Under UK coronavirus laws, face coverings on public transport have been mandatory in England since June 2020, unless exempt. Those who refuse to comply face a fine – £200 for a first offence and doubling with each repeat offence, up to a maximum value of £6,400. But while many of us have seen passengers breaching these restrictions, exclusive research has revealed that only a handful of fines have been dished out.
An FOI conducted by Express.co.uk has revealed that, up to May 5, 2021, British Transport Police (BTP) has recorded 96,146 “interventions with passengers not wearing face coverings”.
Of these interventions, BTP has issued 7,325 “directions to leave” the station or train.
And in total, 447 Fixed Penalty Notices “relating to face coverings” have been issued.
This calculates to less than 0.5 percent of all interventions leading to a fine.
READ MORE: When can we stop wearing masks? Government guidance update
A spokesperson for BTP told Express.co.uk that the number of fines handed out is so proportionately low as they are a “last resort”.
The spokesperson said: “Our approach is to always begin by engaging with the public and explain the reasons why the protections are necessary and a lawful requirement.
“The overwhelming majority of people have listened, complied, and continued to play an important role in protecting other passengers and rail staff – we have seen compliance levels of around 97 percent.
“In those cases where people have refused to comply with the requirement, and they don’t have a valid exemption or reasonable excuse, officers have taken action by refusing entry to trains, directing passengers to leave services, and as a last resort, issuing fixed penalty notices.”
The spokesperson added: “Fines are low because they’re a last resort, and asking people to leave is low because compliance has been high.”
Bruce Williamson, a spokesperson for rail campaign group Railfuture, told Express.co.uk the number of fines handed out “seem fairly low” but that the approach of the BTP is “working”.
He said: “I think it’s right that fines are seen as a sort of last resort.
“We don’t want the rail travel to be like an experience with the Gestapo.
“But on the other hand, it’s right the British Transport Police are making it compliant and making the railway safe for people, you know, so that we don’t run the risk of getting a deadly disease on the train.”
However, anecdotal evidence still shows a large number of passengers will obey the rules in front of law enforcement or train staff, and then flout the rules in front of other passengers.
A 27-year-old primary school teacher in London, who declined to be named, has taken the London Underground and a bus daily to get to work throughout the pandemic.
She told Express.co.uk: “Since the lockdown was eased, fewer and fewer people are wearing masks, or they are wearing masks but wearing them under their chins, or incorrectly.”
She said when walking through stations, staff aren’t seen asking people to comply with face-covering regulations.
Asked if she ever witnessed BTP interventions, she said: “Once I saw them on the bus telling people to put up their masks…and they did. I don’t know if they then put them back down, but they did when they told them to.”
She added: “The other day I was on the train on a really full day, and I counted around me – there were 16 people that weren’t wearing their masks in my carriage alone, or that were wearing them incorrectly like either under the chin or nose.
“It’s irritating. Even if they’ve had the vaccine, it’s putting people at risk, it’s ignorant and an ‘I don’t care’ attitude, when it’s such an easy thing to do, to wear a mask.”
And it’s not just the general public breaking the rules – politicians have been photographed without face coverings, too.
Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, apologised for forgetting to put on his face covering for a train journey from Hungerford to Paddington.
DUP MP for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson, was also caught on camera by a fellow passenger on the London Underground without a mask.
Mr Wilson said he accepted he “should have been” wearing a face covering and he would “accept whatever consequences there are”.
But while most passengers leave the enforcement to the authorities, some confrontations have led to violence between transport users.
Early on in the pandemic, a train passenger was head-butted to the floor and repeatedly punched in the face for asking a fellow passenger to wear a face mask on a service between Slough and Langley in Berkshire.
And in Bournemouth, a bus driver was hit over the head and kicked on the floor for refusing to let a man board without a face covering.
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