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Government Accused Of An "Act Of Gross Negligence" With Blanket End To Face Covering Rules

3 min read

Unions and campaign groups have criticised government plans to end requirements for face coverings to be used in public places.

The government have confirmed people will be asked to exercise "personal responsibility" from 19 July when rules requiring the use of face coverings will be lifted.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to use a Downing Street press conference later today to set out the new measures, including around ending the one-metre social distancing rule.

Ministers have already suggested legal requirements around face coverings will be scrapped, with housing secretary Robert Jenrick claiming he would ditch his mask.

"I don't particularly want to wear a mask," Jenrick said on Sunday. "I don't think a lot of people enjoy doing it."

But there is concern that those working in a public setting, such as transport or hospitality will face serious risk of infection if people in those spaces choose not to wear masks. 

Bobby Morton, Unite's national officer for passenger transport, said relying on personal choice was "absolutely ridiculous".

"To end the requirement to wear masks on public transport would be an act of gross negligence by the government," he said.

"Rates of infection are continuing to increase and not only does mask wearing reduce transmissions it helps provide reassurance to drivers and to passengers who are nervous about using public transport."

He added: "The idea of personal responsibility and hoping that people will wear masks is absolutely ridiculous, members are already reporting there is an increase in passengers ignoring the rules on mask wearing.

"Until rates of Covid-19 are fully under control, throughout the whole of the UK, the rules on mask wearing on public transport should remain in place."

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the Usdaw union, said retail workers found the plans "deeply worrying" because of their increased risk of contracting the virus.

"Retail staff are working with the public every day and are deeply worried about catching Covid-19. This is not the right time to water down safety in stores and the Government should not be removing the requirements of face coverings and distancing in busy public areas like shops," he said.

"This is not the right time to be removing the requirements of face coverings and distancing in busy public areas like shops.

"To speak about the wearing of face coverings in these settings in terms of personal responsibility, ignores the reality that public facing workers have no option but to interact with large numbers of people as part of their job."Morton said the union would continue urging the public to continue wearing face coverings in shops, adding: "Supermarket workers and delivery drivers have worked throughout the pandemic to keep the country supplied with essentials.

"These key workers must be valued, respected and protected."

Dr Julia Patterson, founder of campaign group, EveryDoctor, told PoliticsHome the plans to scrap mask-wearing increased the risk of further variants emerging.

"With escalating Covid-19 case numbers in the UK, now is the wrong time to relax public health measures such as mask-wearing," she said.

"Our vaccine programme is not complete, hospitalisation numbers are increasing, the number of people experiencing long Covid symptoms is in the hundreds of thousands, and every new case of Covid-19 is an opportunity for the virus to mutate further, causing yet another dangerous variant.

"We must keep communities safe and continue to wear masks."

The new rules could see some use of face masks retained in health and social care settings, but Professor Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said others "might choose" to use them in crowded places which was "not necessarily a bad thing".

He added: "Those habits to reduce infections are a good thing to keep."

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