relationship with transport operators and unions. We are continually having conversations about the sort of measures that may come in in the future. We spoke to the unions about face coverings; indeed, it was the unions that did not want the use of face coverings by transport workers made mandatory. We listened and worked with them to make that the case. Transport operators such as bus drivers often have to turn people away, for example, because of poor behaviour, in which case they might then go on to call the police. It is the same in the case of face coverings; if people create a fuss because they are denied boarding, transport operators will get the police involved. Of course, we speak frequently to the British Transport Police about this matter as well.

My noble friend will be aware that we are negotiating with other countries over air bridges for air transport to and from the United Kingdom. Given that the rules on the wearing of face coverings differ in the various parts of the United Kingdom, how is that matter being reconciled in the negotiations to create air bridges, which I fully support?

The noble Lord raises an interesting point. It is obviously a consequence of devolution that the devolved Administrations can make their own rules in this area. However, I am pleased to say that the wearing of face coverings is mandatory in Scotland as well, so there is less confusion there, and their use is advisory in Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, the wearing of face coverings on aircraft and the reciprocal arrangements with other countries will be an important consideration as discussions on international air bridges continue.

My Lords, I also support the use of face coverings, which I think is imperative, but I have heard a significant number of anecdotes of people who, using good common sense, have approached other travellers saying, “You should have your face covered,” are then threatened, rather as we found early on when the ban on smoking on public transport came in; not everyone will support this. What do the Government envisage happening if threatening behaviour greets the use of common sense by the public?

The issue raised by the noble Lord is extremely distressing. I would advise members of the general public perhaps not to approach individuals themselves, but to speak to transport operators, either the station staff or the driver if they are on a bus. If there is a continual refusal to wear a face covering without an appropriate exemption, in those circumstances the police could, and indeed should, be called. I do not want members of the public to put themselves at risk to encourage people to wear face coverings.

My Lords, should there not be better education from the Government about why and how face masks should be used?

I would slightly challenge the noble Earl on that. A significant communications campaign is going on at the moment and that will continue over the weeks and months ahead. We are also working closely with the transport operators, which have put an enormous amount of signage in their vehicles and at stations. They are also sending emails to their customers, as well as messages via their apps and websites, so a lot of work is going on. I think that the message is getting out there, but I can reassure the noble Earl that we are pushing on with this, although there is always more that we can do.

My Lords, in the Far East, people have been wearing face masks on public transport since the outset of the pandemic. If Her Majesty’s Government think that wearing face coverings on public transport is a good idea now, why did they not think that months ago? I suggest to the Minister that this was always just a case of shortage of adequate PPE, including face masks?

I do not think that the noble Lord is correct in his assumption. As we have said consistently throughout the pandemic, we were following the science at the time. It is also worth noting that very few people were travelling on public transport in the early days of the pandemic. The reality is that handwashing and social distancing are more critical in reducing transmission of the virus than wearing a face mask. Having a face covering on is something that we can put in place now, given that social distancing may not be as possible as it was in the early phases of the outbreak. In the early phases, almost no one was travelling on public transport.