london underground commuters

Covid-19 infection risk 70 times higher on Tube without masks

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Commuters on the London Underground represent a 70 times increased risk of transmitting Covid-19 to other passengers when they do not use face coverings, researchers have said.

Demand for the service has increased by 10 per cent this week, following the announcement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday that those who cannot work from home should be encouraged to go to work. The Prime Minister has also clarified that people should avoid public transport in favour of walking, cycling, or driving where possible.

Engineers at MSC Software, a company which develops simulation software for the likes of Nasa and Airbus, have used computational fluid dynamics to simulate the spread of the virus in a Tube carriage between unprotected commuters.

Their model demonstrated that commuters engaging in conversation without a mask resulted in up to 70 times the spread of infected airborne droplets in just three minutes compared to masked commuters.

With the tube expected to return to normal operating hours next week and no Government enforcement of rules to mandate the wearing of face masks, commuters could be at serious risk of infection.

Current guidance urges people to maintain a two metre distance from each other even during commutes, but pictures posted this week on social media of crowded carriages show that such precautions are not possible.

A Guardian analysis found that adhering to the social distancing rules would cut tube capacity to just 10 per cent of normal levels. This would leave queues of up to 1.8km snaking out of the busiest stations if commuter levels returned to pre-lockdown numbers.

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick recently said he would be prepared to board a packed bus or train to commute to work as the coronavirus lockdown is eased, although he acknowledged overcrowding was a problem.

The Communities Secretary told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Yes, I would do. We have given guidance that to protect yourself and others you could choose to wear a face covering.”

“You should be taking precautions like social distancing if you can – I appreciate that isn’t always possible and some of the scenes… show buses and Tubes too full to be able to sit two metres apart and that’s a problem,” he continued. “That’s one of the reasons why we are trying to encourage as many people as can to drive to work – if they have a car – or to walk or cycle.”

Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union, accused the Government of having a “contradictory and potentially lethal approach” to the pandemic.

He said: “When we go outside our homes into open spaces two-metre social distancing must be maintained at all times, but then on the other hand the Government is not lifting a finger to prevent the cramming of passengers into confined spaces on bus, train and Tube services.”

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