Change of political line is required for future industry prosperity

The industry continues to battle for survival. Central to that is being able to draw passengers back. Earlier momentum of their return to buses has largely stalled. Coach tourism saw a modest restart of sorts, but that, too, is made difficult to sustain as and when movement restrictions increase in some areas.

While the wider reasons for the tightening of restrictions are understandable, much less palatable is the approach that politicians are again taking to public transport, and by association, coaches.

In England, advice in higher-risk areas is that public transport should once again be avoided. That represents a shift back towards political utterances from the early stages of the pandemic. At some points, the message then seemed intent on creating a fear that certain death would follow public transport use. Passenger numbers plummeted accordingly.

Growing bus patronage above the current level seems like it will be a difficult task in the medium term. Societal change will have removed a small number of passengers for good and some operators display a nonchalant approach to promoting the work they are doing to keep their vehicles clean and sanitised.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon now suggests that travel by coach has led to spread of the virus. No evidence for that claim has been produced. It will be particularly disheartening to hear for Scotland’s coach operators, many of which derive their main income stream from incoming tourism.

Attitudes such as these contrast with the results of international studies of virus transmission on public transport. Thanks to the efforts of operators to keep vehicles scrupulously clean, public transport settings have been the “safest places on earth”, Dr Julian Tang told Sky News.

Dr Tang is professor of respiratory sciences at Leicester University. It is thus reasonable to take his words at face value. One of the studies in question shows that in France, only 1.2% of the country’s 2,830 COVID-19 clusters have been traced to transport of any kind. In Hong Kong, where public transport reliance is high, the overall infection rate is “far less” than in Western countries.

The Managing Director of a coach operator in South Wales says that his business is spending “thousands of pounds every month” on cleaning and sanitation supplies. It has also fitted purifying units to air-conditioning systems and purchased digital thermometers.

That business does not need government handouts, its MD adds. He would rather it ran safely and efficiently and traded its way out of trouble. That is one operator’s view; others may think differently. But something that the industry collectively does not need is the handing out of misinformation about the ‘danger’ of using public transport that is supported by neither facts nor evidence.