Get us in your inbox

london underground face masks
Photograph: Vudi Xhymshiti /

Parts of London Underground should shut to halt spread of virus, say experts

It’s all because of the tube’s poor air quality

Alexandra Sims

If you’re one of the five million people who used the tube every day in the Before Times, you’ll be less than pleased to know that the London Underground is one of the most polluted parts of our city. In fact, an investigation by Transport for London found air quality on the tube network can be up to 15 times worse than above ground. 

Now, scientists at the universities of Birmingham and Cambridge have suggested that suspending parts of the Underground that show spikes in air pollution could prevent another outbreak of Covid-19. 

A study published in Science of the Total Environment, found that people exposed to air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) found on the underground transport network are more likely to catch Covid-19, and are more likely to die from it. 

One of the authors of the report, Dr Ajit Singh, from the University of Birmingham, said: ‘Short-term exposure to NO2 and PM2.5 is significantly linked to an increased risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19. Exposure to such air pollutants can compromise lung function and increase risk of death from the virus.’ 

Studies have also shown that using public transport in the UK during a pandemic can increase the risk of catching an acute respiratory infection sixfold. This is partly due to commuters being exposed to larger numbers of people who may potentially have the virus. 

Dr Singh says that this information should be used to put in place targeted closures on the London Underground network when air pollution is at a peak.  

‘Levels of airborne PM2.5 in the London Underground during summer are often several times higher than other transport environments such as cycling, buses or cars,’ said Dr Singh. ‘We recommend a strategy that tailors the level of public transport activity in cities like London according to Covid-19 vulnerability based on air pollution levels across the city.

‘This could help decision-makers take the right measures to counter Covid-19 in London – for example deploying transport staff and arranging dedicated services for key workers.’

Previously, scientists have found the greatest PM2.5 concentrations across the London Underground network on the Victoria Line (16 times higher than the roadside environment), followed by the Northern, Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines.

However, TfL says that closing down parts of the tube network ‘is not a realistic option’. 

Responding to the report, Lilli Matson, TfL’s chief safety, health and environment officer, said: ‘Throughout the pandemic, critical workers have depended on the tube and buses and we have done all we can to ensure a safe environment for all of passengers and staff, including enhanced cleaning, requiring face coverings and maintaining social distancing.’ 

Maybe it’s a good time to finally invest in a bike? Or, get acquainted with electric scooters

London is getting new lanes for cyclists and pedestrians

Feeling left behind? Get up to speed on the latest stories with Time Out London news.

Popular on Time Out

    Latest news

      Read next