New rules requiring public transport users in England to wear face coverings came into force on Monday (15 June), backed by £100 fines, but the scope for exemptions remains unclear.
Ministers were criticised for publishing the secondary legislation setting out the requirements on Sunday, just a day before they came into effect.
The Department for Transport (DfT) said that from Monday ‘everyone must wear a face covering when travelling by public transport in England, with operators be able to prevent passengers who refuse to follow the rules travelling and police will be able to issue fines of £100'.
DfT is considering expanding £20m new station fund
It added that more than 3,000 extra staff will be deployed ‘to support the travelling public, reminding people about the need to wear face coverings and helping vulnerable passengers’.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘We’ve seen how the COVID-19 pandemic has unlocked a community spirit right across our nation, and we now need to extend this to our transport network so we can help keep one another safe.’
The DfT said that exemptions will apply to those with certain health conditions, disabled people and children under the age of 11. However, the statutory instrument provides a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses. These include someone who ‘cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of any physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability (within the meaning of section 6 of the Equality Act 2010(g)), or without severe distress'.
It has previously been suggested that this will include people with breathing difficulties; however, the threshold for being unable to wear a face covering is not defined.
The RMT union, which had previously expressed concern that transport staff would be required to enforce the new rules, said it had received assurances that police, and not transport staff, will be responsible for enforcing the legislation and ‘has advised its members to avoid conflict situations with any passengers who refuse to hear face coverings’.
General secretary Mick Cash said: ‘We have advised our members to avoid conflict situations in the event of any passengers refusing to wear face coverings.
‘We are calling for transport workers to be treated with respect, including remembering the essential role they are playing as key workers during the pandemic.’
Last week, before the legislation was published, Anthony Smith of passenger watchdog Transport Focus said that passengers ‘urgently need clear information from Government and operators in advance as to whether face coverings will need to be worn at stations and bus stops as well as onboard trains and buses, or if they will be turned away if they aren’t wearing one’.
The legislation appears to apply only to people boarding or on board services. However, although the legislation makes clear that operators can turn passengers without face coverings away, it remains unclear what will happen if passengers claim to be covered by an exemption.