Compulsory mask wearing in England will be ditched within weeks but there may be guidance to keep using them on the Tube, a Cabinet minister signalled on Thursday.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the Government was aiming to remove the legal requirement to wear a face covering in many indoor public places on July 19.
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain whether the 19th would mark the end of face masks, he said: “The plan is, and the Prime Minister has made clear, that it’s looking good at the moment to be able to do it on July 19, although we can’t make the decision until later. But yes... the legal requirement to have a face mask will be taken away.
“There is a separate question, which is whether there may be some guidance that on certain settings like the Underground, it might make sense to still wear it — that it is obviously a judgment we will take at the time.”
However, health chiefs and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan have raised concerns over abandoning face masks on the Tube, and research suggests people may be put off returning to public transport if other passengers do not wear them.
There were also signs of Cabinet tensions over the abandoning of mandatory masks in all settings.
A spokesman for the Mayor said: “For a lot of Londoners, the wearing of face masks has given them reassurance and confidence that travelling on public transport is safe.”
“As restrictions are lifted and we do all we can to encourage people back into London to spend money on our high streets, ensuring people are confident on public transport will remain absolutely vital.
“We continue to look at the science around face masks very closely, and whether in certain settings they could remain an important tool in the safe and successful reopening of the capital.”
Removing the legal requirement would mean people would not risk fines of between £200 and £6,400 for not wearing a mask.
On the guidance to continue to wear them on the Tube and other public transport, Mr Eustice explained further: “I think people would understand that and people would follow that. But I think we need to get to a point where the legal requirements are all stripped away and removed and we enable people to exercise judgment.
“But it might be in certain environments people will feel it’s the responsible thing to still wear that face mask but equally once we have all got our second jabs, and once we get that infection rate right down and hospitalisations right down, I think we want to return to life as normal and I for one would like to get rid of the mask.”
Speaking on Sky News, he added: “Whether there will still be some people who might choose to wear masks or whether they may be advisory in some settings that is a separate matter.”
Government scientists were reported to be recommending that masks should remain for public transport to limit the spread of the virus. Dr David Nabarro, a special envoy in Europe on Covid-19 for the World Health Organisation, said: “I am advocating continued physical distancing, continued mask wearing for the time being, including in countries where there’s a lot of vaccination.”
A nationwide survey by Transport Focus and London TravelWatch last week found that 62 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t use public transport unless fellow passengers were required to wear masks.
London TravelWatch has also found increasing levels of concern among travellers, with 29 per cent of London bus passengers dissatisfied with the observance of the mask rules by their fellow passengers. On the Tube, only 65 per cent say they are satisfied with the amount of mask-wearing.
Responding to Mr Eustice’s comments about ditching face coverings on July 19, director of London TravelWatch Emma Gibson said: “Our research with Londoners shows that there is a range of views on wearing face coverings on public transport, with some people keen to tear them off as soon as possible, while others are more cautious. Across the country, over 40 per cent of people say that they’ll still wear face coverings.”