Commuters face fever test before leaving home to ease lockdown

mask on tube train

Commuters will be asked to take their temperature before leaving home under proposals being considered to make public transport safer when the coronavirus lockdown is eased and Britain starts to return to work.

Boris Johnson will announce plans on Thursday for socially distanced work, travel and school in a “roadmap” to take the country out of full lockdown. The aim is to restart the economy while keeping the infection suppressed.

Public transport represents a particular challenge, with ministers keen to avoid a repeat of crowded scenes at the start of the restrictions. Advice to commuters to take their temperature before travelling is among approaches adopted by other countries that the Department for Transport is considering alongside Public Health England.

A high temperature is one of the main symptoms of coronavirus. Those with an elevated reading would be expected to stay at home. A senior government official emphasised that no decision had been taken.

The measures include distribution of hand sanitiser at bus stations, a recommendation to wear masks where two-metre social distancing cannot be guaranteed, and warning signs urging passengers against boarding busy buses and trains. There are also likely to be compulsory temperature checks at airports.

Preparations have been under way since mid-April for an 80 per cent rail service to run from May 18, in case ministers decide to partially lift the lockdown. That is also the deadline set by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, for a new “test, track and isolate” system backed by a smartphone app and an army of contact-tracers.

Over the past six weeks trains have carried only 5 per cent of normal passenger numbers after a demand to avoid non-essential journeys. Most parts of the network are operating a half timetable but there are concerns about how it will cope when restrictions are eased.

Rail industry sources said that carriages were likely to accommodate only 20 per cent of normal capacity to maintain social distancing. This means placing restrictions on entry to stations.

The Times has been told that train operators are exploring options to avoid overcrowding that include requiring passengers to book a timeslot online for busy trains. They would reserve a 15-minute window to turn up for commuter services into cities.

Companies are likely to decommission first-class carriages and ban passengers from getting off trains at some busy interchange stations.

Rail industry leaders are understood to be concerned with the lack of detailed preparations from the Department for Transport and Public Health England over how to maintain safety. Some are lobbying for a slight relaxation of social distancing provided that passengers wear masks, warning that without the change it would be almost impossible to carry more than a dozen passengers in each carriage.

“There is a risk that public transport will be overwhelmed if the government doesn’t provide clear guidance on how a balance can be struck between the need for people to return to work and the capacity available due to social distancing,” one industry source said. “There’s clearly a trade-off between social distancing and facial covering and that has to be considered.”

The source added that a system of booking commuter trains was being considered. “There is emerging thinking that you may have to book a slot for, say, 8.30 to 8.45am and then turn up at that time and you’ll be able to get on a train,” they said. “It’s designed to regulate the number of people coming into the station or queueing outside at any one time while ensuring trains themselves aren’t full. It is a huge logistical exercise.”