Source: (John Crozier)

Travel: COVID’s final frontier?

For several weeks as I drove down the A3 to and from Portsmouth for a weekly appointment, I saw variable-message signs requesting that drivers “Minimise travel”. While listening to the radio on those journeys, I regularly heard an advert by South Western Railways encouraging train travel; the gist was a very cautious “we’re ready when you are”.

As the weeks went by, the signs disappeared and so too did the advert. The vaccination programme progressed, the Global Travel Taskforce provided a new ‘tier’ system for kick-starting international travel, and we inched towards Step 4 and completion of the Roadmap. It began to feel like the forced immobility caused by the pandemic might be coming towards some sort of end.

The Delta variant, first detected in India, has apparently changed things. The hastily-withdrawn guidance for the eight ‘hotspot’ areas of England included advice against travelling in and out of them. The explanation of the removal of Portugal from the ‘green’ list was partly because of a “Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant”.

But some things haven’t changed. The public have long favoured a closed-borders policy, so much so that in early May Ipsos MORI found Britons supporting, by a margin of three to one, a ban on overseas holidays during 2021 to prevent variants spreading. Most want to be fully vaccinated and crave certainty before travelling abroad, including confidence that restrictions won’t change, although that looks unlikely as does the expansion of an already short ‘green’ list.

Longitudinal research by Ipsos MORI for the Department for Transport has suggested that confidence in using public transport will improve as the vaccination programme progresses. But in February-March, 61% of Britons supported the retention of mask-wearing and social distancing on public transport even after all second doses have been administered. Support was a little higher among those who used public transport before the pandemic and among those who travelled this way during February-March.

This creates awkward territory for policy-makers. Requiring users to wear masks and observe social distancing would, in effect, put public transport on a different footing to hospitality at a moment when our decarbonisation ambitions demand that public transport takes a greater strain. Those in charge face an unenviable challenge of balancing the economic imperative to get transport going again with the public health and environment implications of that happening.

On the face of it, there is considerable pent-up demand for travel. While 63% of UK adults travelled by bus at least once in the three months before the pandemic, this had fallen to just 19% during February-March this year. Along with recreation activities, transport accounted for most of the drop in overall household consumption during 2020.

But we won’t just bounce back to pre-pandemic behaviours. It has been suggested that if ‘Zoom-shock’ (the impact of remote-working on working patterns) leads to the drop in regular commuting some are forecasting, major cities will see footfall at levels not seen since the late 1980s. And while urban centres and transport operators need passengers and through-traffic, they also need people to use the right modes at the right time in order to manage capacity and sustainability.

This feels like a hinge moment for transport. There are several possible solutions, including tech-enabled real-time information about the busyness of transport services, reforms to the economic model and fares structure of public transport (something heralded by the Williams-Shapps reforms for the UK’s railways), and of course risk-mitigation in terms of hygiene, safety protocols and improved ventilation. To use the language of behavioural science, choice architecture needs to be geared towards public transport and active travel, away from car consumption, although this is easier said than done logistically, and, perhaps, politically.

Travel and transport are synonymous with freedom and independence. Britons will return to travelling in larger numbers than has been possible during lockdowns whether to commute, go on holiday, for recreation or to run errands. Less clear, though, is when, and how, this will happen.

As the radio advert acknowledged, many people are not yet ready. Travel and transport is one of the trickiest, and perhaps one of the last, frontiers in our national recovery from the pandemic.



Research Director at Ipsos, interested in understanding society and public opinion. Views my own. Pre-April 2020 blogs available at LinkedIn, tweets @BenIpsosUK

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ben Marshall

Research Director at Ipsos, interested in understanding society and public opinion. Views my own. Pre-April 2020 blogs available at LinkedIn, tweets @BenIpsosUK