Boris Johnson has told the public they are set to no longer be legally required to wear masks from July 19, despite his chief medical advisor suggesting that face coverings should be worn as a “common courtesy”.
The Prime Minister declared on July 5 that at the end of his roadmap out of restrictions, face coverings will no longer be mandatory under the law but individuals will instead be encouraged to “exercise judgement”.
The move comes despite opposition from Sir Keir Starmer, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, the Labour leader and mayors of London and Manchester, while the airlines easyJet and Ryanair said masks would continue to be mandatory on their flights.
On July 5, Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, suggested masks should be worn as a “common courtesy”, while Mr Johnson said they would not be needed unless in a crowded indoor space like a Tube carriage.
The pair also appeared to disagree on the scrapping of social distancing rules, with Prof Whitty pointing to a consensus among scientists that they should be maintained.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said the Prime Minister’s decision to ease restrictions despite warnings from scientific advisers was "incredibly concerning".
"There is a clear disconnect with the actions the Government is planning to take and the data and views of the scientific community and medical profession," he added.
Under the rule changes, permission will be handed to transport operators and shops to decide their own policy on the issue, setting conditions for their own premises while remaining mindful of equality law.
The new system was criticised on July 5 for creating a patchwork of different rules in different settings, which some said would be confusing for the public.
Some supermarkets have said they would encourage masks for shoppers, but would not turn away people who refused to wear them. Sir Keir, the Labour leader, said the legal requirement should be maintained.
“To throw off all protections at the same time when the infection rate is still going up is reckless,” he said.
Mr Johnson confirmed he would wear a mask in some settings, but signalled he would use his discretion, contrasting a crowded commuter tube with an empty train carriage late at night.
"We want people to exercise their personal responsibility but remember the value of face coverings both in protecting themselves and others,” he said.
Face coverings are no longer to be mandatory, although transport companies will be able to set their own policy
Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP
Professor Whitty said he would wear a mask in three scenarios: if in a crowded space near others, if asked to be a competent authority, or if someone else was uncomfortable about him not wearing a face covering as a “point of common courtesy”.
It is understood that the Government has not conducted specific modelling on how many people are expected to continue to wear masks once the requirement is lifted.
Polling released on July 5 suggested the move to scrap the requirement will be unpopular with the public.
More than seven in 10 Britons (71 per cent) said masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport for a further period of time, while two thirds (66 per cent) said they should remain obligatory for shops, according to a survey by YouGov. The change will come into effect at Step 4 of the roadmap, which is pencilled in for July 19.
The Government will confirm next Monday, July 12, whether it is set to go ahead on that date, depending on the latest data.
Ministers will make clear that the move can take place thanks to the protection provided by the vaccination programme.
Retailers must now decide whether to make masks a condition of entry to their shops. The supermarket chain Asda is expected to encourage customers to wear masks, but not to require them.
Westfield, which operates two large shopping centres in London, said it would let its customers choose whether to wear a face covering.
Face masks poll
Transport companies will be able to make masks a condition of carriage under the terms and conditions of tickets. However, the ability of transport operators to enforce such rules or penalise those who breach them is mired in uncertainty.
Rail firms are able to levy penalty charges on people who ride their networks without the correct ticket thanks to laws that underpin those rules.
It is understood the Government does not plan to alter this legislation to include breaches of mask rules, if transport companies implement them.
The Government’s decision also heralds the possibility that travellers on cross-border trains within Britain may have to put on a mask when moving from England into Scotland or Wales, where face coverings remain mandatory.
Industry insiders warned earlier on July 5 that the removal of consistent government rules on masks will spark widespread confusion, while also threatening to undermine consumer and commuter confidence.
Mr Khan and Transport for London’s (TfL) commissioner agreed that mandatory face coverings remained the “simplest and safest option” on public transport in the capital.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has set out his support for the retention of face masks after step four
Credit: Jonathan Hordle/PA
Mr Khan’s spokeswoman acknowledged, however, that “any divergence of rules across different modes of transport [is] complex as well as confusing for passengers”.
It is also understood that TfL has judged that it will be difficult to deviate from nationwide regulations on masks due to the terms of its funding agreement.
No traces of coronavirus have been found on the public transport network during monthly swab testing, undertaken by Imperial College London, since September.
The announcement on July 5 is likely to prove popular among Mr Johnson’s colleagues in the parliamentary Conservative party, following a series of senior ministers expressing their desire to jettison their masks when allowed.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has said he will stop wearing one “as soon as possible”, while Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, has said he would “get rid” of his when permitted.
Covid rules from July 19
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said she would “love to” remove her mask, but signalled she would continue to wear one until the nation is “in the clear”.
Helen Whately, the care minister, signalled on the morning of July 5 that she “might” continue to wear a mask if commuting on a crowded train.
Ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement, Britain’s largest trade union demanded that face coverings remain mandatory on public transport after the end of the roadmap out of restrictions.
Unite claimed it would be “gross negligence” to end the requirement on July 19, insisting the current regulations “provide reassurance to drivers and to passengers who are nervous about using public transport”.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), accused the Government of allowing a “free-for-all”, in contradiction of common sense and medical advice that “seems to indicate that some level of control should remain in place in the public realm”.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the bus and coach industry, has previously warned that any relaxation of rules in retail and hospitality settings must apply to public transport, to avoid the latter facing a “stigma”.
The Rail Delivery group, which represents the industry, said: “Travelling by train is low risk and carriages are well ventilated with air regularly refreshed either by air conditioning systems, or by doors and windows being opened, so any decision to leave public transport behind other parts of the economy would need to be based on the science.