Commuters heed warning to avoid train network in England | UK news

Commuters have been heeding the government’s warning to avoid the train network, after rail operators reported a small increase in passenger numbers despite providing more services as England edged back to work.

The numbers of passengers using London’s main stations during the usual morning rush-hour period on Monday edged up compared with last week, but were still only about 8% of normal levels, according to figures released by Network Rail.

Train companies increased the number of services from Monday morning after coronavirus restrictions were eased in England. This week about 3,000 more trains a day will run, taking the daily number up to between 15,000-16,000. About 24,000 normally run each day before the lockdown.

While six out of eight main London stations – including King’s Cross, Euston and Paddington – showed increases in passenger numbers between 5am and 9.30am on Monday, Network Rail said “a marginal increase in footfall for some stations” had resulted in no reports of physical distancing or crowding issues.

The message that there had been no significant increase in passengers was reiterated in other parts of England by First Group, which operates franchises including Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and TransPennine Express; Northern Rail, which runs services into Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool; and West Midlands Railway, which carries commuters into Birmingham.

The low level of passengers combined with the expanded timetable is giving train operators some help in implementing physical distancing measures onboard trains. In an effort to enable physical distancing, capacity on trains will be reduced to as little as 10% of normal levels and passengers are being urged to avoid non-essential travel. British Transport Police will have more officers at London stations in to control crowds.

Will Rogers, the managing director at East Midlands Railway, said the new timetable would allow a small rise in the number of passengers EMR could accommodate.

“We urge everyone to only go by train if it is necessary and keep public transport for key workers and those who must travel,” he added.

Passengers travelling by train are being asked to wear a face covering and keep a 2-metre distance from other people where possible. Transport operators are being urged by the government to rearrange, remove or limit seating “to try and ensure social distancing is observed”.

This may include blocking off seats in close proximity to others and removing face-to-face seating.

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public. 

“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.

Nevertheless, as some countries have eased lockdown conditions, they have been making it mandatory to wear face coverings outside, as a way of trying to inhibit spread of the virus. This is in the belief that the face covering will prevent people who cough and sneeze ejecting the virus any great distance. 

There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.

Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play, especially on crowded public transport as people return to work..

 Sarah Boseley Health editor

Passengers using London North Eastern Railway are allowed to board trains only if they hold a reservation as well as a ticket.

The operator is asking passengers to sit in a window seat, with one person per row of four seats, and two empty rows between each passenger.

People travelling as a household will be allowed to sit together but must maintain “a safe distance” from other passengers.

Avanti West Coast warned its customers that anyone without a reservation may not be able to travel on their choice of train.

The number of rail services have been reduced for weeks owing to a collapse in demand and a rise in staff sickness during the pandemic.

But the government is now urging people in England to go to work if they cannot work from home. Advice in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales remains that people should stay at home.

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014-15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.

It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure – originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.

South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.

Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union expressed concern that “rushed political considerations could well override the safety issues for staff and passengers”.

It has called for the enforcement of 2-metre physical distancing on trains and the compulsory wearing of face masks by passengers which should be provided for free at stations and be able to be disposed of safely.

Mick Cash, the RMT general secretary, said: “We are opposed to the early relaxation of lockdown measures and believe that non-essential workers should avoid using trains. When people absolutely must use a train, there should be new compulsory protections.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said the message remained that people should only go to work if they cannot work from home and they should avoid public transport if possible and maintain physical distancing if they have no other choice.

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