Face coverings on public transport: Parliamentary approval of Covid-19 regulations

The Government has introduced regulations on wearing face coverings on public transport. These came into force on 15 June 2020. The regulations must be approved by both Houses of Parliament by 11 July 2020 in order to remain in force. The regulations require all passengers on public transport in England to wear a face covering, subject to some exemptions, such as for transport staff, emergency service personnel and children under the age of 11. Failure to do so when asked is an offence subject to a £100 fine, in addition to being refused carriage or removed from the vehicle. This fine is reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings on Public Transport) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/592) are scheduled to be debated in the House of Lords on 8 July 2020. The date for the debate on the regulations in the House of Commons has yet to be scheduled.

Why were the regulations introduced?

On 11 May 2020, the Government advised travellers on public transport in England to wear face coverings. On 4 June 2020, the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, announced this would become mandatory in England from 15 June 2020. In a press conference at 10 Downing Street, Mr Shapps stated that “with more people using transport, the evidence suggests that wearing a face covering offers some—albeit limited—protection against the spread of the virus”.

According to the Department for Transport, the regulations are intended to make provision to take public health measures to “ensure a proportionate and appropriate response” to the public health risks posed by the spread of novel coronavirus. The department’s explanatory memorandum accompanying the regulations said:

While face coverings are not a substitute for distancing and hand hygiene, they can offer some limited protection to others, particularly where distancing is difficult to manage. Social distancing is likely to be increasingly difficult to manage at all times on public transport as restrictions are relaxed and demand for transport services increases. Mandating the use of face coverings, when used alongside other measures, therefore offers a reasonable protective measure to reduce the risk of infection on contamination by a virus that presents a significant harm to public health.

As covered by an earlier House of Lords Library briefing on face masks and the Covid-19 outbreak, the World Health Organisation has advised that the general public should wear face masks to prevent the spread of the virus in circumstances where social distancing cannot be maintained.

How were the regulations laid before Parliament?

The regulations were laid before the House of Commons and House of Lords on 15 June 2020 and came into force on the same day. The regulations are subject to the made affirmative procedure and are, therefore, signed into law before being laid in Parliament. The regulations must be approved by both Houses of Parliament by 11 July 2020 in order to remain in force. The regulations’ explanatory memorandum states that the statutory instrument includes a statutory review clause. This means that the secretary of state must review the need for the restrictions imposed by these regulations within six months of the day the regulations came into force.

Committee scrutiny of the regulations

On 30 June 2020, the regulations were considered by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. The committee drew the regulations to the special attention of the House. The committee stated that it had received a submission expressing concern about how those with a disability may be treated under the regulations. In addition, the committee said it was “critical of the timing of these regulations which were laid after they had taken effect and too long after the initial announcement”. The regulations were also considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on 24 June 2020 and were not reported on.

Scrutiny of the measures in the House of Lords

The requirement to wear face coverings on public transport was debated in the House of Lords on 25 June 2020 following an urgent private notice question tabled by Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Labour). Baroness McIntosh asked the Government what assessment it had made of whether travellers were complying with the new requirement and whether it was being enforced. She argued there was growing anecdotal evidence that people were not complying with the regulations. Responding, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for Transport, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, said the Government was working closely with transport operators and the British Transport Police to monitor compliance. She said that initial reports from operators indicated high levels of compliance.

Where do the regulations apply in the UK?

These regulations cover England only. Separate regulations require travellers to wear face coverings on public transport in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Face coverings are not compulsory on public transport in Wales.

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