Covid-19: Transport

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:46 pm on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:46 pm, 12th May 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I also thank him for the way in which he has maintained communication and shown a willingness to work together in the national interest.

I know that everyone in this House and at home will join me in sending our thanks to all transport workers across the country. As with all our frontline workers, they are the very best of us. It is so important that we give a voice to those workers. Even today, the official advice is found wanting and it will lead to confusion. The scenes we saw yesterday on public transport were unsurprising when the Government ordered a return to work with 12 hours’ notice but without the guidance being in place on how people can be kept safe. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State why his announcement was not made before the Prime Minister’s statement on Sunday?

Secondly, the Government have produced guidance for bus passengers and operators, but it leaves too much to chance and fails to protect frontline workers. It risks a postcode lottery on standards and protection, and there is far too much “should”, “could”, “not always possible” and “as much as you can”, rather than clear, directive guidance. For bus drivers, for instance, the guidance is that PPE should not be used, but instead reserved for health and care staff. That is despite shocking figures released by the Office for National Statistics that show professional drivers, including those operating taxis, private hire vehicles, buses and goods vehicles, have some of the highest covid-19 fatality rates in the country. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State for the evidence base to support the position that the provision of PPE should not be provided for frontline staff on transport? What discussions have taken place to ensure co-operation across our devolved nations to offer clear and consistent standards for transport, such as buses and rail that, of course, crosses from nation to nation?

When the Secretary of State says he announced last week a £2 billion fund for cycling, it sounded awfully familiar. Will he confirm that that actually is not new money, but was instead announced pre-lockdown back in February? In that context, can he confirm whether it has now been paid to local councils?

The Secretary of State touched on the aviation sector in the guidance that has been produced. A number of airlines have already announced a significant number of redundancies, affecting tens of thousands of jobs directly and throughout the supply chain.

Even as we transition to a green economy, protecting jobs now so that people can be reskilled for the future is critical. It will be far easier to transition from a point of strength rather than of weakness. The Government have failed to offer a sectoral deal for aviation. There is a real chance to set conditions on staff wages, payments to UK-based suppliers, a shift to green technology, demand that those who seek our help pay fairly into the tax system, as well as halt the payment of shareholder dividends. Why have the Government failed to act?

Aviation is not alone. We have seen this with ferry operators and the announcement of more than 1,100 jobs at risk with P&O. The Prime Minister’s 14-day quarantine proposal is a total mess. It states that everyone must be quarantined, unless they come from anywhere in the world via France, which is one of the worst affected countries in Europe after the UK. Will the Government produce the scientific advice that justifies why France should be exempt from that policy? Why have the Government decided that now is the time to implement this measure, two months after other countries introduced it? More than 18 million passengers have entered the UK since January. Will the Government publish the scientific advice that led to that change now and not earlier?

Finally, we urgently need a comprehensive plan for transport. The public rightly demand an end to the chaos surrounding the exit plan. The risk is not just that more lives will be lost needlessly, but that the economic damage will be far deeper, hurting our communities for a generation to come. The Opposition will continue to work together in the national interest, but the Secretary of State must take a message back to the Cabinet table: no more confusion, no more reckless briefings, and no more delay. This is a national crisis that needs a Government who are fit to respond to it, and we hope for the country that that comes sooner, rather than later.