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Coronavirus: Is it safe to travel on the tube, bus and train during lockdown?

Public health states people should stay 2m apart

Helen Coffey
Thursday 26 March 2020 18:14 GMT
Handout photo taken with permission from the Twitter feed of @ajadmiah2 showing a carriage on the Central Line packed with commuters
Handout photo taken with permission from the Twitter feed of @ajadmiah2 showing a carriage on the Central Line packed with commuters (PA)

As the UK approaches the end of the first week under lockdown, some people may find they haven’t left their house for several days.

However, for key workers and those who can’t do their jobs remotely, travelling by public transport might still be a part of daily life.

Photos shared on social media showed packed tube carriages this week, prompting pleas from medical staff for people who don’t need to travel to stay off the network to prevent the further spread of Covid-19.

So is it safe to travel this way during the coronavirus pandemic? And what can those who need to commute do to mitigate the risk?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What are the rules?

Public Health England (PHE) has said that people must stay at home as much as possible and should only go outside for food, health reasons or work – only if they cannot work from home.

That means, in addition to key workers such as hospital workers, anyone whose job cannot be done remotely is entitled to use public transport networks.

PHE also says people should stay 2m, or 6ft – around three steps – away from others. While this can be tricky at the best of times, on a packed train it is nigh-on impossible.

Why are trains so full?

Pictures have circulated showing busy train and tube carriages this week. Part of the problem is that transport services up and down the country have been drastically reduced. This means that the same number or more people than usual are getting on at the same time, despite fewer people using public transport.

Is the risk of catching coronavirus greater on public transport?

While the risk of transmission for any individual on any individual journey may be small, there is still a risk there.

“If buses and trains are crowded, then commuters will be less than 2m away from a greater number of people and thus the risks of transmission increase,” Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, tells The Independent.

“It is up to all of us to act responsibly, and only take public transport if the journey is essential.”

In a 2018 study, analysing the link between public transport use and airborne transmission, experts found a link between public transport use and transmission of infectious diseases.

The paper’s authors, Lara Gosce and Anders Johansson, studied a large number of journeys on the London Underground using publicly available Oyster card data to estimate the spread of airborne diseases.

Comparing the results with influenza-like illnesses (ILI) data collected by PHE in London boroughs, the study found a strong correlation between the use of public transport and the spread of ILI.

“Transmission of infectious diseases is directly correlated to the number of contacts between individuals,” Dr Gosce tells The Independent. “The more contacts, the higher the chance of contagion.

“With public transport we usually refer to confined and particularly crowded environments (such as stations, train carriages, buses etc.) where close contact between infected and healthy individuals is probable because of the high density of passengers, and also the possibility of touching potentially contaminated objects such as handles and seats.”

What can you do to reduce the risk of catching coronavirus?

“Washing hands thoroughly before and after using public transport is important, so for example before you leave the house and when you get to your destination,” says Dr Head.

Commuters on a busy train at Leytonstone central station in London on Monday morning (PA)

Dr Gosce says key workers who are forced to leave their home should still try to limit the number of close contacts with potentially infected individuals and objects.

“In terms of travel, avoid high peak hours and try to make trips involving only one means of transport (ie one bus or one train without changing line),” she recommends.

“Also, as recommended by the WHO, everyone should practice good respiratory hygiene, ie sneezing and coughing into a flexed elbow and immediately discarding used tissues into a closed bin. It is also very important for people to wash their hands regularly with either alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.”

Other scientists have recommended avoiding touching armrests on trains and trying to stand up and sit down on the Tube without touching any bars or handles, as there is a risk in touching surfaces – especially plastic or metal, where Covid-19 lasts the longest – that an infected person may have coughed or breathed on. Alternatively, wear a pair of gloves for the journey that you then remove when you reach your destination – but be sure to refrain from touching your face while wearing the gloves.

TfL has said that commuters may wish to avoid travelling at the busiest times, which have been identified as: 5.45-7.30am and 4-5.30pm. Travelling outside these peak hours may mean trains are less crowded, making adhering to social distancing rules easier.

Are trains being cleaned more often?

The Tube and London bus network have enhanced their usual cleaning regimes, using additional substances that kill viruses and bacteria on contact in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading.

Trains, stations and buses are professionally cleaned daily, and the enhanced disinfectant is being used in depots and drivers’ cabs, which previously were regularly cleaned with traditional disinfectant.

All buses will now have areas that are regularly touched, such as poles and doors, wiped down with a strong disinfectant every day.

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, said: “To help tackle the spread of coronavirus, rail companies are doing more to ensure our trains and stations are clean. The kinds of steps being taken include a greater focus on cleaning high-touch areas in trains and at stations, increasing the use of anti-viral cleaning products and ensuring toilets are well stocked with soap and water.”

Are there any alternatives?

For NHS staff living and working in London, cycling could be a possibility. Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, has said all NHS staff will be given free access to Santander Cycles during the crisis. Just make sure you wipe down any surfaces you might touch or wear gloves and wash your hands before and after the journey.

Anyone who has access to a vehicle can also benefit from the suspension of all road user charging schemes, including the Congestion Charge, Ultra Low Emission Zone and Low Emission Zone. However, Londoners have been asked by TfL not to travel unless absolutely necessary to keep the roads clear for critical workers.

Are taxis safe?

Although travelling by taxi means passengers will come into contact with fewer people, there is still the possibility that someone with the virus has used the cab before you. Experts recommend wiping down the seatbelt with antibac or wearing gloves during the journey, which are removed when you reach your destination. Washing your hands before and after every journey is also recommended.

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