“From today, we are making clear that anybody may use public transport” was a clear and somewhat surprising statement made by the Prime Minister as he hosted his first Coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing for two weeks on 17 July 2020, updating the nation on progress made in defeating the pandemic.
He reviewed the statistics and reported a positive trend. “The number of patients newly admitted to hospital with coronavirus each day, and the number of coronavirus patients in mechanical ventilation beds, have both fallen by more than 90 per cent from their peak in early April,” he said.
“And while we mourn every death, the average daily death rate continues, steadily, to fall. This progress is testament to the phenomenal efforts of our NHS and social care staff working tirelessly on the frontline.”
He continued: “When we set out our plan to rebuild on 11 May, we said our goal was to return life to as close to normal as possible, for as many people as possible, as fast and as fairly as possible, in a way that is safe and continues to protect our NHS.
“That goal remains the same – but the tools we use to achieve it are changing.”
By this, he meant an easing of the national lockdown but a tough stand in local areas where the situation warranted it. He talked of action taken In Weston-super-Mare and Kirklees, and in Bradford and Blackburn with Darwen, and the local lockdown in Leicester.
He then outlined new powers being given to local authorities to clamp down in their areas when they need to, and to central government to intervene when necessary.
And he looked towards the winter, when flu-type outbreaks tend to rise, and outlined the steps the government is taking to prepare for un upsurge if it happens.
“Nonetheless, it is important to give people hope and to give business confidence,” he continued. “So, in England, from today, we are making clear that anybody may use public transport, while of course encouraging people to consider alternative means of transport where they are available.
“From 1 August, we will update our advice on going to work. Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.
“That could mean, of course, continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees. Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following Covid Secure guidelines. Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe.
“As we reopen our society and economy, it’s right that we give employers more discretion while continuing to ensure employees are kept safe.”
The Prime Minister then gave anticipated dates for different types of ‘people’ businesses to reopen. Gyms and pools for 25 July, skating rinks and beauticians from 1 August, and conferences and business events from October.
But for the transport industry in general, including rail, it was the comment about everybody being allowed to use public transport that caught the sector’s attention.
Transport for London’s new transport commissioner, Andy Byford, said: “Life in London is more reliant on public transport than any other part of the country and, as government restrictions are gradually eased, we will play our part in the economic recovery by providing safe, clean and reliable transport.
“More people are returning to public transport every day and we have made sure that stations, Tubes and buses are cleaner than ever by using hospital-grade disinfectant, intensifying our cleaning regime and making over 1,000 hand sanitiser stations available for use.
“We are grateful that the overwhelming majority of passengers are looking out for each other and complying with the requirement to wear a face covering for the full duration of their journeys. Police and our enforcement teams are taking steps to ensure that everyone does so. And, of course, customers should continue to wash their hands before and after journeys.
“We are now running near-normal levels of services, but the need to maintain social distancing wherever possible means that we do ask customers to travel outside the busier times. We are providing the information customers need on when the quieter times are for their journeys. We are working to make travelling more comfortable for everyone by spreading demand outside the old rush hour and distributing it more evenly across the day.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “This is good news for people who want to catch a bus, train or tram in England.
“The message for England is clear: you can now use public transport, but you must still wear a face covering unless exempt, follow the rules on social distancing and avoid the busiest times if you can.
“As the economy reopens and people start thinking about travelling again, it is important to be clear that you can now use public transport even if you have an alternative.
“However, big hurdles remain before there is a mass return to office working as our research shows: people have got used to working from home, still have concerns about safety and the price might still put them off.”
Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group said: “The railway is vital to economic recovery and train companies will play their part by helping people travel safely.
“As part of our safer travel pledge, we are adding more trains, improving journey information and boosting cleaning, while asking passengers to travel at quieter times and wear a face covering.”
For the trade union movement, Manuel Cortes of the TSSA was unimpressed: “Today, the government is simply adding to its litany of mixed messages, hoping this is going to get them off the hook.
“Telling bosses and workers that they can return to the office from the first of August – but then when questioned saying he agrees with what the CSA said yesterday that people should continue to work from home. Clear as mud.
“Of course, this is a deliberate strategy to pin the blame on individuals as they have to make decisions with no clear direction in the vague hope that the government won’t get the blame when things go wrong. Frankly, the Prime Minister ought to know that it won’t wash as the buck stops with him.”