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Confusion over distancing in public transport

THL says full buses and trains should be avoided, but operators can still sell to capacity.

Karleby järnvägsstation
THL's guidelines are aimed at passengers travelling in and between cities, such as on state rail company VR's services. Image: Nathalie Lindvall

Finland’s Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has issued guidelines advising people how to travel on public transport during the coronavirus pandemic.

The instructions include such advice as travelling during off-peak periods, avoiding full buses and trains, and staying at home if feeling unwell.

The guidelines will not however be written into law, according to the Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka, as the advice is generally accepted by all public transport operators and no separate legislation is therefore required.

Research professor Hannu Kiviranta was involved in the drafting of THL's instructions for public transport, and told Yle that the issue of how safe it is to travel is a "difficult question to answer".

THL’s guidelines state that keeping a distance from other passengers on public transport reduces the risk of droplet infection, but does not specify the length of the distance.

The instructions read as follows:

It is difficult to give precise instructions as to what the correct distance is, because it is influenced by a number of factors: the size of the passenger compartment of the vehicle, air flows, filtration and exchanges. It is important to maintain a distance as far as the nature of the vehicle allows in rational and practical operation. This applies not only to vehicles but also to waiting areas and stops, as well as to any ticket offices.

Keeping a safe distance must also be taken into account in the working arrangements of drivers and other staff in the vehicle and, for example, in the way in which breaks are operated.

"Don't travel sick, try to keep your distance"

In urban public transport, travel times are usually short which makes the risk of exposure to the virus relatively low. Congested buses and commuter trains are therefore not such a big concern.

"If possible, keeping a distance is still beneficial," Kiviranta said, adding that people could agree flexible working times with their employer so that they do not have to travel during peak periods.

"The most important thing is not to travel sick," Kiviranta added. "Congestion occurs from time to time and cannot be avoided. You have to live with it. Fortunately, the pandemic situation in Finland has calmed down.

However, it is not always possible to maintain social distancing on longer commutes, as tabloid Iltalehti discovered on the Helsinki-Oulu Sunday afternoon service last weekend.

"It was really impossible to keep any safety gaps or to prevent the spread of coronavirus, if there happened to be a person with coronavirus on board. It was really like herrings in a jar," Jani Karttunen told the tabloid.

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