The appliance of science

16 October 2020

The perceived safety of travelling by public transport continues to be a key concern for many people, particularly those not travelling at the moment. We know many are apprehensive about how thoroughly and frequently transport is cleaned, and whether other passengers will be observing social distancing and face covering rules. But can scientific evidence showing that the risks are low encourage people to get back on board?

The rail industry has been working hard to demonstrate that risks are low using scientific methods. Specifically, the Rail Safety and Standards Board has published the findings from a statistical model about the estimated risk of Covid-19 infection on rail, which we showed to our rail community.

The community was glad to see that scientific analysis of risk existed and appreciated that it was coming from an independent impartial body – a helpful contrast to the sometimes confusing information coming from elsewhere. The community also appreciated that the report did not make any recommendation about whether or not to travel based on the conclusions of the model, so people felt informed, rather than ‘pushed’ towards travelling.

“This is interesting. I do feel that the calculations and conclusions are valid, and presented in a reasonable way…I would have thought that the risk would have been higher than the estimates given here, and reading the information presented is generally reassuring.” Female, 32, Newport

However, people’s pre-existing perceptions on the risk of travelling influenced how they interpreted the report, with some taking issue with aspects of the methodology or trustworthiness of the findings. Some mentioned that the risk for each individual passenger could vary quite a lot depending on the circumstances, for example the risk would presumably be higher in areas under local lockdown. For a small group of people such as this person below, there is no tolerable risk threshold for Covid-19 transmission, so they will avoid rail until there is a vaccine.

The risk of infection is good odds if you’re betting with money. But I’m not betting with money. Travelling by rail exposes me to a virus that could kill me and my family.” Male, 57, South East

Others do not feel they have a choice about whether or not to travel at the moment due to personal circumstances and have to accept the risk as it is without needing this level of detail to inform them.

We also showed the report to our bus community who responded positively and would like to see similar information applied to bus. Similar bodies working to provide this type of information are currently lacking in the bus industry, and the community vocalised an appetite for this.

While people felt it was important information to have, and it did provide some comfort, on its own the report does not represent a call to action – it did not change the mind of any passengers already predisposed against travelling. The transport industry must continue to demonstrate it is doing its utmost to ensure passengers are safe, by taking visible, proactive measures to reduce the spread of the virus.

More information on thoughts of our Transport User Community are available in the report.

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