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COVID-19 and the safety of public transport

Public transport was identified as potentially high risk for both workers and travellers at the beginning of the pandemic, but little was known about the risk of transmission and the effectiveness of measures in reducing infection on various types of transport such as face masks, social distancing and enhanced cleaning.

In a study we conducted we found that there was only limited evidence in the peer-reviewed literature on the risk of transmission and effectiveness of control measures in public transport during the first year of the pandemic. Some studies did provide evidence for the transmission of COVID-19 on public transport, and highlighted important factors that moderate transmission, such as proximity and duration of co-travel. There was also some evidence suggesting that window ventilation and use of face coverings on public transport reduced risk of transmission. However, modelling studies provided a wide range of estimates for the risk of transmission.

From interviews with workers, policymakers, researchers, and unions (conducted between January and May 2021) we found that formulating policy and operationalising and implementing changes required to help keep workers and passengers safe – as well as maintaining functioning services – had been challenging. Transport leaders and experts found it difficult to source consistent and timely information at the outset, and issues of concern differed considerably between different modes of transport.

Perceptions of transmission risks on public transport were generally low at the time of the research, but this was in the context of considerably reduced passenger numbers compared to pre-pandemic levels. When outbreaks did occur in the workforce, respondents suggested it was difficult to tell (in many cases) if it was related to the work environment, travel to and from work, or community related.

Effectiveness of mitigations

Most respondents suggested it was difficult to tell which mitigation strategies were working as the relative risk of each transmission route was at the time unknown. It was also difficult to determine which of the multiple risk mitigation strategies were working most effectively because they were all introduced at pace around the same time.

Many barriers to the introduction of mitigation strategies were identified, most commonly related to human factors such as behaviours and compliance, effective communication, gaps in knowledge, extra costs, and speed of change of rules and regulations. However, respondents identified many factors that helped with mitigating strategies. These included joint working across the industry, timely and accurate information, support to workers from employers, low passenger numbers, monitoring developments and compliance, and the introduction of testing for COVID-19.

The role of passengers and staff

Workers and passengers generally held positive views of specific transport companies and the management of mitigations by these companies. However individual safety was seen as being reliant on the behaviour of others.

All workers and passengers had observed non-compliance with rules, and while respondents recognised that this was a minority of people these incidents were notable and could have a disproportionate effect on their feelings of safety. Mixed messaging about the safety of public transport and between general COVID-19 guidance and that specific to public transport has also not helped to reassure passengers or workers that public transport is as ‘safe’ as other comparable environments.

What does this mean for policymakers and industry?

We suggest that evidence and knowledge gained during the pandemic should be used to now develop clear and effective strategies to allow for coherent and rapid responses to any future pandemics. Recommendations include:

  • Establishing or maintaining industry fora to respond quickly to appropriate issues in the future
  • Collaborative development of clear messages, between policymakers, regulators, companies, unions, and passenger groups
  • Encourage leading by example from those working within the public transport industry in adhering to guidance about risk mitigation
  • Consider the complex dynamics in workplaces when developing messages to worker groups that will interact in many ways
  • Developing clear lines of accountability for compliance with guidance, particularly for passengers and workers
  • Longer term planning of public transport services should consider wider agendas (for example, sustainability and net-zero) and greater cross agency co-ordination.

Government and the transport sector will need to work together to build capacity on services safely, and to determine acceptable levels of risk in different or changing circumstances. Space and capacity on public transport – along with better ventilation and other mitigations – are key concerns, and will be especially salient when passenger numbers rise and/or community infection rates increase.

Our research is ongoing to ascertain if the same factors that were important several months ago are still important, or if perceptions are changing as the pandemic develops. A greater understanding of the complexities of the pandemic experience will be vital for appropriately designing modified working practices that promote employee and passenger health as the pandemic continues, as well as futureproofing the sector for ongoing resilience and sustainability.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared at Policy@Manchester

This research is part of the PROTECT COVID-19 National Core Study on transmission and environment, funded by HM Treasury and managed by the Health and Safety Executive. The research team also includes Professor David Fishwick and Professor Martie van Tongeren.

Authors: Dr Anna Coleman, Dr Nicola Gartland, Professor Sheena Johnson

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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