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NI passengers face jail or fines for not wearing face masks on cross-border train and bus services

Confusion over how law will be enforced

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Mandatory face coverings came into force in the Republic. Pic Mark Condren.

Mandatory face coverings came into force in the Republic. Pic Mark Condren.

Mandatory face coverings came into force in the Republic. Pic Mark Condren.

Northern Ireland commuters heading to Dublin risk fines of thousands of pounds or six months in jail for not wearing a face mask on public transport when they cross the border.

However, the new law in the Republic of Ireland is mired in confusion over how it will be enforced.

It is an offence not to wear a face mask on a bus or train in the Republic a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Commuters risk a €2,500 fine or six months in jail for not wearing a face mask on public transport from Monday, July 13.

The National Transport Authority (NTA) could not say who will be designated to enforce the rules at busy railway stations.

And bus drivers have been told by their union they are not compelled to take on the role of demanding compliance.

The lack of clarity over how it will be implemented is expected to lead to widespread flouting of the law.

In Northern Ireland face masks are mandatory on public transport and Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has warned police could be called for those not wearing coverings.

However, Ms Mallon said there would be a “light-touch enforcement” of the policy.

“This is in no way about criminalising people, it’s about keeping them safe,” she said.

“It’s about bringing people with us, there are clear exemptions, so for people who cannot wear face coverings for mental health reasons, physical health or communication reasons, that’s absolutely fine and that will be respected.

“We don’t expect to be in a situation where the PSNI will have to become involved. That has been the case in England, Scotland and the south.”

The PSNI has indicated that it will rely on "other bodies" to help enforce the rules.

On Friday, Northern Ireland public transport operator Translink said most complied with the new rules.

In Dublin early morning commuters on Monday by train, tram and bus were largely adhering to the mandatory face mask rule, with the vast majority of passengers traveling with face coverings.

While passenger numbers are still very low compared to pre-Covid times, bus and tram drivers reported a big difference in the numbers wearing masks today compared to last week.

One Luas worker who was recording passenger numbers and how many of them were wearing masks said that over 10 trams she had surveyed there were 286 passengers and 280 of them were wearing masks, which is almost 98% compliance.

Society itself is dictating it. Bus driver

On buses around the capital it could also be seen that most, if not all, early morning commuters were heeding the mandatory face mask notice.

“I have been talking to some passengers and advising them about wearing a mask, and some have them in their bags or pockets and had just forgotten to put them on,” said the Luas worker.

“Some passengers cannot wear masks for health reasons, and children under 13 don’t have to wear them,” they added.

“I think the message is getting through. While last week the compliance might have been 75-80% this morning it is much higher,” they explained.

Bus drivers too noticed more people wearing masks.

“I think it’s society itself is dictating it. The health authorities and government can all talk about it, but the difficulty remains about implementing it. But it’s passengers themselves who, by their own actions, are swaying people towards wearing a mask,” said one bus driver.

“If you get on a bus now and you don’t have a mask, and nearly everyone else does, you might feel more inclined to have one the next time,” he added.

It comes amid ongoing concern as the number of new daily cases of the virus remains higher than in recent weeks with another 17 people diagnosed with the infection in the Republic on Sunday.

It means that in the space of just four days 90 new cases of the virus have been detected as the impact of travel-related infection and among young people enjoying house parties and pre-Covid style socialising takes hold.

It is distasteful that pressure is now put on workers who were at the centre of supporting the public during lockdown. NBRU

In Northern Ireland there have been no reported deaths for a week. The last reported statistics were released on Friday.

Dermot O'Leary of the National Bus and Railworkers Union (NBRU) warned: "Frontline workers should not be put in a position of potential confrontation with passengers.

"We support the wearing of masks but it has been introduced without consulting with us.

"It is distasteful that pressure is now put on workers who were at the centre of supporting the public during lockdown.

"A bus driver was killed in France when he got into an altercation with a passenger over the wearing of a mask and we don't want that to happen here."

The NTA said the regulations allow for "any officer, employee or agent" to enforce the law but could not say what will happen if somebody buys a rail ticket at Heuston station today and does not wear a mask.

The Republic's Department of Transport, in response to questions, said last night that the Department of Health is the lead agency for Covid-19-related regulations and public health guidelines.

"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 Siochana may be called to assist.

"An Garda Siochana will continue its graduated policing response based on its tradition of policing by consent.

"This has seen gardaí engage, educate, encourage and, as a last resort, enforce. That approach will continue in assisting the enforcement of these regulations.

"Where potential breaches of the public health regulations are identified, and where a person does not come into compliance with the regulations, a file will be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a direction as to how to proceed."

The Garda press office said it would respond to a series of questions about the role of gardaí.

Under the regulations, signed by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, people are exempt from wearing a mask if they have a reasonable excuse. This is where they cannot put one on, wear or remove a face covering because of any physical or mental illness, impairment or disability or without severe distress. They are also exempted where there is a need to communicate with another person who has difficulties communicating.

People can remove the face covering to provide emergency assistance or to give care or assistance to a vulnerable person.

It can also be taken off if they need to take medication.

A transport employee can refuse to allow a person without a face covering on to a bus or train.

They can also demand that a passenger must get off if they are found not to be complying.

Before this happens they have to give the passengers an opportunity to "provide a reasonable excuse" for not wearing a mask.

Belfast Telegraph