U.K.’s Big-City Mayors Want to Keep Masks on Public Transport

Mayors from the biggest English cities up and down the country urged U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to stop people on public transport from traveling without a face masks.

The appeal comes as Johnson is expected to confirm on Monday that face coverings will no longer be required in many situations after July 19. Dan Norris, the Labour Mayor for the West of England, said he wants to keep mask-wearing mandatory until the number of Covid-19 infections starts falling.

“Many people are still anxious about traveling on public transport and we need to get people back to normal again; normal means taking public transport, which we know they haven’t been,” Norris said in an interview. “We need to err on the side of caution.”

The dilemma for regional leaders, mainly from the opposition, is that they just have a say over some parts of the transport network that is in their area.

But if Johnson makes a big announcement, it will undermine any guidance they might give and play into the politics of holding the economy back after successive bouts of lockdown. The U.K. system of transport is also widely privatized so it involves numerous corporate stakeholders.

A spokesman for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the “simplest and safest option going forward would be for the government to retain” the masks.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, controls the northern city’s tram network but not the buses or trains. Trying to enforce face masks “would be a recipe for conflict and confusion” he told BBC radio.

Government ministers are feeling gung-ho, noting that a recent surge in infections to their highest level since January has not resulted in more hospitalizations and deaths. On Sunday, the U.K. reported 24,248 more cases and 15 more fatalities.

Yet allowing passengers to abandon face masks would amount to “gross negligence,” according to the Unite union’s national officer for passenger transport, Bobby Morton. “We’ve lost over 60 drivers to the pandemic and I don’t want to lose another one,” Morton told BBC radio.

For Labour’s Steve Rotherham, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Johnson “is caving in to the backbench members in his own party,” he said in an interview.

Not every Conservative member of parliament agrees with Johnson. Helen Whately, a junior health minister, has said that she would probably carry on wearing protection in crowded places and on public transport.

And for those keen to travel abroad, there is a clear sense from low-budget airlines that they will stay cautious.

Ryanair Holdings Plc has got ahead of any announcement and stated its conditions: “In order to protect the health of our customers and crew, the use of face masks will still be mandatory across all Ryanair flights, regardless of the departing/destination country.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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