London transport chiefs were deciding whether to toughen the rules on mask-wearing on Tuesday after Boris Johnson recommended their use on busy services.
The Prime Minister said the legal requirement to wear a mask would end next Monday but the Government “expect and recommend” that people continue to wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces, such as public transport.
Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the decision to press ahead with the final stage of easing lockdown, saying this was vital for the capital’s cultural and entertainment venues.
But he made clear his concern at the lack of “clear, unequivocal guidance” on face masks on Tubes and buses.
Mr Khan, the Transport for London chairman, said: “It is welcome that the Government is strengthening its messaging to say that people are expected and recommended to wear face coverings on public transport, but the simplest and safest option is for the Government to retain the existing national legal requirement for face coverings on public transport.”
TfL is caught in a dilemma between wanting to follow the wishes of passengers – a majority say they will shun public transport unless mask-wearing is required – while not wanting to create the perception that the Tube is “dangerous”.
TfL is also keen to protect staff and contractors, 90 of whom have died in the pandemic.
TfL commissioner Andy Byford said he was also keen to follow the rules adopted by the mainline rail companies. the rail industry said it would follow the Prime Minister’s approach in recommending that masks be worn on busy services.
Emma Gibson, director of London TravelWatch, the capital’s passenger watchdog, said: “Our research with Transport Focus showed that half are still saying that they won’t use public transport unless social distancing is in place, while 56 per cent say they won’t use public transport unless passengers are required to wear a face covering.
“And many people say they will continue to wear face coverings whether they are required to or not. Going forward, passengers need very clear information to tell them when they should be wearing a face mask.
“As restrictions are relaxed it is going to be really important that passengers are respectful and considerate towards each other, because although some people will be happy to tear off their face masks, many people are still very worried about travelling.”
Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, told LBC that he would follow the Prime Minister’s advice on face masks. He said: “I will be wearing them in crowded public places.”