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Covid-19: Public Transport

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the provision of public transport.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, public transport faces significant challenges: lower passenger demand, reduced capacity as a result of social distancing and higher than usual staff absence levels. We are working very closely with transport operators as they increase their services and are providing financial support where necessary.

I welcome the Government’s intervention but, to be commercially successful, buses and trains have to be very full, yet the social distancing measures require them to be only 15% full. Working and travel patterns have changed as a result of the virus, so do the Government accept that in future they need to work more closely with local authorities and to reform core funding for buses to encourage the use of zero-emissions vehicles and ensure that fares are affordable?

The noble Baroness is quite right. We are working very closely with local authorities to meet the needs of local communities, particularly in relation to buses, on which, as she recognises, capacity has been significantly reduced. We have an opportunity in that there will be a national bus strategy, in which we will look at how to put low- emissions vehicles on our streets.

My Lords, over the weekend, the roads in beauty spots and especially in national parks were blocked by parked cars, so much so that emergency services here in the Lake District National Park were not able to get through. However, you cannot get either into or around the national park by public transport. Will HMG therefore think very seriously indeed about any further relaxation of the lockdown, such as opening hotels or boarding houses, until we resolve the public transport problem?

The noble Lord is right that there is a significant increase in traffic at the moment, and in certain circumstances that has led to localised congestion from parking. Of course, local authorities and the local police have the power to move cars on to make sure that emergency vehicles are not prevented from getting to their destination.

My Lords, transportation connects the nation. Organisations such as the AA have predicted that traffic levels will remain lower due to Covid-19. What implications will that have for the Government’s £28.8 billion road-building programme, which is based on 1% annual growth in traffic demand?

The long-term impact of the current pandemic on road traffic is yet to be established, but we are, of course, keeping it under review. The noble Lord mentioned that vehicle excise duty goes into the national roads fund and that is used to both enhance and maintain our strategic road network as well as many other major roads. So there could be an implication for this particular fund; we are keeping an eye on it.

My Lords, it seems obvious that social distancing, even if reduced to 1 metre, is impossible to observe while using public transport. Many countries, including France, Spain and Germany, have made the wearing of masks compulsory on public transport. Such a rule substantially removes the risk of direct transfer of the virus from person to person. Will my noble friend consider introducing a similar requirement in the UK?

The current guidance says that face coverings are advised on public transport and elsewhere, particularly in cases where social distancing is not possible. We are keeping this situation under review with regard to its extension and how we communicate that to our passengers.

Most public transport uses air conditioning, which recirculates viruses, bacteria and other nasty things in the air. Will the Government consider a proper scientific examination of this problem to see whether air-conditioning systems can be modified, as I believe they can, to eliminate this transmission of disease?

I would like to put the concern of the noble Lord to rest in that air-conditioning systems exist in all sorts of circumstances; the Government are indeed looking to ensure that viruses are not significantly recirculated throughout any particular environment.

Will my noble friend acknowledge that passenger scheduled and charter flights are as much a form of public transport as anything else, and that thousands of jobs in the airlines, airports, aerospace industries and their suppliers, and the communities around them, depend on those flights resuming to a reasonable level? Can the Minister indicate what steps the Government are taking, and what conversations they are having, to co-operate with other Governments and co-ordinate with other countries, particularly in Europe, to ensure that airports and airlines operate to a common standard, allowing flights to resume to as near normal as possible, as quickly as possible?

My noble friend will probably agree with me that aviation is a core part of our transport system and a great provider of jobs in this country. It is going through an unprecedented time at the moment in that, of course, most flights are not currently taking place. We are working very closely with the aviation industry—the UK-based aviation providers, the regulators in the EU and beyond—to establish international standards for getting our planes back into the sky while making sure that, when passengers can fly, they are safe.

My Lords, I want to follow the question posed by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the Minister’s answer. Given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has studied best practice across the world in controlling Covid-19 and includes in its four core recommendations the use of cloth masks when around other people, will the Minister pursue the urgent need to mandate the wearing of cloth masks on public transport, not only to save lives but to encourage far more people to use public transport and get to work?

I agree that the wearing of face coverings will be a very important element in restoring confidence in our public transport, not only for the passengers and the workforce but, in the longer term, for the industry. It is really important that people should wear face coverings on our public transport; that is the message that we are putting out there at the moment. Of course, any changes such as mandating the use of face coverings is an issue for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which is considering this.

Given that, at least in the short to medium term, the economics of public transport are likely to be altered by lifestyle changes resulting from Covid-19, such as more people working from home and less international travel, will the Government provide financial support to public transport operators while they adjust to lifestyle changes of this kind once the pandemic is finally brought under control?

The Government are already providing financial support to a range of transport operators to make sure that they can operate as good a service as possible in the current environment. This will include funding for buses and light rail—and of course we have the Emergency Measures Agreement for all our heavy rail services. The situation is being kept under review. As demand changes over time and as the country comes out of lockdown, clearly, demand for public transport will go up, but it is not clear exactly when it will become commercially viable to operate public transport without government support.

My Lords, buried in the detail of the government bailout for Transport for London is a requirement to end free travel for under-18s. Will the Government urgently reconsider this outrageous condition, which deliberately targets young people by making them pay the price for the Covid crisis, and which will disproportionately impact the poorest families in London?

That requirement is not buried in the detail as the noble Lord has said—it is on the face of the funding agreement reached between the Government and TfL. Both parties agreed to all the items within that document. We asked TfL to come up with operational plans such that we can temporarily remove free travel for under-18s. No other part of the rest of the country has free travel for under-18s; given that this £1.6 billion is being funded from general taxation, it strikes me that it is not fair for the rest of the country to pay for free travel for the under-18s at this time. Given the need to get people off public transport, on to their bikes and walking, it also strikes me that younger people can be at the forefront of that change.