More than nine in 10 commuters are complying with rules requiring face coverings on public transport, a Guardian snapshot has found – though conspiracy theories, confusion over public messaging and concerns over lack of enforcement are prompting concern.
In Glasgow on Wednesday, compliance with the measure to control coronavirus was almost 100% on buses, overground trains and the subway. The Guardian saw only one passenger with a bare face out of a total of 160.
In Manchester, 91% of 184 passengers surveyed on trams and buses were wearing face coverings. Around 99% of 225 passengers observed on London Underground and at overground stations were wearing face coverings – including two moving from carriage to carriage on the Tube with a paper cup, begging for small change.
Among the reasons given by the small number of mask refuseniks in London included a belief that they provide little or no protection from catching Covid-19 and that the virus was a conspiracy linked to the 5G network or media exaggerations.
It comes after the president of the Royal Society said that refusing to wear a mask in public during the Covid-19 epidemic should become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving or not wearing a seatbelt.
Waiting at St Peter’s Square station in Manchester city centre this week, Patricia Wong, a 23-year-old business management graduate, said she had seen a huge increase in the number of people wearing face coverings in recent weeks but that checking by transport staff still seemed to be sporadic.
“I feel like a lot of people aren’t wearing it correctly, like not covering their nose and some people aren’t wearing it even though it’s law,” she said. “I’ve only seen [staff] checking once.”
While most people were wearing face coverings in Manchester, compliance seemed to drop off outside the city centre. “On the bus you can’t get on without a mask,” said Jummy Bode, 49, getting off the tram to go shopping in Oldham. “I think people will catch the infection anyway, whether they wear face masks or not.”
Most of the 17 people who were not wearing any face covering were young and white. Two of those, out shopping in the city centre, said they did not feel they needed to cover their faces as the tram was not busy and they were two metres from others. “I’ll just use my scarf if I’m checked,” one said.
A British Transport Police officer standing on a London station concourse maskless said he had been wearing his face covering underground but had come up for some air. He said that although the majority of travellers he observed were wearing masks, “idiots” who didn’t wear them were spoiling things for others.
“For some people I don’t think they will take this virus seriously until we get thousands more deaths. I try not to escalate things when I speak to people. I just try to talk to them about why they need to wear a mask.”
There appear to be varying levels of compliance on different transport routes. Annie Galliano, a retired management consultant, said she saw around half of passengers on the London St Pancras to Whitstable train earlier this week not wearing masks.
“That level of non-compliance felt frighteningly high,” she said. “The rules should be enforced, with staff walking up and down carriages to ensure people are wearing a mask.”
Face coverings have been mandatory on public transport in England since 15 June and in Scotland, with the rules extending to taxis and private hire cabs, since 22 June. They are not mandatory in Wales. Scotland will make them compulsory in shops from Friday 10 July.
Advice to wear face coverings in crowded places such as on public transport and in shops in Scotland has been non-mandatory for far longer. On 28 April, Nicola Sturgeon first announced new guidance recommending that the public should wear cloth coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing is difficult to achieve, at a point when the UK government remained split over issuing similar advice.
Signs in Glasgow urged travellers to be “considerate”, as some people might not be able to wear coverings because of hidden disabilities or medical conditions.
Coming off a train from the Southside, Paula, 23, using a colourful cloth mask, said she’d seen “hardly anyone” on her journey bare-faced, whilst those that were “looked pretty embarrassed”.
Asked about the need for further compulsion, she added: “Yes it’s government policy, but people need to understand its for everybody. It’s not whether we feel we can fight off [the virus], it’s for the vulnerable people we all have in our families. We wear the masks for them.”