On the 12 May, I wrote to the Secretaries of State for Business and Transport to convey my serious concerns about the safety of public transport for my constituents in light of the Government’s recently changed guidance. See the full text of my message below:
Dear Secretaries of State,
I write to you about the extremely urgent need for a safe transport strategy for London and other major public transport-dependent areas before significant numbers of my constituents will be able to return to work.
You may know that some reports now suggest that Newham may have had the most deaths from COVID-19 in the country per age-adjusted head of our population. I believe that the risks to my constituents’ health will continue to be terribly and disproportionately high unless measures are taken across the board to increase safety. Travel safety is just one aspect of that, but it is one that has to be got right.
Newham residents are generally highly dependent on public transport in order to get to work and for other essential journeys. The number of cars per person in Newham is less than half the level in other London Boroughs such as Bexley, let alone most other areas of the country where private cars are still more dominant. This is not only because our urban geography makes mass commuting by car simply impossible without horrific and self-defeating levels of congestion. As well as being utterly impractical, any increase in car use would add to already illegal levels of air pollution in Newham.
Car ownership is also low because we are a highly deprived area, with the second highest level of child poverty in the country and the highest homelessness. Many families simply could not afford to buy and maintain a car even if there were the parking and road space available to use it; many have trouble as it is just affording frequent bus travel, and are priced out of regular Tube usage.
At the same time, my constituents are disproportionately likely to work in one of the occupational categories that have had the highest mortality rates from COVID-19 so far, as confirmed by the Office for National Statistics on 11th May. These include elementary occupations, process, plant and machine operatives, and skilled trades, all of which have a COVID-19 mortality rate significantly higher than the average. In Newham 14.6% are in an elementary occupation, 7.1% are process, plant and machine operatives, and 12.8% are in skilled trades occupations, against national averages of 10.3%, 6.2% and 10.1% respectively. Many of these jobs simply cannot be done from home, and now that the Government is apparently shifting to encourage all those who cannot work from home to return to work, my constituents will now face not only an increased risk at work, but an increased risk in travelling to and from work as well.
You will have seen the unfortunate repeated pictures of severe and dangerous overcrowding at Canning Town station during the lockdown. I do not believe that these images reflect recklessness or a lack of regard for others on the part of my constituents. Far from it, they reflect the fact that my constituents are disproportionately likely to need to continue to travel to work to do the essential jobs that are keeping our society and economy going. Their work is more likely not to be possible from home, and the safe transport capacity they need doesn’t exist.
As you will know, the Mayor of London has estimated that to meet the social distancing requirements, the carrying capacity of the Tube will have to remain at just 13-20% of previous levels, even with every available train running. I do not believe that we have yet got to a stage where returning to work en masse can be done without a devastating impact on health and lives. But even if the Government insists upon or allows a blanket return to work in the near future, strong steps will be needed.
I believe it will be necessary to intervene strongly with businesses to ensure that this safe capacity is used as efficiently as possible, and prioritised for those who need it the most. This could involve, for example, carefully planned commuting windows to spread out travel to and from work. I further believe intervention with businesses where work can be done from home will be necessary to stop them encouraging or forcing their employees to come in unnecessarily, and thereby using up safe space on public transport that is very sorely needed by other workers.
If the Government is serious about enabling active travel to partially substitute for the loss of public transport capacity, I believe you will have to look beyond pavement and bike lane expansions, essential as these will be in most areas. Many of my constituents will need financial support or perhaps community bike loan schemes in order to access active travel at the level required to enable the economy to reopen significantly with social distancing still in place on public transport. I urge you to make a rapid assessment of the scale of need for such schemes and how they could be best and most quickly be implemented as one of the first elements within your Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy. Clearly, if active travel is genuinely to play a significant role in enabling COVID-19 safe commuting while the economy is being gradually reopened during the current phase, these schemes will need to be up and running within weeks.
I am concerned, however, that even with all of these actions taken and safe capacity maximised, there will still be insufficient transport capacity available that can simultaneously keep workers safe from infection while also allowing all of my constituents who can’t work at home to return to work. In cases where my constituents can’t work safely, or travel to work safely, I believe it would be entirely wrong to expect them to do so, or to deny them continued support under the Government’s job protection schemes while this situation persists. Denying continued support cannot fail to lead either to constituents taking unnecessary risks and an increase in the infection rate, or to an unfair and indeed cruel loss of jobs and an increase in poverty and destitution.
I would be grateful for a response setting out the action the Government will be taking to protect my constituents who cannot work from home from the threat of infection they will face having to travel to and from work. I hope you will agree that none of my constituents should be left in a position where they have a choice between going into work unsafely or losing their job and livelihood.