Horrific scenes emerged of packed public transport in London today (May 13) – on the first day that prime minister Boris Johnson said the government would be encouraging people who cannot telecommute to go back to work.
Johnson said on Sunday and reiterated on Monday that people who cannot work from home should begin going back to work from Wednesday, May 13 if their workplace is open. He said people should avoid public transport and either drive, walk or cycle into work.
But with huge swathes of people in cities either not owning a car or living too far away from work to walk or cycle, the government’s advice to return to work left many people with no option but to take a train, tube or bus.
How are people meant to socially distance on a tube or bus? https://t.co/BKV3LceHVd
— Metro (@MetroUK) May 13, 2020
And the consequences from even the first day have become apparent when pictures shown in the press and social media underline the impossibility of social distancing on public transport networks in cities like London, especially at a time when they are running a fraction of their normal services.
Responding to news that public transport in London was packed today, Unite regional officer for London buses John Murphy said, “Pictures of overcrowded buses are frightening and action must be taken immediately.
“The government is on the one hand telling people to go back to work but on the other failing to provide the means for them to get there safely.
“Overcrowding can only be resolved by the government providing additional funding to run more buses during peak hours and introducing strict rules on policing the number of passengers on each bus,” he added.
“To greatly reduce the dangers of transmission of COVID-19 the wearing of face masks must become mandatory; merely advising passengers to wear them is simply not clear enough.
“Policing overcrowding cannot and will not be the responsibility of the driver.
“During the pandemic at least 30 bus workers have lost their lives in London. Huge efforts have been made to protect the workforce and Unite will not allow that to be compromised,” Murphy went on to say.
“We have advised members of their right to withdraw from serious and imminent danger in line with the legal protections that exist, and that where they are forced to do so they will receive Unite’s full support.”
The government issued safe travel on public transport guidance on Tuesday (May 12) but Unite has sharply criticised the guidance for lacking any clarity and for failing to make certain measures mandatory.
The guidance asks people to keep 2m apart ‘wherever possible’; to wear a face mask coverings ‘if you can’; and to avoid rush hour ‘where feasible’, among other measures.
Responding to the guidance, Unite national officer passenger transport Bobby Morton yesterday echoed Murphy’s comments today.
He said, “It is not good enough to recommend face coverings. They need to become mandatory on public transport. This will dramatically reduce the risk of COVID-19 being transmitted.
He also called on the government to direct bus operators on how to police maximum capacity rules, adding this must not be the responsibility of the driver.
“Far too many bus workers have died during this pandemic and it must be made clear to the public that drivers will not be expected to leave their cab, which should be totally sealed off from passengers,” Morton added.
“This is an issue that the government must immediately address. Buses are already seeing increased usage at peak times and overcrowding issues are already occurring.”
“To run a safe, socially distanced service, the number of buses in service must be increased but that will require investment from government.
“You can’t run a safe socially distanced public transport network on the cheap.”