Public transport and the pandemic: perceptions of risk and mitigation

Impact: Attitudes and behaviours, Awareness and understanding, Health and wellbeing, Policy


Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, public transport was identified as a significant potential hub of transmission for COVID-19 but at the time little was known about this risk or how it could be managed. Messaging urged people to avoid it wherever possible and use only when absolutely necessary. These messages, as well as changes to behaviours (e.g. commuting patterns, ability to work from home etc), have continued to affect passengers’ public transport choices beyond lockdown periods, as passenger numbers remained low compared to pre-pandemic levels (Department for Transport, 2022).


In response, our project aimed to improve understanding of specific risks and mitigations in relation to the spread of COVID-19 and ongoing challenges faced by the public transport sector. It is hoped that clarity in these areas can inform the management of transmission risks in this sector, and build confidence across the sector and amongst the public to assist in their return to more normal operation. 


Our study concluded 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 / health emergencies. Recommendations include:

>  Establishing or maintaining industry forums 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.

Publication of the recommendations in the Policy@manchester blog and the AMBS Original Thinking blog, both respected sources for expert insight, analysis and comment on key public policy issues, helped direct the recommendations to UK policy makers. Publication of reports as part of the PROTECT COVID-19 National Core Study provided findings directly to the Health & Safety Executive who are responsible for the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare in the UK, and multiple academic papers have reached the academic community. At various stages of the work the team provided findings and recommendations directly to the Department for Transport (December 2021 and January 2022) and provided feedback to those who took part in the research namely: experts (policy makers, academics etc), organisational leaders (across different modes of public transport), workers and passengers. We have also presented at a wide variety of conferences since 2021.

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. 

Category of impactAttitudes and behaviours, Awareness and understanding, Health and wellbeing, Policy
Impact levelEngagement

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Thomas Ashton Institute
  • Work and Equalities Institute
  • Manchester Environmental Research Institute