Throughout the pandemic, public transport has been identified as a significant potential hub of transmission for the disease, with messaging urging people to avoid it wherever possible. Despite this guidance, however, there was little evidence on how great this risk was, or the effectiveness of mitigation measures such as masks and ventilation. In this blog, Dr Anna Coleman and Dr Nicola Gartland outline the findings from a new study investigating perceptions of risk and mitigation, and what lessons policymakers might learn when developing guidance for future pandemics.
- The number of people using public transport has dramatically fallen, fluctuating between 15 to 60% of pre-pandemic levels in the period January – May 2021.
- A lack of clear communication on the acceptable level of risk or the effectiveness of mitigation strategies has undermined confidence in the sector.
- Protecting the sector against future disruption requires better messaging, reciprocal dialogue between policymakers and workers, and clear lines of accountability.
Public transport was identified as potentially high risk for both workers and travellers in the UK at the beginning of the pandemic. However, relatively little was known about the risk of transmission and the effectiveness of measures in reducing infection on various types of transport. In the UK, keeping public transport services operational for essential workers during ‘lock downs’ was central, alongside messaging to try and reduce the numbers of people using services where possible.
Drivers, as well as transport workers working in stations, operating and maintaining signal boxes etc. continued working on site with advised mitigations (for example, face masks, shift bubbles, social distancing, enhanced cleaning etc.) The Government released guidance for operators, workers and passengers to reduce the risk of transmission within the Public Transport sector. As a consequence of the pandemic and associated guidance, use of public transport considerably reduced and has varied across the past two years.
The risk of transmission – actual and perceived
There was only limited evidence in the peer-reviewed and pre-print 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 transportation, 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 on public transport.
From interviews with key stakeholders (between January and May 2021) – including workers, policymakers, researchers, and unions – we found that formulating policy, operationalising and implementing changes required to help keep workers and passengers safe – as well as maintaining functioning services – has been challenging.
Transport organisational 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, 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.
Respondents identified many facilitating factors that helped in the introduction of 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, an individuals’ safety was seen as being reliant on the behaviour of others. All workers/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?
Passenger footfall and revenues fell dramatically during each lockdown due to messaging not to use public transport unless essential – therefore support to the public transport industry from Government was vital to keep the network operational. Such rules, guidance, and campaigns were necessary to keep services operational and available to essential workers. However, these messages have continued to affect passengers’ public transport choices beyond lockdown periods, as passenger numbers are still low compared to pre-pandemic levels (Department for Transport 2022).
In our report, we suggest that evidence and knowledge gained during the pandemic should be used to 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. Due to the legacy of the pandemic, circumstances have changed, and shifting patterns of transport in the future may mean fewer commuters (as people move away from the traditional 5 day commuting week), creating challenges around demand forecasting for the future, and balancing costs given uncertainty about ridership. There is also a need to ensure public transport can remain financially sustainable, with wider agendas such as net zero to consider too.
Our research continues, with work 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. The emergence of the Omicron variant in the UK resulted in further changes being implemented (UK Government Plan B), and 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 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, Professor Sheena Johnson, and Professor Martie van Tongeren.