No change here: London to retain masks on public transport

LONDON (AP) — Mask-wearing will be required on London’s transport network even after the legal obligation to wear them in England is lifted on July 19, the city’s mayor said Wednesday, as coronavirus cases across the whole of the U.K. rose above the 40,000 mark for the first time in nearly six months.

Government figures showed another 42,302 infections across the U.K., the highest daily figure since Jan. 15 when the country was in the midst of a strict lockdown following a lethal second wave of the pandemic. Cases are expected to spike even higher, with the government warning that 100,000 daily infections may be possible this summer, a level not previously seen.

The sharp pick-up in cases in recent weeks as a result of the rapid spread of the more contagious delta variant has prompted concerns about the coming easing of restrictions in England, which will remove legal limits on social contact as well as on mask-wearing.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he is “not prepared” to put transport users “at risk” and asked the body that oversees transport in the capital to enforce the use of mask-wearing on the subway, buses and trams as a “condition of carriage” — basically contracts between passengers and Transport for London.

Under the new approach outlined by Khan, enforcement officers would be able to deny access or eject passengers not wearing a mask while using the subway, buses and trams. London’s Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police won’t be able to get involved, though, as mask-wearing will no longer be required by law.

Other transport bodies across England as well as healthcare providers, care homes and some retailers are also expected to maintain the requirement for people to wear masks. Bookseller Waterstones, for one, has already said it will encourage people to wear masks.

When confirming the lifting of restrictions earlier this week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reined in talk of so-called “Freedom Day” and urged people to remain vigilant and to exercise “personal responsibility.”

That has prompted widespread accusations of mixed messaging from the government and not for the first time during the pandemic.

“What would have been far better is for the national rules to apply across the country, not just in London but across the country,” Khan told the BBC. “That would have provided clarity in relation to what the rules are.”

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps denied that the government’s message was unclear and said Khan’s decision was “very much in line” with what the government wanted to happen.

“Whilst we are going from this being a legal requirement to guidelines, we do expect individual carriers to make sure they are putting in place whatever is appropriate for their network,” Shapps told Sky News.

The British government believes that the vaccine rollout has mostly severed the link between infections and those needing hospitalization as the vast majority of people getting COVID-19 are in the less vulnerable younger age group, many of whom have yet to be vaccinated. Around 69% of the British population has received one dose of vaccine while about 52% had two.

Concerns though are rising that despite the rollout, the high case load will once again pressure the National Health Service — more cases will inevitably lead to more people requiring hospital attention.

The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 and subsequently dying have been edging higher in recent days, though not at the same rate as infections. On Wednesday, the U.K. recorded another 49 virus-related deaths, taking the death toll to over 128,500.

The final stage of easing England’s lockdown means that all restrictions on social gatherings will be removed and social distancing measures will be scrapped. Nightclubs can reopen for the first time since March last year, and there will no longer be limits on people attending concerts, theaters, weddings or sports events.

Public health officials urged caution as July 19 approaches.

“The pandemic is not over, and we must all remain vigilant,” said Dr. Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England.

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