London Coronavirus Digest 24 March: Hancock contradicts Khan over Tube service levels

London Coronavirus Digest 24 March: Hancock contradicts Khan over Tube service levels

There has been a lot of concern about some London Underground trains still being crammed during the morning peak travel period, even though usage as a whole has fallen sharply. Construction workers seem to form a significant portion of that ridership, raising concerns that they are either unwilling to stop working voluntarily or are being put under pressure by employers to carry on. Health secretary Matt Hancock was asked about these issues directly at the government’s 5:00 press briefing. He said:

  • “When it comes the the Tube, the first and the best answer is that Transport for London should have the Tube running in full so that the people travelling on the Tube are spaced out and can be further apart, obeying the two-metre rule, wherever possible. There’s no good reason in the information that I’ve seen that the current levels of Tube provision should be as low as they are. We should have more Tube trains running.”
  • Hancock continued: “There’s many countries that have made the same judgment [as the UK government]. It’s that construction can carry on with people two metres apart from each other. And of course, people need to get to work and the best way to do that is two metres apart from others with more Tube trains running. When it comes to NHS staff, there’s another reason why we need Tube services up and running and preferably in full so we can get NHS staff to their posts and doing the work that they are doing.
  • Hancock had earlier described efforts to control the virus as being “largely cross party”, but these statements put him directly at odds with the capital’s Labour Mayor who, in concert with TfL, has been winding down the Underground service, including temporarily closing 40 station on the network. Earlier today, TfL, with the Mayor’s support, stopped construction work continuing on their own projects and the Crossrail Elizabeth Line “to ensure the safety of our construction workers and project teams, and also to reduce the number of people using public transport”.
  • This starkly public contradiction of the Mayor’s approach to containing the  virus in the capital by Hancock seems less than ideal. And Khan has hit back instantly with a statement saying he has “told ministers countless times over recent days that TfL simply cannot safely run a full service because of the levels of staff sickness and self-isolation”. He says that “nearly a third of staff are already absent – there aren’t enough drivers and control staff to do it.” The question immediately raised by this dispute is who will decide? Will national government challenge a power that formally belongs to the Mayor?
  • Meanwhile, a health academic has told the BBC he doesn’t think public transport will have played a big part in the high incidence of coronavirus cases in the capital “due to the relatively short time periods of being in close proximity to an infected person” while travelling.
  • Today’s other big development is that the ExCel centre is to house a makeshift “field hospital” for up to 4,000 patients run by NHS and military staff. The BBC has more details.
  • There have already been other contradictions between what national government says should be done and what London government has been doing and, indeed, differences between what different boroughs have been doing. For example, both Hammersmith & Fulham and Southwark closed their parks on Sunday evening until further notice. Camden has not done that yet, but senior councillor Richard Olszewski has warned that it could happen if “idiots” set up barbecues in them, as happened on Fortune Green this afternoon. The police eventually intervened.
  • Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs has expressed his displeasure over members of his borough’s parking enforcement teams being subjected to “unacceptable abuse” in recent days. “Our officers are keeping the highways open for emergency vehicles, enabling food deliveries for for vulnerable and supporting key workrers trying to get to work,” he said.
  • And finally (as they perhaps still say), the London Society has compiled a list of the 20 best films that “encapsulate the spirit of the capital”, as chosen by its members. In no particular order, find them here. is dedicated to improving the standard of coverage of London’s politics, development and culture. It depends on donations from readers. Can you spare £5 (or more) a month? Follow this link if you would like to help. Thank you.


Categories: News


  1. Andrew Bosi says:

    It is not possible to run a full service with so many ill or self-isolating. If the government will not rescue self-employed people, they could at least do more to encourage people to use buses or travel off-peak.

  2. Nick says:

    And all the more reason for TfL to re-prioritise buses and reduce disproportionate dependency on the Tube. This crisis illustrates a longer standing issue surrounding TfL’s focus on cycling at the expense of bus users. Cycling is never going to be a mass mode of transport so downgrading buses simply drove more people onto rail/tube or even car.

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