The law making it compulsory to wear masks on public transport to help prevent the spread of coronavirus is not being enforced in Tunbridge Wells – or any other part of Kent.
The news comes after the government has now decided to make wearing face coverings mandatory in shops and supermarkets from July 24 following days of confusion.
Those who don’t abide by the rule are to also face £100 fines but the current law governing face coverings on public transport is yet to be enforced.
From June 15, the UK government made it mandatory for passengers using buses, trains, and coaches to wear face coverings when travelling.
Failing to comply, unless a passenger is exempt through health reasons, should result in operators refusing a person a ride. Those not wearing a mask should be handed a £100 on the spot fine.
However, an investigation by this newspaper has revealed confusion as to who should enforce the law and issue the fines. This means passengers are being allowed to travel without face coverings and no action is being taken for those refusing to wear one.
Arriva, the largest bus operator in the South East which runs services across Kent, East Sussex and Surrey, including most of the popular routes serving Tunbridge Wells, has been under the impression enforcement lies with the police.
A company spokesperson told the Times that bus drivers at the company merely inform travellers of the requirement.
She said: “Arriva bus drivers have been advised to inform our customers who are not wearing a face covering on boarding the bus, that they are required to do so by law, throughout their entire journey, unless they are exempt.
“If a customer is not exempt and refuses to wear a face covering, then our drivers have been instructed to explain to the customer that they are breaking the law and that the police have powers to impose a fine of up to £100.
“Our drivers report all failures to comply with government policy to their Depot Management team to allow us to closely monitor the situation and advise the authorities.”
She added: “The powers to enforce/impose fines for those breaking the law on face coverings reside with the police.”
However, Kent Police says the force has not issued a single fine and that responsibility for ensuring compliance of wearing face coverings on public transport ‘rests with service operators who have been granted enforcement powers within the legislation’ and ‘it is therefore not anticipated that police will be required to routinely assist’.
On announcing the introduction of the face covering legislation, the government said that ‘operators will be able to refuse travel or issue penalty fines for those who fail to wear a face covering, in a similar way to the rules on having a ticket for travel’.
But in its official guidance released by the Department of Transport and sent to bus companies, it says: “Operators and their staff have new powers to prevent access to a public transport vehicle, or to direct a passenger to wear a face covering or leave a public transport vehicle, if they are not wearing a face covering.
“Operators have discretion over how they use these powers.
“Where the above steps fail, the police and TfL [Transport for London] have the power to fine a passenger if they continue to refuse to comply.”
Due to the mix up, in the month since it became law, not a single fine has been issued in Kent to people flouting the face covering law on the county’s buses, and people are not being refused entry or asked to get off, putting fellow travellers at risk.
Arriva say from their observations, around 90 per cent of passengers are complying with the requirement and ‘the majority of people that are not wearing face coverings are exempt’.
Drivers told not to get involved
UNITE, the union that represents bus drivers, says it has advised its members ‘not to get involved with passengers who are not wearing a face covering’.
The national officer for passenger transport, Bobby Morton said: “It is not the responsibility of the bus driver to enforce the wearing of a face covering. Given the challenges and risks they have faced during the pandemic they already have enough on their plate.”
He continued: “Bus operators need to get a grip on this matter. They should be utilising other staff members to order passengers without face coverings to leave a bus. On routes where there is significant non-compliance the bus operator needs to ensure that the police are involved.
“It is vital that all passengers comply with the regulations in order to reduce the danger of transmission and to ensure that confidence returns to using public transport.”