Regulations to enforce the compulsory wearing of face coverings on public transport will come into effect from Monday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

Mr Martin said the Government will encourage people to wear face coverings in crowded indoor gatherings and where social distancing is not possible.

People who do not comply with the new laws that make face coverings mandatory on public transport could face fines of up to €2,500 and/or six months in prison.

The new legislation, which will be signed this evening, provides that if a person does not comply, then a driver or inspector can alert gardaí.

If then the person fails to cooperate with gardaí, they can face arrest and prosecution, which could lead to a €2,500 fine and/or 6 months in prison.

Children under the age of 13 will also be exempt from wearing face coverings on public transport, as per the HSE guidelines.

People with trouble breathing, people who cannot remove a face covering without help and people with special needs and who may feel upset or uncomfortable wearing a face covering will also not have to wear them on public transport.

Mr Martin said it will be clear in the regulations that the National Transport Authority will have the capacity to say to passengers that they may not come on board if they are not wearing a mask.

He said if people persist in disobeying, then gardaí could be called, but the Government did not envisage that this would be necessary.

Mr Martin said, in his experience, once you tell people that it is against the law then people will conform. People will not be allowed to stay on buses or trains without a mask.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee told RTÉ's Drivetime that she understood that it would also be compulsory for children to wear masks on public transport.

However, the department later clarified that children under the age of 13 would be exempt from wearing face coverings on public transport.

Ms McEntee said she hopes penalties will not have to be used to force people to wear them, but if people are not wearing masks they will not be allowed to get on to public transport.

"This is to protect individuals," the minister said. 

She said her department is "working on" additional powers for gardaí if necessary for people who do not comply.

"We are working on this and this is not something we want to do. We are asking people to comply," she said.

The National Bus and Rail Union said frontline staff will not be policing the new law. General Secretary Dermot O'Leary said the union had always been "extremely clear" about this.

"We are not prepared to put our members in a position of conflict with passengers who choose not to wear face coverings," he said. 

However, the NBRU said it does welcome the introduction of legislation to make face coverings mandatory for passengers.

Mr O'Leary said the union had been calling for a special Garda division for public transport for "quite a while" and acknowledged that gardaí will probably need extra resources to police the rule enforcing face coverings on public transport.

He said drivers who had to interact with customers were encouraged to wear masks and that "a bus driver's job is onerous enough in the concrete jungle of Dublin" without having to worry about policing these regulations.

Earlier today, the Taoiseach said there was concern about indoor gatherings and the degree to which they may be causing an increase in the prevalence of the virus. There is also some worry about travel-related incidents contributing to the spread of the virus.

Mr Martin said the Government's approach has been very cautious to date in relation to travel and they will continue to take a very cautious approach to it.

He was speaking in Dublin this afternoon after a meeting with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and the Chief Executive of the HSE Paul Reid to discuss priorities and early planning for the winter initiative, and to prepare hospitals and the entire health system for the winter surge.

Mr Martin said next winter will be far more difficult and complex than any before given the continued prevalence of Covid-19.

Additional reporting: Laura Hogan

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