In a television address to the country on 10 May 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that, now that “the death rate is coming down and hospital admissions are coming down” from the Coronavirus epidemic, there are “millions of people who are both fearful of this terrible disease, and at the same time also fearful of what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to their livelihoods and their mental and physical wellbeing”.
He therefore aimed to lay out “the shape of a plan to address both fears – both to beat the virus and provide the first sketch of a road map for reopening society – a sense of the way ahead, and when and how and on what basis we will take the decisions to proceed”.
He gave some details, although he did say that he would be setting out more details in Parliament on Monday 11 May and taking questions from the public in the evening.
“This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week,” he said. “Instead, we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures and the first step is a change of emphasis that we hope that people will act on this week.
“We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must. We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.
”And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So, you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.
“So, work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home – to ensure you are safe at work we have been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces COVID-secure.
“And when you do go to work, if possible do so by car or, even better, by walking or bicycle. But, just as with workplaces, public transport operators will also be following COVID-secure standards.”
With no new train services planned to start on Monday 11 May – train operators had been looking at plans for a resumption of increased services from 18 May – there was naturally some concern as to what should happen if many more people turned up at stations hoping to travel. Maintaining social distancing – two metres between passengers at all times, in the booking office, on the platform, boarding and alighting and seated on the train itself.
While a typical railway carriage might seat 72 people in 18 rows, four wide (two seats each side of the gangway), social distancing might cut this down to just two passengers per block of eight seats, or just 18 people per carriage – 144 per eight-car train. How will that cope in a resumed rush hour?
As no plans are in place, the rail unions were quick to protect their members. TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “There won’t be more rail services running tomorrow, so only key workers should be using these services as has been the case since the lockdown began.
“If government won’t keep our members and our travelling public safe, then I am calling on rail bosses to close down services and/or stations if physical distancing of at least two metres can’t be maintained. The British Transport Police must be deployed at all stations to avoid overcrowding and to ensure that only key workers are using our public transport network.
“We won’t allow our members to be used as Covid-19 cannon fodder so that Tory donors in the building industry can make a quick buck at their expense and that of our key worker heroes who need safe access to our public transport network to keep people alive.”
The RMT’s Mick Cash was equally blunt, commenting: “This trade union will not sit back while confused and conflicting messaging from the government raises the prospect of a surge in passengers on our transport services, making a mockery of the social distancing rules with potentially lethal consequences.”
In a circular to its members, RMT stated: “Given the confusion and mixed messaging generated by the government in recent days, RMT has no confidence in the ability of the government to manage lockdown or its easing.
“To be clear no agreement has been made to change any working practices or social distancing arrangements from tomorrow (11 May).
“Therefore, if two metre social distancing cannot be maintained, we consider it to be unsafe and members have the legal right to use the worksafe process. On LUL they have the legal right to use the refusal to work policy.
“RMT will fully back any member who uses this process to ensure their safety.”
So, the confusion continues. Hopefully, the PM’s statement to parliament will bring more clarity.