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Monday essay: time to cover up

Today is the day that we should all start wearing face coverings on trains, trams, buses and other forms of public transport. Sim Harris has been looking at the new rules.

TODAY is the day that we should all start wearing the equivalent of muzzles on trains, trams, buses and other forms of public transport – if we must use it at all.

A dog is given a muzzle so that it cannot bite, while we will wear face coverings to make it less likely that we will make a hostile present of Covid-19 particles to someone nearby. The reverse does not apply: the Health & Safety Executive says: ‘There is currently no evidence that using face masks outside of a healthcare or clinical setting will protect people from coronavirus.’

So when you cover your face, you are demonstrating your concern for the people near you, and hoping that they will return the favour.

It seems like a good idea in principle and is supported by doctors, although the British Medical Association wants the requirement to apply more generally, beyond public transport alone.

However, the actual rule, which the government says has been made lawful by issuing regulations authorised by the 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, is a little inconsistent. The requirement to wear a face covering while travelling is now ‘mandatory’ in England but only ‘encouraged’ in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In England, at least, police and other authorised staff will be able to issue fines of £100 to people who ignore the rules (reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days), and the Department for Transport says that ‘some operators will amend their conditions of carriage, allowing them to enforce the requirement in a similar way to the rules on having a ticket for travel, meaning they can implement the changes in the way that works best for them’. In short, naked face = no journey.

In spite of the heavy hand of the law, politicians seem to be less sure about the benefits. Transport secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC on 5 June that the evidence in favour of face coverings was ‘marginal’, and that the change was ‘not some panacea’ but provided ‘some reassurance to passengers’.

If so, passengers in England apparently need more reassurance that those in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In Scotland, the country’s main train operator is far from sure about how this will work, at least while there is still a two-metre distancing rule.

As Railnews reported on 10 June, ScotRail’s David Simpson said: ‘For those who do travel, Scotland’s Railway cannot guarantee physical distancing at all stages of a journey because we only have a limited amount of capacity.’

It is ‘physical’ or social distancing which reduces the capacity of trains and other transport so dramatically, so that a 500-seat intercity train can only carry 80 passengers or so.

But this problem may also ease, to judge by reports that Boris Johnson is considering shortening the distance to one metre (which is already the case in China, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Lithuania and Singapore, according to the BBC). Some other countries are satisfied with 1.5m (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands and Portugal), and two metres is only required in Canada and Spain, apart from the UK.

The effects on public transport capacity of a one-metre rule combined with compulsory (and reassuring) face coverings could be considerable, and the time could be coming when the official pleas to avoid public transport can be relaxed, especially as ‘non-essential’ shops are also being allowed to re-open from today while pubs, bars and restaurants could follow on 4 July, although with some restrictions remaining for a while.

Train operators are already reporting increases in demand: Railnews understands that Avanti West Coast has recently seen ‘a small jump’ in reservations, for example.

The cries of the occasional doom merchants who claim that the railway might as well be mothballed can now be seen for what they are.

It will take time, no doubt, but the wheels are starting to turn once again, just in time to rescue what remains of the national economy.

Copies of the June print edition of Railnews and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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