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Public Transport: Social Distancing

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken, if any, to relax the COVID-19 social distancing rules in respect of the use of public transport.

My Lords, following an extensive review, the Government have revised their social distancing guidance. From 4 July, social distancing measures will be amended from two metres minimum distance to one metre-plus, provided the appropriate mitigations are in place, such as the use of face coverings, regular handwashing and sanitisation, the introduction of screens and the enhancement of ventilation.

Bus companies are concerned that negative messaging is driving passengers away and causing a rapid rise in urban congestion and pollution as people take to their cars. All large bus companies have mobile apps to help passengers choose less-crowded journeys when they can. As social distancing is relaxed, will the Government send out a more positive message about the use of buses, including, of course, a reminder to wear face coverings on the bus?

The Government are committed to setting out reminders about the use of public transport and face coverings. But capacity on public transport remains severely constrained. Even after these relaxations of social distancing measures, on many modes—indeed, on most modes—capacity will be at under 30%.

My Lords, the social distancing rules will depend on the efficacy of other protections such as the use of face masks, which are widely used in retail, where infection is well contained. Now that the Covid crisis has been running for several months, do the Government have any further evidence as to the value of face masks both for the wearer and for those around them?

My Lords, the Government are obviously speaking to SAGE about the use of face coverings and have concluded that they are at least partially effective in enclosed spaces. I reassure my noble friend that the use of face coverings within the UK is increasing and in certain circumstances —for example, on Transport for London transport—it is now at 90%.

The Minister’s reply refers only to England, but of course in the United Kingdom we have devolved systems of health and therefore of social distancing. If one goes by train from London to Edinburgh, or by aeroplane from London to Belfast, which social distancing regulations does one comply with—those at one’s point of departure or those at one’s point of arrival?

The noble Lord is quite right that healthcare measures are devolved to the devolved Administrations. That is why we are in constant contact with them. However, they will make their own decisions when it comes to healthcare measures. Passengers will need to be aware as they travel from one nation to another of the need to comply with local healthcare measures.

My Lords, I remind the House of my railway interests as declared in the register. The emergency measures agreements that the Government put in place in March with the railway franchisees have worked remarkably well, and the public have heeded the message not to travel, but, very soon, the railways will need to get their passengers back. Will the Minister support the call by Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, for a cross-industry marketing campaign similar to that now under way in France to encourage people again to travel by train? Will she endorse the industry’s safer travel message, which has at its heart the wearing of face coverings unless exempt?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that at some stage in the future, as we look at the demand for public transport, we will need to make sure that we use the capacity that we have available. We are looking at our communications messages and how they will extend into the summer—something along the lines of “having a safer summer”. We are working closely with the train operating companies and bus operators on how we take forward those messages, but they must all say the same thing.

After this crisis, we must get out of our cars and on to the buses and trains in even greater numbers than before, because we must not forget the long-term climate crisis. What is the Government’s long-term strategy, once the danger of the virus wanes, to encourage and enable us to use public transport?

The noble Baroness is quite right that we will need to get out of our cars. The measures that the Government have put in place around active travel will be an important step—we have invested £250 million in those. As I have said in response to previous questions, over the summer we will be developing a medium-term and long-term strategy for all our transport modes.

My Lords, yesterday I travelled on two London buses. Despite large signs insisting that masks be worn, on both journeys there were some passengers who ignored them, and it was clear that the drivers did not feel empowered to challenge them. The Minister said that 90% of passengers are now wearing masks, but that is clearly not enough to provide confidence for other travellers. How will the Government get it to 100%?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising this. We must be mindful that certain passengers have an exemption, so 100% will probably not be achieved because of that. The Government are currently focusing on engagement rather than enforcement, but—the noble Baroness is quite right—if we see persistent non-compliance with face covering wearing, we will increase the amount of enforcement. Both the British Transport Police and TfL authorised persons can issue fixed penalty notices for £100.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right: my observation from travelling on the Tube is that about 90% of passengers are wearing masks. However, does compliance approach anything like that level on public transport in other cities and in the regions? Does my noble friend agree that if the wearing of masks were made obligatory in places such as theatres, concert halls and music festivals—perhaps even your Lordships’ House—those sectors could return to something near normal sooner than otherwise?

My noble friend raises an important point. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, outside London, the usage of face coverings is slightly below 90% but still at very good levels. Firm data will be coming in in due course. I think that the use of face coverings in other sectors will need to be considered as we take things forward and as we look to a wider reopening of some of our really important cultural organisations.

My Lords, from what some scientists are saying, it is possible that other areas may yet go into local lockdown. Does the Minister not agree that we should be wary about lifting the current legal restrictions regarding social distancing and the wearing of face masks on public transport when trains and buses will be travelling between areas under lockdown and areas that are not?

We are not lifting the restrictions regarding face coverings, nor are we doing so in respect of social distancing; they are being amended. I take the noble Earl’s point about local lockdown, which is a very important issue. Even in areas where there is local lockdown we still need public transport to function to get key workers to the places that they need to be to do their work in combating the pandemic.

The Government’s continuing message even as the lockdown is eased that bus and rail travel poses a risk is resulting in high levels of car usage while many services currently carry far fewer passengers than could be carried while still observing the two-metre rule, let alone the one metre-plus rule. The rail industry estimates that, at best, the railways will return to 50% to 60% of their pre-Covid passenger numbers in 2021. Do the Government have a plan for getting passengers back on our buses and trains—which I think was the point of the question from my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester? Some airlines now operate with potentially all seats filled, so why can it be made safe to do this on planes but not apparently on trains?

I refer the noble Lord to the comments that I made earlier. We will be working on recovery plans for all transport modes over the summer. At the moment and at peak times in particular, many of our transport modes are operating at capacity. I take the point that we need to look at what will happen next year, the forecasts for it and how we encourage people back on to trains and buses, but that point has not been reached now.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. We now come to the second Oral Question. I call the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.