There are extremes on both sides of the face covering debate

The only people who have the power to challenge someone not wearing a face covering are the police

We seem to have become a nation divided into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ face coverings, with both sides unwilling to let others make their own decisions on the matter.

Of course, it’s frustrating to see people who presumably feel it’s important to wear a face covering, insist on wearing it over their mouth but not their nose or, even more rakishly, slung under their chin ready to whip it up in the presence of a potential threat.

Some people feel affronted by the very suggestion they should have to wear a face-covering and believe, very strongly, that it should be their own choice. Others view the whole Covid-19 pandemic as some kind of hoax, though it’s not clear in whose interests this might be.

There are extremes on both sides of the debate. Some feel it’s their right to impose their views (loudly) on anyone not doing the ‘right’ thing, and others still who get irate at bus and coach drivers for imposing/not imposing the rules.

It’s not surprising emotions are running high: we’re in the grip of a global pandemic and being bombarded by ‘facts’, theories and changing government advice. And that’s without the myth factory that is social media. Fear can make the best of us tense, irritable, aggressive even, and could well be driving a lot of the vigilantism that seems to be going on among otherwise perfectly affable folk.

The people bearing the brunt of this seem to be those with a recognised medical exemption who are becoming increasingly concerned about going out without a face covering – let alone using public transport. This is not only extremely worrying, it’s setting back the cause of disabled people by years.

To be clear, the only people who have the power to challenge someone not wearing a face-covering in shops or on public transport are the police. Under the Equalities Act 2010, people with protected characteristics such as a disability or mental health issue have every right to go about their lives without harassment. Anyone who thinks it’s reasonable to ask another person why they aren’t wearing a face covering is breaking that law. That includes bus drivers.

The government has asked transport operators to help enforce these rules but they cannot be expected to do more than remind passengers that they are required to wear a face-covering on board if they are not exempt and leave it at that. Bus drivers have enough to do driving the vehicle safely and looking after the revenue generated. They don’t need to get involved in this debate and nor should they.

After a huge amount of persuasion, the DfT produced some useful messaging calling on passengers to be kind and respectful to each other and reminding us that not all disabilities are visible. We would suggest that every operator put these posters on all their vehicles and when somebody starts telling the driver they should be enforcing this policy, they can simply point at the poster.

Obviously there will be some people abusing the system, there always are. But we would do more to reduce the spread of Covid-19 if we all just calmed down and focused on what we can do to keep ourselves safe, rather than spending time and energy getting in other people’s faces (which, ironically, is inherently unsafe behaviour both in terms of transmission and provoking conflict).

We’ve called on Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State, to issue a strong message that travelling on public transport is now safe, overturning the previously effective message that it should be avoided. All the science, limited though it is, concerning the transmission of Covid-19 on public transit has shown absolutely no link between the two.

So it’s time to set the record straight and put as much effort into getting us back on board as was put into making us stop using it in the first place.

Claire Walter is chief executive of Bus Users

ABOUT BUS USERS: Bus Users campaigns for inclusive, accessible transport. It is the only approved Alternative Dispute Resolution Body for the bus and coach industry and the designated body for handling complaints under the Passenger Rights in Bus and Coach Legislation. Bus Users is also part of a Sustainable Transport Group of organisations working to promote the benefits of public, shared and active travel.

Alongside its complaints work Bus Users investigate and monitor services and work with operators and transport providers to improve services for everyone. They run events, carry out research, respond to consultations, speak at government select committees and take part in industry events to make sure the voice of the passenger is heard.

Bus Users UK is a registered charity (1178677 and SC049144) and a Company Limited by Guarantee (04635458).

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