The government and City Hall are at war over Transport for London’s decision to restrict the Tube’s services, which has forced remaining commuters to cram into available carriages.
Last week, TfL shut 40 stations and reduced the usual weekday service with some lines only running a train every 10 minutes. The Waterloo & City shuttle line has been entirely suspended.
Despite there being a massive reduction in the number of people travelling into central London since the government called on people to work from home where possible, this has resulted in rush-hour style crowds.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock have both met with London Mayor Sadiq Khan in recent days to discuss the issue.
This afternoon, Hancock took the issue public. During the daily Downing Street press conference, he said TfL should “have the Tube running in full, so people travelling are spaced out, obeying the two metre rule wherever possible”.
The frontbencher added there was “no good reason in the information I have seen that current levels of Tube provision should be as low as they are – we should have more Tube trains running”.
A spokesperson for the Mayor said: “This is simply not true. The Mayor 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. Nearly a third of staff are already absent – there aren’t enough drivers and control staff to do it.
“The government must act urgently to get more people staying at home rather than going to work unnecessarily. That means taking the difficult decisions they are refusing to take to ban non-essential construction work and provide proper financial support to freelancers, the self employed and those on zero hours contracts to stay at home.”
RMT general secretary Mick Cash blasted Hancock’s claim as “grossly irresponsible”.
He said: “At a time when we are trying to encourage people to stay away from the Tube so we can concentrate on moving essential workers, the government call to reinstate a full service is grossly irresponsible as it suggests it’s business as usual. That flies in the face of everything they have said about staying at home.
“The real problem is this government’s refusal to give any wage support to casualised workers who will receive no income if they don’t travel and go to work. We need to put the nation’s health first – close the building sites and shut down the rogue employers and give the same wage support to casual workers as those on PAYE – run a free, stripped-back railway for essential staff so that our vital health, retail and other key workers can travel free from cost and fear of contamination on crowded trains.”
“The government are also ignoring the fact that large numbers of LU staff are self isolating and those left on the job feel dangerously vulnerable. We would call on the government to withdraw their “business as usual” lines and work with the Tube unions and the Mayor to protect health, safety, livelihoods and travel services for essential workers.”
But during the press conference, which was held with journalists working remotely for the first time, Hancock pushed back against the suggestion that construction workers should be told to stop.
The Cabinet minister said: “The judgement we have made is that in work, in many instances, the two-metre rule can be applied. In my work place, in the House of Commons, you can see it every day.
“Where possible, people should work from home and employers have a duty to ensure that people are more than two metres apart.”
“The more people follow the rules, the faster we will all get through this.”