Bus operators face a challenge to restore services for returning workers amid union claims lockdown easing plans had caused “chaos and panic”.
With fewer passengers allowed on each bus and the government encouraging people to avoid public transport, firms say fares will not cover their costs.
Unions are also concerned about safety amid reports of higher death rates linked to Covid-19 among male drivers.
The government says it will work with bus operators.
Bristol bus operator First West of England is running two buses in tandem on some peak routes to boost seat numbers while social distancing is in place, according to the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
Boss James Freeman: “We’ve tried to reorganise the business to face the challenge of how we protect people from coronavirus at the same time as providing a minimum level of service for the people who need to travel.
“They are essential workers who haven’t got any other form of transport. There aren’t that many – patronage is down to about 8%.
“Buses are still running from first thing in the morning to late at night. Most are completely empty. It’s turned our world upside down.”
The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK (CPT) said bus operators were running about 40% of their services for about 10% of the passengers they would expect at this time of year.
Bus use change
Percentage (%) of normal levels
Social distancing would differ depending on the layout of buses, but might typically involve passengers only sitting in window seats with a row’s gap between them, the CPT said.
In that scenario, “farebox revenue would not be enough to cover the industry’s costs”, the CPT said, and it would “need some form of investment from central government to make that work”.
Transport for London (TfL) said the requirement to keep 2m social distancing wherever possible meant the bus network would only be able to carry around 13-15% of the normal number of passengers even when all services were operating again.
Its advice to passengers who cannot avoid using public transport is to travel outside of peak times, wear a face “covering”, carry a hand sanitiser and wash hands before and after travel.
Mike Brown, London’s transport commissioner, said: “Our intention is to progressively build up service levels to as close to pre-pandemic levels as possible, but it is clear life simply won’t be swiftly returning to what it was before.
“The travel demand challenge facing us outstrips that faced during the 2012 games due to the national requirement to maintain 2m distance between passengers wherever possible.”
Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) union general secretary Manuel Cortes said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday to “actively encourage” people to return to work, but discouraging the use of public transport had caused “chaos and panic”.
“Frankly, it’s dangerous and will put the lives of bus drivers, and all public transport workers, at risk,” he said.
First West said it was trialling signs to advise passengers on where to sit and will be taping off some areas – steps that limit the number of passengers buses can carry.
Mr Freeman said: “There are 20 seats on a double decker. That should reassure people there won’t be someone sitting behind them, breathing down their neck.
“With the number of the passengers dropping, they have taken a large chunk of revenue. Most costs are being met from the public purse.
“When the lockdown is relaxed we’re expecting to be asked to put on as much as 80% of the service back on. It can only be done if central government is willing to pay.”
Reporting team: BBC Shared Data Unit, Local Democracy Reporting Service. Charts by Daniel Wainwright