There is a need for a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland and the Programme for Government commits to making active travel and public transport better and more accessible. Among the measure we will prioritise is a Sustainable Rural Mobility Plan to ensure settlements over a certain size can connect to the national public transport system, expanding the Local Link rural transport service and prioritising public transport projects that enhances regional and rural connectivity.
Continued operation of the public transport sector is important, and it has been designated among the essential services that have carried on during the Covid crisis. I would like to thank both public and commercial operators and their staff for their continued dedication to providing this vital service in such challenging times. A number of measures have been introduced across the system, guided by public health advice, to ensure the continued operation of services during the pandemic, including enhanced cleaning regimes and social distancing measures across the network.
Over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, my Department has been working closely with the National Transport Authority (NTA) to ensure public transport services continue and to plan for the provision of enhanced public transport services in line with the Government Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business. In this context, the NTA is engaging directly with both PSO and commercial transport operators.
With the commencement of Phase 3 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business on 29 June 2020, changes to the existing public transport social distancing restrictions were agreed, allowing a move from 2 metres social distancing to utilising 50% of the passenger-carrying capacity of fleet. This will help to underpin public transport services during these unprecedented times, with a view to safeguarding public transport capacity in Phases 3 and 4 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business . Alongside this change, the wearing of a face covering when using public transport is now being made mandatory, with the exception of those who cannot do so for health reasons or due to young age. The legal framework to back up the mandatory use of face coverings on public transport is currently being prepared and we expect to have new Health Regulations in the coming days.
Further, there is continued strong messaging that public transport capacity remains restricted and therefore should only be used for essential travel, with only those who absolutely have to travel at peak times doing so and encouraging staggered retail and office opening hours. People are being encouraged to walk or cycle where practical, and organisations are encouraged to continue to facilitate working from home.
Temporary funding supports, in accordance with EU and national legislation, have also been approved for the licensed bus sector. Licensed operators provide essential transport services for people who need to get to work and are vital to ensure economic recovery. The support is aimed at ensuring the continued operation of essential licensed bus services for a period of up to six months. The support will be restricted to operators where a clear public interest justification supports such intervention and will be targeted at compensating the gap between specified costs and the revenues generated on the services. The National Transport Authority (NTA), as the public transport licensing agency, will administer the support through the establishment of contracts between the NTA and the relevant operators.