Katy Balls

The government blames Sadiq Khan for tube overcrowding

The government blames Sadiq Khan for tube overcrowding
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With social distancing now the order of the day, Matt Hancock used today's government press conference to update the nation on NHS preparedness – and call for the country to come together to tackle the pandemic. The latest government figures put the number of coronavirus fatalities at 422 and this is expected to rise. In order to prepare the NHS for an increase in cases, the Health Secretary announced that a new temporary hospital is to open in London's ExCel Centre – and said that so far 11,788 retired NHS staff had responded to the government's call for volunteers to return to work. Hancock said the government is now hoping to recruit 250,000 healthy individuals to form an NHS volunteer responders army, to help with deliveries to the vulnerable.

But although the general message is one of unity, cross-party tensions also came to the surface. Since Boris Johnson's statement to the nation – which had a television audience of 28 million – calling for everyone to stay at home where they can, there has been criticism of the number of people still using the tube in London. Within government, blame is being pointed at Sadiq Khan and Transport for London over the decision to run a severely reduced service – meaning those who have to go to work are more likely to have to cram into a carriage. While train services have been reduced across the country, the view in government is that the scaling back of tube services has gone too far.

When the issue was raised at the press conference, Hancock made these concerns public:

'When it comes to the tube, 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. And there's no good reason in the information I've seen that the current levels of tube provision should be as low as they are. We should have more tube trains running.'

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London disputes this account:

'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.'

Tensions have been bubbling for days on the issue with both the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary raising the issue with the mayor. Khan told a Cobra meeting that 20 per cent of TfL staff could not work because of coronavirus or because they are self isolating – but those at the meeting believe this would still allow for a more frequent service than is currently offered. The government view is that Khan and TfL scaled tube services back too much – and now won't go back on this to save face. The mayor's team think there is overcrowding because it's not just key workers using services – and the problem would be fixed by more people being told to stay at home. So far in the coronavirus pandemic there have been efforts to strike a non-partisan note by all sides – this is the first time two sides have come to serious blows.

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor. She is also a columnist for the i paper.

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