Unite is seeking urgent talks over the future of wearing face masks on public transport after calling the government’s decision to end the requirement to wear them as an act of ‘gross negligence’.
In particular, the union is seeking talks with London mayor Sadiq Khan and Transport for London chiefs to propose that passengers in the capital should continue to be required to wear masks. Unite represents some 20,000 bus drivers in the capital alone.
Unite leaders will argue that with infection rates rising rapidly and with many people who travel on London buses, such as schoolchildren, being unvaccinated, the risk of transmission is reaching a level that is “entirely unacceptable”.
Return to the office
Drivers, said Unite, frequently use buses to go to work and then travel along a route to pick up the bus they are required to drive. So although when driving they have specially designed shields to protect them against the largely airborne virus, for some of the time they are passengers just as fare-paying members of the public are.
The union said that ridership on public transport was bound to increase dramatically as more offices reopened. However, if people lost confidence in the safety of buses and trains because of reduced mask wearing, then firms’ hybrid work plans could be hit.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on Wednesday that he believed in “individual responsibility” but he would continue to wear a mask on the Tube after 19 July. On Sunday, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said he would not be wearing a mask.
Khan has urged the government to retain the requirement for coverings on public transport. He was supported by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham who said the change could cause “real problems”.
Kwarteng told Sky News: “Personally, I use the Tube a lot in London and I would probably use them – wear a mask – in that context in the Tube in public transport. That’s a personal view. It’s not something that I would mandate or necessarily dictate to other people.”
The Department for Transport is expected to bring together transport operators from around the country to discuss the changes to government guidance and how it could work.
Unite regional secretary for London Pete Kavanagh said: “Drivers are reporting that they feel it is morally wrong to drive vehicles which are likely to become mobile infection hubs.
“Numerous office-based workers are currently adjusting to the prospect of returning to the office after 16 months of home working, many are very nervous and the removal of the rules on face mask wearing will increase levels of anxiety among passengers.
“Throughout the pandemic Sadiq Khan has done the right thing and introduced processes needed to protect bus workers. Unite hopes that honourable record will continue with measures to ensure that the public continues to wear face masks on London transport.”
Retail workers union Usdaw, similarly, has condemned the weakening of safety measures, fearing for staff welfare. General secretary Paddy Lillis said: “Wearing a face covering in crowded public areas like shops is not merely a personal choice, it is an important measure to help protect workers who have no option but to interact with large numbers of people as a part of their job.
“Many retail workers are at a greater risk of catching the virus and bringing it home to their families. Supermarket workers and delivery drivers have worked throughout the pandemic to keep the country supplied with essentials. These key workers must be valued, respected and protected.”
Sainsbury’s boss Simon Roberts said the chain would be following government guidance and would make mask wearing in stores a matter of “personal choice” after 19 July. The Westfield shopping centre group, however, said it would “encourage” customers to wear masks.
In the hospitality sector many firms were as undecided whether to stipulate customers and staff should continue to wear masks.
Chris Jowsey, chief executive of Admiral Taverns, which has 1,000 pubs, told the BBC that the lifting of all restrictions was “long overdue”. He said 19 July would “be critical for the future of our industry, supporting community hubs across the UK and allowing businesses to operate as normal once again”.
In contrast, Clive Watson, chief executive of the City Pub Group, which has 45 pubs across the south of England and Wales, said masks would be encouraged after 19 July – with all staff encouraged to wear them – and as much table service as possible would continue.