Sadiq Khan has been amplifying the stay home and social distance messaging this weekend, as the capital awaits the government’s announcement on the next stage of the coronavirus lockdown.
In starkly-worded tweets pitched as a “direct appeal to Londoners”, the Mayor said it was “essential” that the city followed existing rules and stayed at home. “I know it’s tough, but ignore the rules and more people will die,” he said.
The message followed confirmation at Thursday’s first meeting of London Assembly Members since 19 March that Khan and officials overseeing the capital’s response to the crisis, while not privy to government plans, had provided assessments, particularly on the implications for the capital’s public transport system of any easing of the lockdown.
“It’s a key issue, with such a high reliance in London on public transport,” deputy mayor for fire and resilience Fiona Twycross told the Assembly’s oversight committee, hinting at “high level” discussions between Khan and Number 10.
The Mayor has been under increasing pressure from Assembly Conservatives and backbench Tory MPs to increase capacity on the tube, with minister for London Paul Scully suggesting on a recent webinar with London businesses that the Mayor had been too restrictive in advising that only “key” workers should use the Underground.
City Hall leaders, on the other hand, including transport deputy Heidi Alexander, walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman and Khan himself, have highlighted safety concerns on Tube trains and buses, and the risk of the city “grinding to a halt” with just a small shift from public transport to driving.
Alexander used a recent webinar with London Travelwatch to warn that two metre distancing on the Tube would mean just 21 people per carriage on the Victoria Line compared to 125 people pre-crisis, and has highlighted her own experience of cycling in from Zone 3 to urge Londoners to get on their bikes.
Norman has spearheaded City Hall’s new “Streetspace” plan to fast-track cycle lanes, widen pavements and reduce car traffic in residential areas, with TfL forecasting a potential ten-fold increase in cycling as well as five times more journeys by foot when restrictions are eased, while safe travel rules could see Tube and bus capacity down by 80 per cent.
“It is a real challenge, managing people getting back on public transport in a way that is as socially distanced as possible,” Twycross told AM. “We do need the transport system up and running, but at the heart of any announcement must be public safety. I can’t see a government decision coming where there’s isn’t a strong message about continuing to work from home.”
Twycross, Khan’s deputy for fire and resilience, nevertheless confirmed that City Hall had “absolutely no idea” what was likely to be in the Prime Minister’s Sunday evening announcement, and had not signed off or seen draft plans.
Announcements yesterday from transport secretary Grant Shapps, promising £2 billion for cycling and walking, suggest City Hall’s message is getting through. Shapps reinforced the “stay at home” message, and the need for commuters to cycle more. “Otherwise, with public transport’s capacity severely restricted at this time, our trains and buses could become overcrowded and our roads gridlocked,” he said.
Whether the Prime Minister’s announcement includes a timetable for opening up the Tube network remains to be seen. But if Khan can chalk up a victory on “mode shift” and safe capacity, the battle continues over whether mask-wearing will be mandatory on public transport – as Khan has urged – and over funding. TfL desperately needs cash, with day-to-day operations at serious risk as well as medium and longer-term improvement schemes, but discussions with Whitehall are dragging on.
Today’s £2 billion cycling and walking pledge is not new money – the government announcement makes clear that it is “part of the £5 billion” of public transport funding announced in February this year – and it is not available for the capital, since the £5 billion funding was specifically earmarked for “every region outside London”.
More detail is also needed on the announcement’s reference to TfL plans for a “bike Tube network above Underground lines” – an idea proposed, though not followed through, by Mayor Johnson in 2013. The proposal does not appear in the current mayor’s transport strategy.
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