Masks should remain mandatory on public transport, say English mayors

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham also in favour of continued mask-wearing in essential shops

Boris Johnson is facing a backlash against the plan to abolish laws requiring masks in England, after scientists, Labour, regional mayors and bereaved families condemned it as a blow to frontline workers and clinically vulnerable people.

With government officials briefing that vulnerable people should consider travelling at off-peak times to limit their exposure, there was also a risk of confusion as airlines, some train companies and other businesses may still mandate the use of masks.

The two biggest budget airlines, easyJet and Ryanair, said they would follow the advice and guidance of European health authorities and continue to enforce mask-wearing on flights regardless of domestic rules.

Some of the most vehement criticism of the end of mandatory mask use in crowded spaces such as public transport, expected to come in from 19 July under phase 4 of the government’s unlocking plan for England, came from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of the group, said the risk to transport workers from the mask policy was “an insult to those we have lost, and shows worrying disregard for the key workers we have relied on so heavily during the course of the pandemic”.

Labour also criticised the change. The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, told MPs in the Commons: “Why should those who are worried and shielding be shut out of public transport and shops?”

Polling by YouGov has shown public concerns about the end of mandatory mask use. More than two-thirds of people support it for public transport and shops, while 70% said they would feel less safe in such situations if people were not masked.

Asked about his future use of masks at a Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson said it would “depend on the circumstances” and that, for example, he might not if he was almost alone on a late night rail carriage.

But Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, was clearer, saying he would do so in three circumstances: in any indoor situation where he was in close proximity to others; if required to by particular rules; and “as a point of common courtesy” if not doing so would make someone uncomfortable.

Other scientists condemned the mask decision. Prof John Drury, a member of a subgroup to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said making it a matter of personal choice “seems like a cop-out”.

Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist and associate professor at the University of Leeds school of medicine, called the plan “a recipe for disaster”. He said: “I find that for a government to abdicate itself from responsibility in terms of guiding people, I think that’s just wrong. Because even if the vast majority of people are sensible as they suggest … it only takes a minority to undo that altruism, because masks prevent us from spreading the virus primarily.”


Mayors in some of England’s Covid hotspots also want mandatory mask-wearing to continue on public transport after the next stage of unlocking.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, wants people to have to wear face coverings in supermarkets and chemists to protect vulnerable shoppers as well as people on public transport too.

Burnham said: “For people who have no choice but to use public transport or also in essential retail, I think at this stage it is not asking too much to have a continuing requirement to wear masks in those places. If you’re in a position where you have no choice about it and you feel very vulnerable, I just don’t think it’s fair to remove that requirement at this stage.”

A similar stance is taken by Sadiq Khan, the London mayor; Jamie Driscoll, mayor of the North Tyne combined authority; Steve Rotheram, the Liverpool city mayor; Tracy Brabin, the mayor of West Yorkshire; and Dan Jarvis, the mayor of South Yorkshire.

Burnham said he had the power to mandate mask wearing on Metrolink, Greater Manchester’s tram network, but not on buses or trains.

In theory, Transport for London (TfL) could set conditions of carriage making masks compulsory on all public transport in the capital but City Hall sources said in practice this would be “very difficult” because of conditions in the TfL funding agreement and because of the numbers of passengers changing from national to London services across the city.

• This article was amended on 6 July 2021. The Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region is Steve Rotheram, not Steve Rotherham as an earlier version said due to an error during a revision of the article.


Peter Walker, Helen Pidd, Linda Geddes and Gwyn Topham

The GuardianTramp

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