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Covid-19: Public Transport Safety

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the announcement made by the Prime Minister on Sunday 10 May, what steps are being taken to ensure the safety of passengers who have to use public transport to travel to and from work.

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

My Lords, in his statement to the country this Sunday, the Prime Minister said, “Get back to work if you cannot work from home.” He also said, “Don’t use public transport, use cars or bikes.” I commend the Government for encouraging cycling and walking. However, many lower-paid essential workers travel long distances and do not have a car, so they have no choice but to use public transport. I recently received a paper from SOAS at the University of London, which said that security staff, construction workers, bus drivers and other essential workers are up to eight times more likely to die from the coronavirus compared with someone in a professional occupation. These essential workers fear that if they do not go to work using such so-called unsafe modes, they will lose their jobs. Passenger Focus has come up with some good ideas on this. Will the Government commit that those who cannot travel to work safely and be safe at work within the Health and Safety Executive guidelines will be able to retain any current benefit entitlements they may have at the moment?

My Lords, passenger and transport worker safety is absolutely paramount. To help make journeys safer, my department has today published new guidance for both transport operators and passengers. If people must use public transport, two-metre social distancing and hygiene should be practised and a face covering is advised.

I turn now to some of the other points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. We are of course very concerned about some of the characteristics that seem to be seen in those people who are the most susceptible to the coronavirus, and work is going on across government to investigate that further. For example, we have seen what appears to be a higher than average death rate among bus drivers. This is a tragic loss and we are working closely with bus operators to make sure that we do what we can to keep those workers safe.

My Lords, it has at long last been acknowledged that the obesity epidemic is a very dangerous situation, especially now with Covid-19. In fact, 75% of people with this infection are obese. Would it not therefore be wise to advise them not to use public transport because it is such a dangerous thing for them? If anyone is tempted to say that calling someone obese is judgmental, perhaps I may point out that it is simply an accurate diagnosis.

I thank my noble friend for his observations. The Government recognise that there is much to be done from a transport perspective to help the nation’s health. That is why we have come up with a £2 billion boost for cycling and walking, which we believe are critical elements in helping people reduce their reliance on public transport. That is why we are encouraging people, if they are making journeys of three miles to five miles, or fewer, that they should consider walking or cycling. That is good for public transport and good for their health.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister said, “Go back to work”, yet the Department for Transport did not publish its guidance to travel operators until this morning. I have read that guidance, and it is still very vague on key issues such as face coverings, screens and the handling of money. It is not prescriptive, but simply suggestions. That is not good. Why have the Government failed to provide the co-ordinated leadership needed by the bus industry throughout the UK?

I would challenge the noble Baroness in her assertion that the operator guidance is vague. It sets out the key elements that the operators must consider, but the important element is that each operator will be coming up with their own specific risk assessment which is suitable for their environment and their workforce, and, equally importantly, they will be consulting their workforce to ensure that the risk assessment is appropriate and that workers feel safe.

My Lords, the Minister acknowledges the importance of ensuring that transport workers are safe. However, any substantial return to work is bound to increase the vulnerability of transport workers and staff; she has cited the case of bus drivers. I regret to say that one of the London bus drivers who died was a friend and former neighbour of mine. Would it not have been more sensible to precede any general encouragement to return to work not with advice but very clear rules: on numbers, on social distancing and, above all, on face masks for passengers and staff on public transport? If not, and if there is nobody to enforce those standards, we will see a continuing problem with many transport workers.

My Lords, the guidance for transport operators and passengers sets out clear expectations for two-metre social distancing. At some stages that will not be possible: on busier routes and at busier times, and at certain points on the journey. The Government also advise that people should use face masks or face coverings in enclosed spaces, particularly on public transport. I am not sure how much clearer the Government can be on that.

My Lords, what assurance can the Minister give to disabled passengers who require assistance—of course within the safety considerations for all—that the current situation will not be used to dial back “turn up and go” or prevent disabled people travelling to work?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising this really important issue. In the operator guidance, there are clear points for those with protected characteristics, be they disabled, elderly or pregnant. We have been very clear with the transport operators that there must be no dialling back on the ability for all passengers to get a safe and reliable service. Travel may be slightly problematic for everybody, and therefore people are advised to plan their journey ahead where they can, to buy their tickets in advance and, most of all, to be patient. I reassure the noble Baroness that services for disabled people will continue as they did previously.

My Lords, as well as issues of safety when using public transport, many people in rural areas are worried that the already infrequent services in the countryside are now at further risk. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that public transport will be maintained to support communities and the economy in rural areas?

Rural transport is absolutely key to being able to provide for more vulnerable groups who have no alternative but to use public transport so that they are able to access the services they need. The Government have already provided funding to support the services during the lockdown, and we are in discussions with the Treasury regarding supporting more services as they ramp up. As I am sure the right reverend Prelate will understand, those services will be suffering from a revenue loss, which the Government will seek to make good to ensure that rural services can be restored to what they were before.

My Lords, as the former chairman of the APPG for cycling, I am thrilled that the Government are keen on people bicycling. However, without decent public transport, the economy cannot recover. Could my noble friend please tell me what discussions she has had with the Mayor of London? The reduction in Tube services has had a major effect on people being unable to travel, and people on the Underground are therefore much closer to each other than they should be.

I reassure my noble friend that we are in close contact with Transport for London. I speak to it probably every few days to assess exactly where it is on its restart plans—I have a call with it later on today. We are absolutely clear that the Mayor of London needs to ramp up services as quickly as possible and put in place protections such that transport workers and passengers feel safe.

First, while public transport is a devolved issue, railway services and bus routes cross the borders between UK nations; I think that a few stations in England are also managed by Transport for Wales. It is therefore vital that the different UK nations develop public transport, passenger and staff safety guidance together and in line with each other. Can the Government give an assurance that the guidance that has been announced has also been agreed with the Governments of the devolved nations? Secondly, I am not sure that the Minister answered my noble friend Lord Berkeley’s question about existing benefits being maintained for bus drivers; for example, those who decline to continue to work because they feel that their safety is being compromised.

Each devolved nation is responsible for its own guidance. However, I reassure the noble Lord that we are of course in contact with the Administrations in the devolved nations to make sure that our guidance is appropriate. Where there have to be changes or where they are desired, local considerations can be taken into account but without confusing passengers. I will have to write to the noble Lord on benefits for bus drivers.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until 1 pm for the debate on the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord True.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.