Transport for London (TfL) will no longer require passengers to wear face coverings on its services from Thursday 24 February but will ‘strongly encourage’ them to do so.
It said it had considered a variety of factors including the shift in the Government's approach towards living with the virus and decreasing infection rates in London.
TfL said that research suggests that what it called ‘a good-quality face covering’ can help reduce the chance of catching coronavirus and passing it onto others, adding that face coverings have also played an important role in giving people confidence to use public transport throughout the pandemic, particularly those who are vulnerable.
Chief safety, health and environment officer Lilli Matson said: ‘Following the Government’s decision to lift coronavirus restrictions and the falling infection rates in London, we will be removing the condition of carriage that requires customers to wear face coverings from 24 February, but will continue to strongly recommend that customers and staff wear them as they are proven to reduce the risk of transmission and we know they provide confidence to people using public transport.'
Speaking on BBC radio on Monday, Professor Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University, said: ‘I think a lot of people will probably keep wearing masks for their own safety. A lot of people will decide that they don’t want to wear masks, and I think that that’s fine too.
‘I don’t think wearing masks indefinitely is necessarily going to help people. Masks didn’t really help us with Omicron, did it? I suspect they probably reduce transmissions a bit but they don’t put a stop to the transmission of the disease, that’s for sure. I don’t think mandating wearing of masks is necessarily a sensible thing.’
TfL said that assessments on Tube carriages indicate that the air changes over 20 times each hour, more than the six to 12 times recommended by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, and that buses have been modified to keep windows propped open and are also fitted with a range of air extraction and ventilation systems.
It added that it has seen public transport use grow in recent weeks. Last week it was seeing around 2.2-2.5m journeys per weekday on the Tube, which was around 60% of pre-pandemic levels, and weekday bus ridership is now regularly at around 4.5m journeys a day, about 75% of pre-pandemic levels.
At weekends, Tube and bus ridership is even closer to pre-pandemic levels, with the Tube reaching 75% of pre-pandemic levels last weekend and close to 75-80% certain times of the day.