In its Covid-19 Recovery Strategy, published in May 2020 and updated in July at www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-to-rebuild-the-uk-governments-covid-19-recovery-strategy/the-next-chapter-in-our-plan-to-rebuild-the-uk-governments-covid-19-recovery-strategy--2, the Government said that it wanted to begin a gradual return to work in England. While anyone able to work from home should continue to do so, it insisted, those who needed to be at their place of work should be looking to return as soon as employers confirmed it was safe. However, the guidance continued, what these returners should not do is overload public transport.
While transport operators no doubt recognised this as excellent advice, they were left with the problem of how to prepare their own staff and facilities for a limited increase in use and what steps they needed to take if demand proved higher than the Government was expecting. Fortunately, further specific advice was issued by the Department for Transport (DfT), so we are now able to put together a plan of action based on this more detailed guidance. It should be noted that both the DfT guidance and this plan have been updated to take account of the return to a three tiers system in England from 2 December 2020 (of which further details can be found at www.gov.uk/guidance/local-restriction-tiers-what-you-need-to-know).
Safer transport guidance
The DfT makes clear that its guidance is intended to be complementary to any obligations already placed on the operator by health and safety and employment legislation. “Safer transport guidance for operators” (www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-safer-transport-guidance-for-operators/coronavirus-covid-19-safer-transport-guidance-for-operators#status-of-this-guidance) also emphasises that each transport provider will need to translate the key points and examples it sets out into specific actions. With that proviso in mind, what are the principles on which operators should base their planning?
Assess the risk
Given that other areas will have been previously examined in light of the usual health and safety rules mentioned above, the most important task for operators in the current circumstances is to address the risks that Covid-19 presents in a transport setting, to both passengers and staff.
In this context, it is sensible to apply the principles of prevention set out in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, namely:
avoid risks where possible
evaluate the risks which cannot be avoided
combat the risks at source
adapt to technical progress
replace the dangerous by the non-dangerous or the less dangerous
develop a coherent overall prevention policy which covers technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors relating to the working environment
give collective protective measures priority over individual protective measures
give appropriate instructions to employees.
On this last point, it would of course be sensible to consult with workers, or their representatives, on any planned changes to working practices. Operators should also examine whether such changes might result in additional, different risks or non-compliance with other requirements (for example health and safety or equalities legislation).
Finally, employers must bear in mind that they still have a duty to consider the needs of those with protected characteristics — disabled people, for example, the elderly and pregnant women — and to ensure that they are able to access transport networks.
A coronavirus staff risk assessment and return to work risk assessment template can be found in Emergency Management: Resources.
Protecting the workforce
Even before considering the impact of increased passenger flows, operators need to plan for the safety of their employees. This will involve consideration of how and when people arrive at and leave the workplace and how their daily tasks are organised. Operators should:
stagger arrival and departure times to reduce crowding on routes to and from the workplace
consider opening further entry points to reduce the possibility of congestion
follow the example of supermarkets and use floor markings and directional signs to reinforce the message about social distancing
provide hand sanitisers at entry points and where possible reduce the need to touch security features such as keypads (perhaps by showing a pass)
consider the introduction of a shift system to keep numbers at work to a minimum
stagger break times and consider using packaged meals to avoid opening canteens
use posters and announcements to emphasise a zero tolerance approach to abuse of staff
limit use of high-touch items and shared office equipment such as printers and whiteboards
ensure work vehicles such as minibuses have enough empty seats to ensure social distancing
as far as possible, where workers are split into teams or shift groups, fix these teams or shift groups so that, where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same people
take account of workers using alternative forms of transport to get to work by, for example, providing cycle storage areas.
Operators must also consider the need for extra support for workers in high risk groups. According to Public Health England (PHE), these include those who:
are older males
have a high body mass index (BMI)
have health conditions such as diabetes
are from certain black, Asian or minority ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds.
HSE has provided specific guidance on protecting these groups which can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/protect-people.htm.
The mandatory requirement for passengers to wear a face covering does not apply to employees. However, public health advice is that staff should wear a face covering when they are unable to maintain social distancing in passenger-facing roles, recognising that there will be exceptional circumstances when a staff member cannot wear a face covering, or when their task makes it sensible (based on a risk assessment) for them not to do so. Where staff do wear face coverings, they should be required to follow the advice given at www.gov.uk/government/publications/staying-safe-outside-your-home/staying-safe-outside-your-home#face-coverings.
Who should be at work?
Although many of those involved in public transport will by definition need to be at work for the system to operate, those who can work from home, such as office workers, should continue to do so. Where it is decided, in consultation with employees that workers should come into their place of work, then this will need to be reflected in the risk assessment and actions taken to manage the risks of transmission. Operators should:
consider the minimum number of people needed in vehicles, on site and/or in the office to operate safely and effectively
let workers know in advance if they are required to travel or not
keep in touch with off-site workers on their working arrangements including their welfare, mental and physical health and personal security
using protective screens for workers where necessary and possible
reallocate tasks between workers, to increase the opportunity for home working
consider whether support workers are needed to make their networks accessible (for example to operate ramps or lifts) and consider categorising these workers as “essential”
consider emerging evidence which shows that black and minority ethnic (BME) communities are disproportionately affected by coronavirus, and
consider re-deploying clinically vulnerable, clinically extremely vulnerable people or those with protected characteristics who are at higher risk of being disproportionately affected to by coronavirus into roles where they can work from home.
Workers who have symptoms of coronavirus or workers living in a household or support bubble with someone showing symptoms of coronavirus should self-isolate, stay at home and arrange to have a test to see if they have coronavirus. Employers should, in these circumstances:
enable people to work from home while self-isolating if appropriate
ensure that workers follow the guidance on staying at home (available via the DfT guide)
encourage workers to apply for a coronavirus test if they are experiencing symptoms, and
ensure that there are processes in place if someone attending the workplace shows symptoms or is infected.
Workers who may have had contact with a colleague who has been diagnosed with coronavirus may be contacted as part of the test and trace service and in such cases would need to self-isolate if directed to do so.
Public Health England (PHE) guidance on self-isolation can be found at GOV.UK.
The key to passenger safety is to consider how they enter, use and exit any facilities, buildings or vehicles. This will confirm potential pinch-points and enable operators to identify where problems can be alleviated by, for example, the use of signs, floor markings, barriers and screens. They should consider:
displaying messages and making announcements to discourage non-essential trips and to emphasise the Government’s policy that wherever possible people should work from home
using simple, clear and accessible messaging to explain guidelines utilising images and clear language and with consideration for groups whose first language may not be English
engaging with passengers and explaining the mandatory requirement to wear a face covering including explaining who is exempt (including children under 11, on-duty police officers and emergency responders and anyone prevented from wearing a face covering because of physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability)
using social media to make passengers aware of what to expect on their journeys and encouraging them to use face coverings
promoting online ticket purchase and encouraging travel outside peak times
working with other transport organisations (at transport interchanges, for example) to ensure co-ordinated policy
taking account of the possibility of wet weather and considering how this will affect passenger behaviour
introducing the use of social distancing marshals
ensuring that all parts of the facility are subject to safety signs and social distancing measures including car parks, stair cases and toilets
paying particular attention to areas where queuing is likely and introducing measures to ensure social distancing, perhaps by moving to more spacious areas or by restricting access
looking at all of the above in the context of an emergency situation arising and planning accordingly.
The new rules applying to passengers wearing face coverings raise the question of what action can and should be taken if they fail to comply. Operators now have powers to deny access to their services if a passenger is not wearing a face covering but they retain discretion over how to use these powers.
The DfT recommends the following stepped process to ensure maximum compliance while minimising disputes:
operators should encourage passengers to comply with the regulation through communications or direct engagement and should also explain the exemptions from the requirements
while there is no requirement or expectation that operators make face coverings available, they could consider doing so, for example without charge and/or in vending machines
if the above options fail, then operators should consider using their powers to prevent access to a public transport vehicle, or to offers passengers the choice of wearing a face covering or leaving the vehicle
as a last report, the police and Transport for London (TfL) have the power to fine a passenger if they continue to refuse to comply.
Note that, under the restrictions introduced in England on 5 November 2020, people must stay at home and avoid all travel in the UK or overseas, unless for work, education or other legally permitted reasons such as for caring responsibilities or to buy essential goods or services.
On 13 August, the Prime Minister introduced tougher penalties for repeatedly failing to wear face masks in public places and these have since been revised so that a fixed penalty notice for non-compliance will require payment of £200, reduced to £100 if paid within 14 days. Repeat offenders receiving fines either on public transport or in an indoor place will have their fines doubled on each subsequent offence up to a maximum value of £6400. After the first offence, there will be no discount.
The general requirement that people maintain social distancing applies across all forms of public transport but it is clear that transport staff and passengers will, on occasion, find it difficult to stay two metres apart. In such circumstances, the Government advice is that the risk should be reduced by maintaining a one metre distance and taking suitable mitigations (such as not sitting face-to-face). Employers should therefore:
advise staff and passengers on ways of working to keep their distance from other people as much as possible
establish clear rules for interacting with passengers
reinforce the rules on regular handwashing or cleaning
identify areas that are touched more regularly and ensure thorough cleaning (although regular cleaning of all areas is required)
support individual workers who choose to use face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible (but emphasise the necessity for handwashing before and after use)
where problem areas arise, try to minimise the time where close contact occurs
where more than one member of staff is needed for a particular task, try to ensure that teams are kept as small as possible and that the same people are kept in the teams (so-called cohorting) to keep contact as limited as possible
use screens or barriers and eliminate face-to-face seating by, for example, shifting to “bench” style
if possible, separate workspaces two metres apart from one another
wherever possible ensure natural ventilation or use Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems to improve ventilation.
There is a Government poster, Staying Covid-19 Secure in 2020, which operators may want to download and display to demonstrate that they are complying with official guidance. It also offers a useful reminder of the key methods of mitigating the risk of transmission.
Encourage people to work from home if possible.
Introduce rigorous cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures.
Maintain a two metre distance in the workplace.
Where people cannot be two metres apart, do everything practical to manage transmission risk.