A woman wearing a mask outside King's Cross in London

Sadiq Khan launches transport plan, including masks for commuters

Commuters in London will be asked to wear masks on public transport when they return to work, Transport for London has announced.

TfL estimated that tube services would be able to carry only about 13-15% of the normal number of passengers to limit the risk of spreading coronavirus.

Publishing his initial plan for transport in the capital, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the intention was not to encourage people to use the tube or buses, with the onus being on the network to keep passenger numbers low if there is to be any chance of maintaining social distancing.

“Coronavirus has had a profound impact on public transport in London and will continue to do so long into the future,” said Khan. “We will all have to continue playing our part in reducing demand on services by working from home if we possibly can. Please avoid public transport wherever possible. I urge all Londoners to rethink the way they travel. Please avoid peak times, wear a non-medical covering over your nose and mouth and carry a hand sanitiser.”

TfL said it would be progressively restoring the normal schedule to the networks but it warned that Londoners should “continue working from home wherever possible to enable safe journeys for those who cannot”.

Hand-sanitiser points will be installed in every station across the network in the coming weeks and “rigorous cleaning” of buses, trains and stations will continue. All frontline staff will be offered masks from Monday.

TfL said the new cleaning regime would include “additional hospital-grade cleaning substances that kill viruses and bacteria on contact, new anti-viral disinfectant that protects for up to 30 days, key interchanges being cleaned more frequently, including during the day, and all regular ‘touch point’ areas on buses, such as poles and doors, being wiped down with a strong disinfectant every day”.

TfL said it was working with unions to restore service levels on buses to 85% and on the tube to 70% by 18 May.

The Circle line will be restored and some of the 37 stations that were closed during the lockdown will be reopened.

Some stations with lift-only services will need to remain closed as social distancing is not possible. Preparations for distancing on escalators are also being put in place.

However, in a sign of the enormous challenge facing TfL, it warned that it would severely limit numbers per train in order to enforce the two-metre social distancing rule.

“The national requirement to maintain two-metre social distancing wherever possible means that TfL will only be able to carry around 13-15% of the normal number of passengers on the tube and bus networks even when 100% of services are operating once again over time,” it said in the statement.

It did not say how it would achieve this, but marshals have already been deployed in larger hubs such as Waterloo, and a snapshot of tube stations on Monday showed that one-way entry and exit systems were being put in place, along with circle pads and chevron tape on platforms and on approaches to escalators to remind commuters of the two-metre distance guidelines.

With up to 4 million commuters a day in normal times, millions will have to stay at home to achieve the 13-15% capacity ideal.

Mike Brown, London’s transport commissioner, conceded the two-metre distancing “may not always be possible … given the design of London’s transport network”.

He said TfL would struggle financially as 80% of its income came from fares and commercial revenue.

“This has had a devastating impact on the organisation’s finances,” he said, adding that it was in discussions with the government about support.

Commuters in the capital on Monday said many would be scared to return to the tube even with reduced numbers.

Julie, an NHS worker, predicted a fearful response among those who had no choice but to use the service. “They can’t invent new trains, or make adjustments on these trains within two months,” she said.

“The central line is going to fill up, the buses are going to fill up, people are going to worry. How do you handle it because there will be no social distancing. I think there will be panic and fear,” she said.

Staff at Waterloo reported greater numbers than in recent weeks at 7am but by 8.45am the station was empty save for dozens of stewards working for a security firm hired to help marshal and navigate commuters returning to work in the new conditions.