With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the new transport guidance for passengers and operators that has been published by my Department today.
Coronavirus has cast a shadow over the lives of everyone in this country. As we all know too well, for some it has caused unimaginable heartache. For millions more of our fellow citizens, this crisis has meant an enormous sacrifice in the national effort to beat this disease. The Government are immensely grateful to the British people for the profound changes that they have made to their lives over the last few weeks.
I also extend my thanks to transport workers and the wider freight sector for their immense efforts to keep Britain on the move during this crisis. We will always remember the way in which the industry has served the country during the most challenging of times. Public transport operators have ensured that all those frontline staff have been able to get to work and fight the virus, while freight firms have delivered vital goods and kept super- market shelves stacked.
However, it is now time to consider how together we emerge from this crisis. On Sunday, the Prime Minister set out the first careful steps for reopening society and a roadmap for the weeks and the months ahead. Undoubtedly, transport is going to play a very central role in that recovery. It will be the key to restarting our economy and in time will enable us to renew and strengthen those precious ties that are so deeply valued by us all.
As I said last week, our nation’s emergence from this crisis will not be a single leap to freedom. It will be a gradual process. We cannot jeopardise the progress achieved over the past few weeks by our shared sacrifices. We therefore remain clear that those who can work from home should continue to do so. However, as those who cannot start to return to their jobs, the safety of the public and of transport workers must be paramount. That is why the Department for Transport has today published two new pieces of guidance for passengers and for operators.
These documents aim to give passengers the confidence to travel, and they seek to give operators the information they need to provide safer services and workplaces for passengers and for staff. We encourage operators to consider the particular needs of their customers and workers as they translate these documents into action.
The first document is aimed at passengers. I will summarise some of the main points contained in the advice. First, as I mentioned, we continue to ask people to go to work only if they cannot do their jobs from home. That is because even as transport begins to revert to a full service, the 2-metre distancing rule will leave effective capacity for only one in 10 passengers overall. It is therefore crucial that we protect our network by minimising the pressures placed on it and ensure that it is ready to serve those who most need it.
As a result, we are actively asking those who need to make journeys to their place of work or other essential trips to walk or to cycle wherever possible. In order to help us do more of that, last week I announced an unprecedented £2 billion investment to put walking and cycling right at the heart of our transport policy. The first stage is worth £250 million and will include a series of swift emergency measures, including pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and cycling and bus-only corridors. That money should help protect our public transport network in the weeks and months ahead. It is my hope that they will eventually allow us to harness the vast health, social and environmental benefits that active forms of travel can provide. If people cannot walk, but have access to a car—I appreciate that I will be the only Transport Secretary to have said this for very many years—we urge them to use the car before they consider public transport, avoiding where possible any busy times of day.
I do, however, recognise that for some people using transport is a necessity. In this case, passengers should follow the guidance we have set out today in order to keep themselves safe. It recommends that travellers must maintain social distancing by staying 2 metres apart wherever possible to prevent the virus. We also advise that as a precautionary measure, particularly where that is not possible, people wear face coverings when using public transport. That could help protect other travellers from coronavirus where someone has perhaps unwittingly or unknowingly developed the illness, but they are not showing any symptoms. We urge passengers to avoid the rush hour and replan their visits, to use contactless payments where at all possible and to wash their hands before and after their journeys.
In addition, the guidance also reminds us that at this most challenging of times, it is more vital than ever that we think about the needs of others. Our transport operators and their staff are doing an incredible job to keep everyone safe. Please follow their advice. In stations and bus interchanges, be patient and considerate with fellow passengers and staff. In particular, we should remember the needs of disabled passengers, those with hearing and sight impairments and older travellers, too.
As I mentioned, we are also publishing a second document, guidance for transport operators, today. Those organisations really are at the forefront of the national recovery effort. They know the insides and out of the needs of their customers and their workers, and they understand like no one else their industry’s specific needs. That is why I have no doubt that the operators are best placed to implement the safety processes that work best for their businesses, their employees and their customers. The guidance we are publishing today advises operators across all forms of private and public transport on the measures they can take to improve safety. The steps include ensuring stations, services and equipment are regularly cleaned, and that passenger flows are clearly communicated to try to avoid crowding to try to keep everyone on the network, passengers and staff, two metres apart wherever possible.
The guidance will develop over time, in line with our increasing understanding of how coronavirus is spread and how it is contained. In addition, it is likely that there will be no one-size-fits-all approach to implementation. It will need to be tailored and localised, based on plans of local specific transport needs. In preparation for that process, yesterday I wrote to local authorities to set out how we can work together to prepare transport networks at a local level for restart and ensure public safety.
The documents I publish today will help ready our transport system to support our country as we seek to control the virus and restart the economy. We will inevitably encounter obstacles along the way as we embark on the next stage of our national fightback against the virus. There is no doubt that we need to continue to work together to overcome those challenges. On that note, I would like to express my gratitude to our partners in the devolved Administrations, the local authorities, the Mayors, trade unions and transport operators for their work over the past few weeks. I look forward to continued collaboration in future, because co-operation will be key to setting the country on the road to recovery.
If everyone plays their part, and if we continue to stay alert, we can control the virus and save lives. If we all follow the guidance on making essential journeys, I believe that together we can harness the power of transport to build a new and revitalised nation. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I also thank him for the way in which he has maintained communication and shown a willingness to work together in the national interest.
I know that everyone in this House and at home will join me in sending our thanks to all transport workers across the country. As with all our frontline workers, they are the very best of us. It is so important that we give a voice to those workers. Even today, the official advice is found wanting and it will lead to confusion. The scenes we saw yesterday on public transport were unsurprising when the Government ordered a return to work with 12 hours’ notice but without the guidance being in place on how people can be kept safe. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State why his announcement was not made before the Prime Minister’s statement on Sunday?
Secondly, the Government have produced guidance for bus passengers and operators, but it leaves too much to chance and fails to protect frontline workers. It risks a postcode lottery on standards and protection, and there is far too much “should”, “could”, “not always possible” and “as much as you can”, rather than clear, directive guidance. For bus drivers, for instance, the guidance is that PPE should not be used, but instead reserved for health and care staff. That is despite shocking figures released by the Office for National Statistics that show professional drivers, including those operating taxis, private hire vehicles, buses and goods vehicles, have some of the highest covid-19 fatality rates in the country. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State for the evidence base to support the position that the provision of PPE should not be provided for frontline staff on transport? What discussions have taken place to ensure co-operation across our devolved nations to offer clear and consistent standards for transport, such as buses and rail that, of course, crosses from nation to nation?
When the Secretary of State says he announced last week a £2 billion fund for cycling, it sounded awfully familiar. Will he confirm that that actually is not new money, but was instead announced pre-lockdown back in February? In that context, can he confirm whether it has now been paid to local councils?
The Secretary of State touched on the aviation sector in the guidance that has been produced. A number of airlines have already announced a significant number of redundancies, affecting tens of thousands of jobs directly and throughout the supply chain.
Even as we transition to a green economy, protecting jobs now so that people can be reskilled for the future is critical. It will be far easier to transition from a point of strength rather than of weakness. The Government have failed to offer a sectoral deal for aviation. There is a real chance to set conditions on staff wages, payments to UK-based suppliers, a shift to green technology, demand that those who seek our help pay fairly into the tax system, as well as halt the payment of shareholder dividends. Why have the Government failed to act?
Aviation is not alone. We have seen this with ferry operators and the announcement of more than 1,100 jobs at risk with P&O. The Prime Minister’s 14-day quarantine proposal is a total mess. It states that everyone must be quarantined, unless they come from anywhere in the world via France, which is one of the worst affected countries in Europe after the UK. Will the Government produce the scientific advice that justifies why France should be exempt from that policy? Why have the Government decided that now is the time to implement this measure, two months after other countries introduced it? More than 18 million passengers have entered the UK since January. Will the Government publish the scientific advice that led to that change now and not earlier?
Finally, we urgently need a comprehensive plan for transport. The public rightly demand an end to the chaos surrounding the exit plan. The risk is not just that more lives will be lost needlessly, but that the economic damage will be far deeper, hurting our communities for a generation to come. The Opposition will continue to work together in the national interest, but the Secretary of State must take a message back to the Cabinet table: no more confusion, no more reckless briefings, and no more delay. This is a national crisis that needs a Government who are fit to respond to it, and we hope for the country that that comes sooner, rather than later.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on his new post. He is right to raise a number of those issues, in particular the extraordinary work being done by our transport workers. I thought it might be worth updating the House on the latest information I have about the number of those who have sadly died with covid-19, although that was not necessarily through their jobs—we do not know. The latest number I have from Transport for London is 42 people, and on Network Rail, including train operating companies, the latest number I have is 10. Our thoughts are with all their friends and families at this difficult time.
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention concerns about overcrowding, and I contacted the office of the Mayor of London regarding Transport for London. We are working closely with him to try to ensure that the number of services is ramped up quickly. As I said in my opening comments, however, we can have 100% of services, but that will not prevent overcrowding because social distancing now requires much more space. I am working proactively with the Mayor to try to bring in as much marshalling as possible by TfL, and elsewhere, including on Network Rail. We have been working with the British Transport Police who even yesterday deployed several hundred people. Most of all, I appeal to the public to listen to our message, and to please avoid public transport unless they absolutely need to take it as a key worker. People should look for alternative means of travel, either active, or by using their car if they have one available.
The hon. Gentleman said that the advice is not specific enough, and I hope he has had a chance to read it. Other commentators have said that it is surprisingly specific and detailed across all the different sectors, including the two pieces of advice that have been provided today. I do try to provide the balance. His wider point seems to be that the advice is not specific enough, for example on what bus operators should do. Buses look and feel different throughout different parts of the country, depending on the make and model, and on the systems run by local bus operators. It is not possible to provide that level of advice company by company, operator by operator, because TfL will be very different to a Metro tram operator. We have provided very good overall advice. Our officials are working closely with the operators, unions, and others, and much of the advice is very similar. We all know about social distancing, washing hands, and the basics.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the evidence base, and I would be happy to organise a briefing for him on that. Public Health England, and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, have been very clear that there is no case for the use of medical level PPE in transportation. It depends, of course, on what someone is doing. Sitting in a cab driving a train is a fairly solitary activity, so there is no requirement in such a situation, but if someone has more contact with the public, things will vary. I extend to him, as I have done to others, the offer of a briefing on these matters. In fact, either tomorrow or Thursday we are giving a joint briefing to which I have invited unions and operators of buses and other forms of transport.
The hon. Gentleman also queried the £2 billion for cycling. I made this point clear when I announced the money. He will recall from before his time in this role that we announced £5 billion for bikes and buses. Some of this money—£1.7 billion—is part of that funding, as I said when I made the announcement. We have brought it forward so that we can get on with it, particularly given the emergency situation and the need to widen pavements and provide thoroughfares for cycling.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the airlines. I welcome the shift in tone from that of his predecessor, who never once encouraged me to support aviation. I agree about jobs, but he is wrong to say there has not been the support there. Almost uniquely, the aviation sector has enjoyed something that has not been widely advertised, but I will let him into it: not only can the industry access the very generous support provided by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer, which he extended further an hour or so ago from this Dispatch Box, but, in addition to all the other Government support, aviation can enter into a process of discussion if the existing types of support are not sufficient. Without breaching commercial confidentiality, I can tell him that a number of such discussions between the Department and aviation organisations, be they airlines, airports or ground support companies, are taking place.
Similarly, on P&O, perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not spot it, but we have supported a range of maritime freight—in some cases, that has included P&O—to provide connectivity, not just from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but between Great Britain and 26 other ports in Europe.
The policy of quarantining for 14 days is a Home Office lead. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I can tell him quite straightforwardly that, going into this crisis, the advice was not to instigate quarantining, mainly because we had millions of Brits to bring home, but also because, according to the scientists—I had this very conversation with the chief medical officer before the lockdown began and he explained it to me—it would at best have delayed things by three, four or five days; sadly, it would not have prevented us from experiencing the epidemic. Again, he is very welcome to see that advice.
As we come out of this, as we control the virus in this country, with the facilities now in place to track and trace and the number of tests that can be carried out, of course we very much need to stop it continuing. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on that as well.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and all the work that he and his team have done. He seems to be saying that self-distancing on public transport is best practice but not an absolute requirement and that PPE should be the fallback. In that regard, does he think we will have enough PPE supplies to protect our key workers and travellers? Also, seeing as we are a stoic bunch and perhaps not used to wearing face coverings, will he consider giving them away free at terminal stations and places where people use transport to ensure people use them?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for giving me an opportunity to clarify two things. First, we are not advising that medical-level PPE be used—that would go completely against Public Health England advice; rather we are advising that people make their own PPE at home, using the information on the gov.uk website, which shows how to make it from an old T-shirt or to sew one. The reason for that is that it is critical, from a medical point of view, that we do not compete with medical applications for PPE. People should make their own PPE, which in this case means a face covering rather than a mask.
Secondly, on social distancing, it is of course true that there will be times when people cannot maintain 2 metres, such as when walking past somebody. The Government are doing a number of different things. The advice we are publishing today explains that if people are not face to face but are instead side by side, the risk factors are different. We are working with app companies—including Google, Microsoft and the British companies Citymapper and Trainline—to work on crush data, which would be published to enable people to see where the busiest parts of the network are and to actively try to avoid that. All those steps are in train.
Although many businesses across the transport industry are fighting for survival, I note that this is the first time since this situation began that we have seen a Transport Minister in the Chamber delivering a statement or responding to an urgent question. With that said, I welcome the accelerated investment in active travel schemes, which follows a similar announcement by the Scottish Government back in April.
The guidance for England highlights the serious challenges that operators will face in the implementation of the guidance for the foreseeable future and the real and understandable anxiety facing the travelling public. In the section that deals with vulnerable workers—those with medical conditions for whom coronavirus is a serious risk—it says that employers “should offer support”,
“should consider the level of risk”
and should consider
“the guidance on clinically extremely vulnerable”
people and so on. The word “must” does not appear once. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the language is too weak and needs to be strengthened, lest some clinically vulnerable workers be put at risk?
The running of regular services with capacity cut by up to 90% is unsustainable without Government support. Has the Secretary of State estimated how much the implementation will cost and when his Department will start to fund the support required by operators and local government? Given that I am still waiting on a response to any of the letters that I have emailed to the Secretary of State, dating back to the start of April, on the support—or rather, the lack of it—offered to sectors such as road haulage, coaching, roadside recovery, holiday travel and aviation, when does he plan to make a statement covering those issues?
In Scotland, aviation businesses such as airports, Loganair and baggage handlers are exempt from business rates for a year, but people are losing their jobs right now, with businesses folding or being forced to restructure and downsize, and some, such as IAG British Airways, sadly seeing an opportunity to force through changes to workforce terms and conditions that they had been trying to implement for a decade. The extension of the furlough scheme is welcome, but with social distancing likely to be with us for some time, the aviation sector requires more support; when will the Secretary of State introduce such measures?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was able to catch the previous statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; he answered some of the questions about what employers should be doing.
One of the main characteristics of the UK’s response to this crisis, unlike in other countries, has been that we have asked people to do things—for example, to stay at home—and that has been very widely followed and accepted. In the same spirit, we expect—indeed, we anticipate—that businesses will behave in the same way, as my right hon. Friend Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said not half an hour ago. He has increased the amount of money provided for inspections, for example, to make sure that that happens, but we do look to employers to make sure that they behave in a sensible way. Of course, employees will have all the usual routes—including ACAS, local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive—available if they do not feel that that is happening.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that a massive amount of support has now been provided to public transport in particular to keep it going. In England, that has involved support to all the train operating companies and to the bus operators. I realise that the finance is separate in Scotland and goes through the Scottish Government; some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions seemed to me to be more applicable to them. I do, however, think that the support provided across the United Kingdom is an indication of where we are all much better off working on these things together, and I welcome that partnership as we seek to save, where possible, aviation companies, bus operators and the others he mentioned.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers that I provided to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), on the support that is not necessarily publicly exposed, but is none the less available, to the aviation sector and that few other sectors of the economy enjoy—it can run out of all the different schemes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has provided, and now extended, and still have additional discussions beyond that. I can confirm that we are in those discussions, including with Scottish companies.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Prime Minister said that aviation is crucial for our country and our economy. I received a letter yesterday from the Secretary of State telling me that aviation supports more than half a million jobs, and about 1,700 of those workers are in my constituency. Aviation underpins the global reach of our economy, yet that global reach is currently stymied and might be about to be cut off. What are the Government doing with our allies, including the United States and other European countries, to ensure that we get aviation going again safely, without a negative impact on our economy, and that the global reach of our UK economy can be maintained.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question. I absolutely agree with her, as a passionate supporter of aviation, and indeed a qualified pilot, about the importance of the industry. The reach of the sector, in all the ways she described, is immense. The UK has the world’s third biggest aviation industry, and it is very important that we support it through this crisis.
The sector has enjoyed enormous support from the Chancellor—I received a letter only in the last day thanking us for the support so far—and the extended furlough scheme will be hugely welcomed. As I said, there is a process that enables aviation companies, whether they are ground support, airlines or airports, to use the various schemes available and, if that is not enough, come to the Department for Transport and work with us and the Treasury to see what else can be done.
For the benefit of the House, I should say it is important that we do not find ourselves in a situation where shareholders benefit through the good times but the taxpayer picks up the tab in the bad times. It is very important that we get the balance right, with shareholders also being asked to contribute. However, I absolutely reassure my right hon. Friend that I have daily situation reports. We are tracking it carefully and working extremely hard to do whatever we can, even though, as she rightly points out, the global aviation market has now shrunk to a tiny percentage of what it would be ordinarily. The best way to resolve that is to beat this virus, which is why it is so important that people follow the guidance.
First, may I pay my respects to the dozens of transport workers who have sadly died as a result of covid-19, working for us as public servants? They are the real key workers, and we should never forget that. Workers across the country need our protection.
The Secretary of State mentioned the funding to support cycling and walking to work. That is long overdue in my constituency, but we must understand that for many people in our communities walking or cycling to work is virtually impossible. Many of my constituents are entirely reliant on the already very poor public transport to access their employment. Those employed in unionised workplaces, with responsible employers, might just have the flexibility to access safer transport services at varying times throughout the day and evening. However, those working for unscrupulous bosses might not—
Yes, very quickly. It might interest the hon. Member that 44% of all journeys outside London are less than three miles, so there are a lot of people in a lot of circumstances who may be able to switch to cycling or walking. As I mentioned, we intend to introduce fast-tracked trials of e-scooters as a useful way of getting around. It will not be possible for everybody in every circumstance; we completely understand that. But even if a small proportion of people start to cycle—a 5% increase, say—it would relieve the equivalent of 11 million train journeys. The maths mean that you do not have to be the person cycling. If more people are cycling overall, it will help.
As an alternative to using public transport during the crisis, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the desirability of ageing bikers like me once again using motorcycles for travelling to work, and will he be taking any steps to incentivise motorcycle usage as the lockdown is gradually eased?
I am not sure I accept the entire premise of my right hon. Friend’s question. Motorcycles are an enormously important way of getting around— 2.7 billion miles were travelled by motorcycle in 2018, the last year for which we have data. We are working on a number of projects, including sorting out potholes, which are a huge problem for people on motorcycles and other two-wheeled vehicles. I also encourage him—at whatever age—to adopt the electric motorbike.
Given the perilous state of the travel industry, should Ministers not take much greater care with what they are saying? Words matter, and they can have an immediate impact. Not only do we have the chaos of the 14-day quarantine, but the Health Secretary this morning all but ruled out summer holidays, saying that they will be impossible. Are the Government, like European Governments, working towards European summer holidays happening this summer, or do we need to cancel them? If it is neither, can Ministers be a bit more careful with their words?
Words do matter—the hon. Member is absolutely right about that—but they matter in both directions. The more that people try to confuse what are actually pretty straightforward statements, the less that helps the public as a whole. The situation with regard to transport, and summer holidays in particular, regrettable as it is, is pretty easy to understand. We know that, as things stand, we are unable to go ahead and do these things, because most countries are not allowing people in, and in any case, the Foreign Office advice is not to travel. It is hugely sad and regrettable, but it is the fact. As we progress and get through phase 2 and phase 3, as we hope to in June and July, the situation may change, but it is not possible to give people a sense of false hope. We need to be realistic about this, and I am certainly keen to use very precise language in order to provide every possible direction to the public, but it will be a wait-and-see game, I am afraid.
Quarantine at ports of entry is a useful public health tool for preventing diseases spreading from high-prevalence to low-prevalence populations. Sadly, the UK now has a relatively high prevalence of covid-19, especially in London. In the light of page 29 on international travel in the plan published yesterday, will the Secretary of State publish the evidence base for quarantining people travelling here, especially from relatively low-prevalence countries, which is to say most of the rest of the world?
In terms of where we are at the moment, the last information I saw was that the central estimate is about 130,000 covid-19 active cases in the country. That is coming down all the time, as people have seen from the graphs that are shown every day. We hope to get to a position where the prevalence is relatively small. It would be crazy to then ask the British people to continue to make quite significant sacrifices through social distancing, staying at home and the rest of it, while allowing people to come here for holidays and move around who are not British citizens returning here, as was the case with people coming into the country until now. That would not be practical. There will be a number of measures in place, and there will be some exemptions. There will be much more detail on this before it comes in, which is why it is not coming in instantly. It is more likely to be towards the end of the month, but that depends on the progress we make on defeating this virus.
With regulations on travel currently differing in Scotland and England, what discussions is the Minister having with his counterpart in the Scottish Government to ensure that those regulations can be effectively enforced on all cross-border rail services?
I have sat in all the Cobra meetings and I have always found, from the First Minister to all the devolved Administrations, that working with them has been extremely constructive. I do not recognise most of what I have seen in the newspaper reports of that process. We agreed that there would be times when things were different; for example, the R rate is slightly higher in Scotland, so it is completely understandable that the message there has not shifted from “Stay at home”. That will change over time.
I have been keeping in touch with my opposite number, as have my Ministers, on an active basis, and we look to work together very closely indeed, particularly where rail and other services cross the borders. We have been working very closely with the devolved Administrations throughout.
Stoke-on-Trent, in normal times, is a city blighted by congestion, poor air quality and a lack of good public transport. Therefore, improving buses in Stoke is a major priority, highlighted by our transforming cities fund bid. Can my right hon. Friend provide greater clarity on the £2 billion available to local authorities for local transport—specifically, the process that each will have to go through to secure funding?
Although I cannot provide that clarity to my hon. Friend today, because I would want to come to the House first to announce the details of how that money would be divided up, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to him in Stoke-on-Trent North, and to his colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), for the extraordinary work they have been doing in securing the transforming cities funding for their residents. I am sure he will be very pleased when we allocate the £2 billion.
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), the Government are now urging people in England to use face coverings in confined areas such as public transport. There are many people who commute daily across the Wales- England border to go to work and for other rightful activities. Will the Minister ensure that there is clear information on cross-border public transport—such as in announcements, or on large posters—and proper enforcement by the British Transport police, consistent with the fact that in Wales, wearing a mask is not sufficient, and that people must stay at home unless their journey is absolutely necessary? Will he give us some of the detail, please?
I am grateful for that point. We have been careful to make it clear in the guidance—including in the 60-page document released yesterday, but also in the transport guidance—that rules do vary. We have made it clear, for example, that people from England should not be travelling to Wales to take their exercise—that would be wrong, because it does not fit with the “Stay at home” message in Wales. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I will definitely take on board his point about ensuring that the cross-border discussion—specifically, how transport works—is fully reflective of that different advice. I will even take his idea about announcements and so on into account as well.
Rural bus transport is a lifeline for so many people, particularly in rural constituencies such as mine in North Norfolk. We have the oldest constituency demographics in the whole country, with many older people who cannot drive and, crucially, rely on buses as their only form of transport in isolated areas. Given the Government guidance that we should avoid using public transport wherever possible, what reassurance can the Minister give the bus operators, and those vulnerable people who rely so heavily on buses, that routes can be operated safely and financially viably to maintain services?
My hon. Friend is right to point that out. I want to be completely straight with him and with the House: there is a basic dilemma. We have a situation where, probably for the first time ever, I, a Transport Secretary, am encouraging people not to use public transport, which rubs against the bus operators’ need to have income. That is why, at or soon after the beginning of this crisis, I announced a multimillion-pound deal as a bus support grant, to ensure that my hon. Friend’s and other hon. Members’ local services could continue. As he knows, we are very keen indeed on buses—as is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. That is why we have a very large, multibillion-pound fund for buses, particularly to look after left-behind communities during this Parliament.
I welcome the Government’s intention to encourage walking and cycling, and I recognise the need to minimise the use of public transport during the covid crisis. However, the experience of countries easing lockdowns has shown that there is a substantial increase in car use. What measures are the Government taking to minimise a spike in car use, and what extra freedoms will the Secretary of State give to local authorities so that they can make their own decisions and offer more opportunities for walking and cycling?
The hon. Member is absolutely right. On the one hand, we are saying, “Look, use a car if you can to avoid public transport”, but that is why I put so much emphasis on this £2 billion fund to promote cycling and walking. We will expand pavements. We will create new thoroughfares for buses and cycles only, and we will do those things quickly and urgently with guidance that I have already issued to local authorities. In addition, we ask them to use their thinking to create long-term benefits from this. To add to that, I have included things such as new voucher schemes to allow people to get their bikes repaired—to pull them out of the shed or garage, or from the side of the house, and start riding them. All these things come together in what is the biggest single boost to cycling and walking made by any British Government at any time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. However, many Londoners who need to get to work will still need to use the tube and the suburban rail network. What discussions has he had with the Mayor of London and Network Rail about how quickly the London transport system can be returned to full working, so that we can achieve the most social distancing possible, and has he talked to him about the possibility of introducing temperature scanning at London termini?
Ridership on TfL has increased—yesterday, it was up by 8%. I spoke to and communicated with the Mayor and his deputy Mayor over the weekend. I am encouraging them—and working very closely with TfL—to boost those services just as quickly as they can, and there is more to do there. It is worth reiterating that even if those services ran at 100% of pre-covid levels, we would still be able to take—perhaps on TfL—only 15% of usual commuter levels, so it is important that everybody looks for alternative means of transport. In addition, I should tell the House that I am working closely—again with TfL, but also with transport across the country—on marshalling plans using TfL staff, Network Rail staff and the British Transport police, who have already been out in significant numbers, to help instruct and direct passengers where the system is getting full. Most of all, we require the co-operation of Londoners and commuters across the country not to overload the system at this time.
Many of my constituents in Vauxhall work for BA. They are hard-working staff who have given years of service to the airline, including my constituent, Stephen, who has worked for BA for 31 years. He mentioned to me in an email that he despairs at the thought of losing everything from 15 June—not just the possibility of losing his home and his job, but everything. My constituent is concerned that BA has in the region of £10 billion cash reserves. That is very worrying and I share my constituent’s concerns. It is unacceptable that staff are being laid off. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the resilience of airlines and their finances?
This goes right to the point I was making earlier: it is very important that our response to this achieves the right balance between taxpayer involvement and protecting the workforces while recognising that there is likely to be a change in aviation—certainly in the short and medium term, but we hope not in the long term. We must ensure that the shareholders and businesses are doing their bit. To answer the question directly, I have almost daily dealings on this, looking at what everyone is doing. I have daily situation reports and very frequent conversations with the sector and individuals, as does my aviation Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), and we will continue to do so to protect constituents who have worked hard for British Airways and other companies over the years, and to make sure that a support package is in place for them.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support open-access train operators during the current crisis, and will he take all available action to ensure that these essential providers of transport and the competition on our railways survive the current pandemic?
I am keen as mustard on the open-access trains. They are a very good idea. They provide some good competition and tend to have the highest satisfaction levels. The two primary ones have been Hull Trains and Grand Central. Hull Trains has been mothballed for the time being. I have to say that both of them have large train operating companies behind them. We do look to the train operating companies to be clear about what they want to do going forward—I think that, in the case of Hull Trains, it is FirstGroup. They are, of course, currently furloughing staff and we look forward to continuing conversations with them. It is a very important and unique part of our transport system to have that challenge in place.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. That concludes proceedings on the statement. While the changeover is taking place, may I remind all Members that there is a real need, when asking questions in statements or urgent questions, to make those questions as concise as possible because a large number of Members were not able to ask the Secretary of State a question.