Q&A: All you need to know about new face covering rules on public transport

Regulations come into force this morning though there are exceptions and grey areas

Passengers wearing face coverings on public transport in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

Passengers wearing face coverings on public transport in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

New regulations governing the wearing of face masks on public transport come into effect on Monday – what is involved?

The legislation signed on Friday by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly stipulates that members of the public shall not travel by public transport without wearing a face covering unless they can demonstrate a “reasonable cause” not to wear one.

What are the exceptions?

 

Passengers who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness, impairment or disability or without severe distress are excused from the requirement to wear one.

Other “reasonable excuses” include passengers who remove a face mask to communicate with someone who has difficulties communicating and those who remove one to provide emergency assistance or those providing care or assistance to a vulnerable person.

Passengers who need to remove a mask to take medication are also excused.

In addition, the regulations do not apply to children under the age of 13, gardaí­ or drivers of a public transport vehicle separated from passengers by a screen.

What are the penalties for failing to obey the new rules?

 

Anyone who fails to comply with a request to wear a face covering on public transport or any related direction is deemed to have committed an offence. On summary conviction, the potential sanctions are a jail sentence of up to six months and/or a maximum fine of €2,500.

How will the new regulations be enforced?

 

Under the regulations, where a passenger is not wearing a face covering, a “relevant person” – including public transport staff such as bus and train drivers, as well as National Transport Authority officials – may request the passenger to wear a face covering, refuse the passenger entry to the public transport vehicle, or may request the passenger to alight from the vehicle. 

In a statement, gardaí said: “In circumstances where a non-compliant passenger, without reasonable excuse, fails to accept the refusal or comply with a ‘relevant person’s’ request, members of An Garda Síochána may be called to assist.”

While the National Bus and Rail Union has welcomed the move towards mandatory mask-wearing, the union’s general secretary, Dermot O’Leary, said his members would not be policing the regulations. He said if a dispute arose over the non-wearing of masks, transport staff would contact the control centre to call gardaí to the scene.

It seems to afford discretionary powers to frontline staff. Is that a good thing?

 

Not really. The National Bus and Rail Union has stated that public transport workers should have no role in policing the new rules out of concern for the health and safety of staff.

It pointed out that a bus driver in the French city of Bayonne died over the weekend as a result of injuries he suffered when trying to prevent passengers who were not wearing face masks from boarding his bus.

The NBRU said it was also concerned about the potential for confrontations between passengers over the non-wearing of masks.

Has the NTA offered any guidelines?

 

Not to date. The NBRU has sharply criticised the NTA for failing to provide any guidance on how it envisages the new regulations will be enforced.

Various public transport sources have criticised the Government for failing to outline specific actions that should be followed in a scenario where a passenger refuses to wear a face covering.

Iarnród Éireann said it advised staff to ensure passengers were fully aware of the requirements with the aim of ensuring “compliance by co-operation”.

Bus Éireann said its frontline workers would “inform, advise and encourage” passengers to comply with the rules, while they can report and escalate any issues of non-compliance to their control centre, while Dublin Bus said it would “encourage and remind” customers about the new mandatory changes.

So what is likely to happen?

 

Difficult to say. Some bus drivers are likely to refuse someone not wearing a face covering from boarding their vehicle. What happens if their instructions are ignored is uncertain. One option is that the assistance of gardaí is sought but such delay also has a knock-on negative impact on services and timetables.

Are the regulations going to prove controversial?

 

One would hope not. It seems fairly widely accepted by medical professionals at this stage that face coverings can contribute to stopping the spread of the virus.

Compliance levels with the request to wear face coverings where social distancing of 2m is difficult, including on public transport and in supermarkets, have improved in recent weeks. At the same time there is evidence that many people in such situations were still not using them up to this weekend.

How long are the rules on wearing face covering on public transport due to last?

 

The current regulations are due to remain in operation until October 5th, but the situation is expected to be kept under constant review.

Any other consideration?

 

The NBRU said the new regulations have highlighted the desirability of having a dedicated transport police unit, which it has been urging for several years.