Railway workers could strike over government plans for an ‘army’ of volunteers handing out free masks on the London Underground.
Wearing face coverings on public transport will be mandatory by June 15, but the RMT union says the volunteer policy, announced by transport secretary Grant Shapps, was made without consulting staff and is considering taking action in response.
It comes as pressure grows on ministers to rethink proposals after the World Health Organisation (WHO) insisted home-made masks on their own will not provide protection from coronavirus as it called for over 60s to wear medical-grade coverings.
A passenger, pictured yesterday, wears a face mask on the Central Line of the underground
A woman wearing a mask, pictured yesterday, walks past information signs in Bond Street underground station, following the announcement that wearing a face covering will be mandatory for passengers on public transport in England from June 15
A passenger, pictured yesterday, wearing a face mask keeps his distance as instructed by signs on the Tube
More than a million masks will be distributed at the capital’s busiest Tube and bus stations on Monday before the mandatory rules kick on the following week.
‘We are going to have thousands of people from the British Transport Police, Network Rail, Transport for London and actually a whole army of volunteers from a volunteer organisation, who are going to be called journey makers, who will help to remind people,’ Mr Shapps told Radio Four’s Today programme on Friday.
‘They will be wearing purple tabards and they will remind you to put your face covering on.’
In a letter earlier this week, the RMT said it was ‘furious’ that a ‘backroom deal’ had been done to recruit volunteers ‘without even so much as conversation with rail unions’ and pledged to fight the move, including balloting members for strike action.
The union’s general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘There is a real danger that the Government and the Rail Delivery Group are sending out a signal that as long as you cover your face you are safe to head back onto the tubes and trains regardless of whether you are an essential worker making an essential journey.
‘That risks a surge in passengers as we saw last weekend with the principles of social distancing blown apart with huge risks to staff and passengers alike.
‘It’s also clear that the Government and industry bosses are expecting our members to police this policy.
‘That will put over-stretched rail workers right in the front line once again and will leave them at risk of being abused, assaulted and spat at by aggressive passengers refusing to comply.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, pictured on Thursday, announced an ‘army’ of volunteers would be handing out masks on the Tube
RMT General Secretary Mick Cash, pictured in 2016, says his union was not consulted over the proposals and is balloting members for strike action
‘This policy must be properly risk assessed with staff fully protected.
‘If this policy had been introduced sooner and the principle of covering your face established earlier some of these risks our members now face could have been avoided.
‘The Government need to get a grip rather than winging it with these important policy announcements.’
However, there is uncertainty among national rail operators over how ensuring face masks are worn on all journeys, particularly long-distance ones, will actually work, according to the Guardian.
One industry figure suggested key workers who have travelled throughout lockdown without being told to wear a covering may feel reluctant to do so from June 15.
Announcing the new rules earlier this week, Mr Shapps said face coverings will be a ‘condition of travel’ and failure to abide by the requirement could potentially lead to fines.
Young children and people with disabilities and breathing difficulties will be exempt.
Currently passengers are advised to wear a face covering but are not stopped from travelling without one.
The Government has encourage Britons to make their own coverings at home, using old clothes or other simple items.
However, the WHO said last night that home-made jobs are unlikely to provide adequate protection against the virus, instead insisting on ‘at least three layers of different material’.
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said people over the age of 60 or with underlying medical conditions should wear masks in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained.
The WHO had previously recommended that only health care workers, people with COVID-19 and their caregivers wear medical masks, noting a global shortage of supplies.
Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pictured in February, yesterday outlined new guidance on face masks
During a press briefing discussing the revised guidance, the Director-General added that ‘masks on their own will not protect you from COVID-19’ and emphasised the importance of hand-washing, social distancing and other infection-prevention strategies.
Meanwhile, Good Morning Britain’s Dr Hilary Jones said he believes the rollout of compulsory coverings on public transport should begin immediately, rather than on June 15.
‘I think the 15 days is in order to get in place the facility to find people to make it compulsory to make sure people, if they are travelling on public transport are wearing the mask or are refused travel,’ he said.
‘It should be done now, I’ve always said that where people can’t socially distance they should be wearing some kind of face covering. It stops other people from picking up the virus from people who may be symptomatic or not who have got the virus.
‘If they are wearing a mask there is a limited amount of evidence that it does protect other people if those people are wearing face coverings.’