Concern over capacity on school buses after new Covid-19 rules

NPHET advises secondary students must maintain social distancing on school buses

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has  agreed in principle that students should be socially distanced on school transport and and said more  information on this ‘has to be [finalised] in the coming week’. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has agreed in principle that students should be socially distanced on school transport and and said more information on this ‘has to be [finalised] in the coming week’. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

 

There are growing concerns over whether there is enough capacity on schoolbuses to ensure children can be transported safely when schools reopen at the end of the month.

The current Department of Education advice to parents is that that school bus services should operate as normal with no social distancing, while secondary students would have to wear face masks.

However, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advised the Government this week that secondary students must now maintain social distancing while on school buses, in line with wider rules on public transport.

In addition, the main transport workers’ union has raised fresh concerns that dozens of bus routes do not have the capacity to bus children to school safely on public routes.

In a letter to the heads of the three main public transport providers, the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) outlines concerns over the capacity of more than 62 separate Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann routes and seeks clarity on how physical distancing will be policed in the interest of transport workers.

The routes “most heavily affected” by school commuting patterns are in Dublin (51 routes) and 11 across Donegal, Cavan, Galway and Sligo. Some of these operate similar routes.

“It is one thing to set the capacity levels at 50 per cent…when the demand for public transport is at a minimum, it is entirely a different matter altogether when the current travel patterns are going to be added to significantly when the schools return,” states the letter from NBRU general secretary Dermot O’Leary.

Transport authorities, meanwhile, are considering diverting buses on public routes to assist with school transport following concerns over the capacity for schoolchildren.

A spokesman for the National Transport Authority said services will be monitored closely and if capacity becomes an issue vehicles would be deployed from less-heavily used routes.

The change in public health advice for secondary students, meanwhile, appears to have caught the Government by surprise.

On Monday, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn advised the Government that for secondary school students, “strict distancing should be ensured in line with that on public transport along with the wearing of face coverings”.

“Primary school students should distance where possible. Transport companies should ensure hand sanitiser is provided at transport hubs.”

Speaking on RTÉ radio on Wednesday, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said fresh guidance raised the prospect that public transport would have to be doubled, which was “not possible”.

He agreed in principle that students should be socially distanced and said further information on the subject “has to be [finalised] in the coming week”.

Bus Éireann provides separate, dedicated school bus services for the Department of Education which are in the main subcontracted to provide operators.

Dublin Bus said several additional routes would be returning to service from month’s end.

“Service levels in the bus network will be monitored over the coming months. Additional PSO services may be added where demand requires subject to the approval of the NTA,” it said. “The safety of our customers and employees is paramount.”

School students also make use of Irish Rail services, notably the Dart in Dublin and the northern commuter line.

Currently, Irish Rail services are operating at between 30 and 35 per cent capacity, compared to the maximum 50 per cent allowed, but traditional peak time, or rush hour volumes, have fallen so there is believed to be scope in the system for school children.

Full schedules are currently operating on the Dart and will return to other services by the end of the month.

It is understood passenger numbers across services declined noticeably in number after the Government appeal on Tuesday for people not to use public transport.