Anyone who uses public transport to travel to work or newly reopened shops this week will be required to wear a face mask. Initially, the UK Government advised against wearing masks for fear that it would lead wearers to become complacent and reduce adherence to other safety guidelines. Their stance changed to ‘strongly recommending’ face coverings specifically in enclosed spaces where social distancing may be difficult, before eventually mandating it on public transport.
The new policy of mandating face coverings on public transport is popular. Overall, 81% of respondents this past week approved of the Government’s new policy. Support was not divided by age group or political party. But the majority have supported mandatory mask wearing for the past month; in a poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in mid-May, 64% of respondents thought mask wearing should be mandatory for anyone using public transport. Such longstanding support of compulsory mask wearing raises the question of why the Government did not implement such a policy much earlier, when other countries did.
Furthermore, the policy seems to have been met with widespread compliance. Of the 14% of respondents who used public transport this past week, 88% said they wore a mask or face covering. If a commuter is not wearing a mask or face covering, they could be fined up to £100 or refused travel. The change in policy from ‘strongly recommended’ to ‘required’ has created consequences for disuse that commuters are largely keen to avoid.
However, disuse of masks across all contexts is still high and varies significantly by age group. Over a third (36%) of respondents have not worn a mask or face covering even once. Only 19% of 18-to-24-year olds have not worn a mask compared to 53% of 55-to-64 year olds. Younger people are more likely to have left their home during lockdown and are more likely to have worn a mask when doing so.
There are regional disparities too, as only 10% of Londoners said they have not worn a mask once during lockdown, compared to the overall figure of 36%. However, regional difference in stated compliance may be because nearly a third (32%) of Londoners used public transport this past week where they are now compelled to wear a mask. They may not have chosen to do so.
It is important to point out that our poll asks how frequently individuals say they have worn a mask, so there may be a discrepancy between poll results and actual compliance.
The series of changes in the Government’s stance on masks led 70% of respondents to claim their policy was inconsistent in a poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in the previous week. In a poll conducted this past Thursday, a third (33%) of individuals found the Government’s current guidance and requirements on face masks still unclear.The Government’s mask-wearing policy has not only been inconsistent, but it may also still be lacking in clarity for some.
The new policy applies to all types of public transport, including the London Underground, buses, ferries, and planes. In our poll conducted last Thursday, 82% of respondents knew that the Government had required face coverings on public transport. However, only 56% of respondents knew that the face coverings were required in airports.
On May 11th, the Government encouraged face mask wearing in many enclosed spaces where social distancing may be difficult. Just over half (52%) of respondents knew that face coverings were recommended in supermarkets and other shops and stores, and 60% of respondents knew that face coverings were not recommended nor required in outdoor public places. The majority of respondents know where masks are recommended, but it is a small majority considering the guidance is over a month old.
Despite misunderstanding of Government policy and widespread disuse, just over half (51%) of respondents believe that the Government should require masks in all confined public spaces beyond transport, whilst 30% believe they should not. As lockdown restrictions continue to be eased, this decision must be made soon before members of the public return to the public sphere in higher numbers.
Overall, it is clear that the public have found the Government policy on face masks neither consistent nor clear. A significant minority of respondents do not understand where masks are required or recommended. Where the Government has mandated masks, the vast majority of respondents claim to have adhered to the new regulations. However, where the Government has recommended masks and face coverings, disuse remains high.