All eyes will be on Sadiq Khan and Transport for London commissioner Andy Byford after Boris Johnson is expected to announce the end of compulsory face masks from 19 July.
TfL holds the power to set “conditions of carriage” relating to face coverings on London transport, that could see masks mandated on the Tube even after the current national government guidelines are dropped on July 19.
The PM will give a press conference later today, in which he is expected to scrap social distancing rules, as well as mandatory masks in shops and on public transport from so-called “Freedom Day” on July 19.
There has been much speculation that Khan could make face masks mandatory on the Tube, even if Johnson ditches the rule at 5pm today.
“Evidence shows that the wearing of face masks gives many Londoners the confidence that they can travel safely on public transport,” a spokesperson for the Mayor of London told City A.M.
“People feeling confident they can travel on our tubes, buses and trains as they get busier will be a vital part of encouraging more people into central London as restrictions are lifted further, and it is something that we will continue to look at closely,” they added.
YouGov polling released this afternoon looked to back the mayor’s thinking.
Just over 70 per cent of Brits say that face masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport for a further period of time once restrictions are lifted. 21 per cent say they should not.
However, City Hall sources as of this afternoon are now leading journalists away from this direction of travel.
One City Hall insider told City A.M. that “in theory the commissioner [Andy Byford] could set conditions of carriage relating to face coverings” but that “in practice this would be very difficult”.
“There are conditions in the TfL funding agreement that make it difficult to do so and also because of operational concerns about people changing from national to London services,” they said.
Byford has been unclear on what Tube rules will be post-19 July.
“It would be bizarre if, for example, you didn’t have to wear a mask on a mainline train but you did on the Tube… I don’t want to give the wrong impression that somehow public transport is unsafe,” Byford told the Evening Standard last week.
“But equally, what we don’t want to do is to kneejerk between ‘masks on’ and ‘masks off’. We are going to think very carefully about this and I want customers to have the confidence to use the system,” he added.
Ministers have made clear that the PM will later announce a shift in the government’s message away from compulsory coronavirus restrictions to more personal discretion.
Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said his own personal preference would be to stop wearing a mask once the current guidelines are lifted.
“We will be moving into a phase where these will be matters of personal choice,” he said.
“So some members of society will want to do so for perfectly legitimate reasons but it will be a different period where we as private citizens make these judgements rather than the government telling you what to do.”
But scientists have warned against scrapping the face mask guidelines completely, especially in enclosed spaces like public transport. Professor Adam Finn from the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said that he will continue to wear a mask “indefinitely”, regardless of the government decision announced later today.
“Well on a personal level I shall certainly be continuing to wear a mask if I’ve got any symptoms or if I’m in an enclosed space with lots of other people for a prolonged period of time, indefinitely in fact,” Finn told Sky News on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Imperial College London has been carrying out independent tests on London’s public transport every month since September, taking swabs of touch points in stations, buses and air samples in ticket halls – and has found no traces of coronavirus on the TfL network.
TfL has given no clear indication of what its decision might be after the PM’s announcement later today, and a spokesperson told City A.M: “Throughout the pandemic we have followed, and reflected Government advice – working closely with other transport operators around the country to ensure a consistent message to customers.
“We continue to do so, and are assisting the Government as they consider the approach to face coverings post 19 July.”