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16 December 2021

As Omicron spreads, Britons shun public transport

Mobility data shows public transport use has plummeted as a voluntary lockdown unfolds.

By Ben van der Merwe

As the highly transmissible Omicron variant tears through the UK, data provided by Apple shows that the public are beginning to once again avoid public transport.

By Thursday 9 December, Apple’s index measuring activity at transit stations in England was already 4.8 per cent below the average for the previous four Thursdays. By Tuesday 14 December, it was down by 9.4 per cent. Nottingham has seen the largest decrease in recent days. Between 9 and 14 December transit station activity plummeted from 3.2 per cent below recent levels to 30 per cent below.

At a press conference on 15 December, the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty called on the public to reduce their social interactions. “What most people are doing, and what seems very sensible, is prioritising the social interactions that matter to them, and to protect those ones deprioritising interactions that matter less to them.”

Nikki Kanani, the medical director of primary care for NHS England, reiterated the point: “I want to see my immediate family on Christmas day, so I’m going to be really, really careful until I get to that moment. Not just testing, but watching what I do.”

Jenny Harries, the head of the Health Security Agency, had told Britons to reduce their social interactions as early as 30 November, but her message was not reiterated by the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson said at the time that there would be no further change in advice “about how people should be living their lives”.

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The public has often been faster in reacting to the spread of Covid-19 than government guidance. One study looking at Europe, North America and Israel estimated that half of the total reduction in transmissibility during the first wave of Covid-19 occurred prior to government-mandated lockdowns.

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