Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has said he always “expected, and indeed, wanted” some train, bus and rail companies to insist on mask-wearing on their services, despite the government removing legal requirements for face coverings in England.
The minister said he backed the decision of Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, to carry on requiring face coverings on public transport in the capital, even though the government had previously said it wanted to move to a system of “common sense” and “personal responsibility” when it comes to mask-wearing.
“Whilst we are going from this being a legal requirement to guidelines, we do expect individual carriers to make sure they are putting in place whatever is appropriate for their network,” he told Sky News.
“The airlines have already said that you will need to carry on wearing masks on those. It is very much in line with what we expected – indeed wanted – to happen.”
Khan said the two motivations for continuing compulsory face masks on the London transport network were “public safety and public reassurance”. He said it was especially important that those who are vulnerable should feel safe while travelling.
Asked whether the prime minister was trying to gain favour with his party by removing the requirement for masks, while shifting responsibility for bringing in precautions on to TfL, Khan told the BBC’s Today programme: “I wish anybody luck in reading Boris Johnson’s mind. I certainly can’t.”
The tone of ministers about the future of face masks has shifted towards a more cautious stance in the past week, amid concern among scientists about sharply rising cases and the pressure on the NHS.
The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed on Monday night that face coverings and social distancing would remain compulsory for all those entering hospitals, GP surgeries and other health settings unless there is a medical need not to wear one.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Face coverings have been needed in healthcare settings throughout the pandemic – as set out in the infection prevention and control guidance – and this will not change as we cautiously proceed with step 4 of the roadmap.
“This will ensure patients are protected through the continued use of personal protective equipment, face coverings in enclosed or crowded areas, and maintaining safe distances in healthcare settings such as hospitals and GP surgeries.”
The government had been pressed by hospitals and GP groups to urgently clarify whether on mask-wearing would continue in health settings, amid worries that some visitors and patients will be unsure about the rules from 19 July onwards.
Transport unions and bus industry bodies had also attacked the government for its confused messaging over the changes from 19 July, saying the changed rhetoric had left operators unable to plan and could put staff and services at risk.
While masks will be mandatory on London transport, other train operators will ask passengers to wear a mask only when trains are busy.
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the industry, said: “Passengers should follow the government guidance and, out of respect for others, wear face coverings if an indoor setting is busy. Train travel is low risk, with the majority of carriages well ventilated by air conditioning systems or by doors and windows.”