Covid-19 (Transport)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 26th May 2020.

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Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I would like to provide Parliament with an update on the development of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 transport transition plan, as we begin to chart the route map through and out of the crisis that was outlined by the First Minister last Thursday.

I reiterate my thanks to the people of Scotland, who have heeded the Government’s advice not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. Their following of that advice is what has allowed us to set out the first iteration of the transport plan today.

However, the virus is still with us, and if we move too quickly or without appropriate diligence, it could rapidly run out of control again. In that context, our transport transition plan must be dynamic and capable of evolving as lockdown measures are gradually eased. It will be intrinsically linked to the plans for reopening our schools and for economic recovery that will be set out to Parliament later this afternoon. Our transport transition plan will present a careful and measured approach to a fluid situation in which we must continue to adopt the behaviours that have brought us to this point.

Scotland is planning for a managed transition away from the current restrictions in a way that will enable suppression of the virus to continue. The Scottish Government is taking an open and transparent approach to that, in line with the proposition that was initially set out in “COVID-19—A Framework for Decision Making”, which was published last month and has now been set out in the First Minister’s “Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making—Scotland's route map through and out of the crisis”.

We are now moving towards phase 1 of that route map. The route map outlines the key high-level messages, the first of which is that working from home should remain the default position, where it can. The reopening of a limited number of workplaces is set out in phase 1, and where home working is not possible, businesses and organisations are encouraged to manage travel demand through use of staggered start times and flexible working patterns.

Secondly, people can travel short distances for outdoor leisure and exercise, but the advice is that they should stay within a short distance of their local community and should travel by walking, wheeling or cycling, where possible. Our transport transition plan is informed by and expands on those key high-level messages.

Transport will help to facilitate the recovery of our health, society and economy by allowing people to get around again to access services, jobs, friends and family. However, I start with the reminder that in order to protect the integrity of our public transport system as we transition, it is of paramount importance that everyone continues to take personal responsibility for their own safety and that of others with whom they might come into contact when travelling.

Our plan will be developed to ensure that the people of Scotland are safe while travelling, and that our transport operators are safe at work. We have engaged with trade unions, passenger groups, operators, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, local authorities and regional transport partnerships, and I emphasise strongly that we will continue to work with them in the weeks and months ahead, as the plan evolves.

As a consequence of the phased approach that is outlined in the route map, there are three separate strands in our transport response to the pandemic through the immediate, medium and long terms. They are: easing of restrictions on daily life and movement; support for economic recovery in the transport sector and the broader economy; and development of the future of transport in Scotland.

As part of the first iteration of the plan, we are publishing clear guidance to support the transport sector in moving to restart and recover, and we are providing guidance for passengers who use public transport. The top-level message that I would like to convey is that the level of physical distancing that is needed as we navigate the phases of the route map will obviously affect public transport capacity, with operators estimating that the 2m physical distancing will mean that capacity is between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of normal capacity. As a result, a system that typically had 1.5 million people journeys per day—with peaks in demand at 100 per cent capacity—will have substantial constraints on it.

Our transport transition plan has a number of national aims, so over the coming weeks and months we will work with local authorities to operationalise them at local level. Our plan will inform passengers about when and how to access public transport safely. It will support management of travel demand by reinforcing broader messages on physical distancing and discouraging unnecessary travel through sustaining behaviour changes, encouraging active travel options and staggering journeys in order to avoid peak times. It will also inform passengers and road users of busy areas and times in order to encourage alternative choices.

Guided by our principle of ensuring safety, transport operators and authorities are planning for physical distancing and increased cleaning measures on public transport and at bus and rail stations, ferry terminals and airports. The importance of distancing and hygiene on board public transport and at public transport hubs will be critical to the plan’s success.

Although transport operators and authorities will ensure that the transport environment is as safe as possible, we all have a personal responsibility to take steps to protect ourselves and others.?It is vital that we continue to keep to 2m physical distancing wherever possible, that we wash our hands regularly and that we maintain good respiratory hygiene.

Even with the measures that transport operators are putting in place, it can be difficult for people to maintain physical distancing throughout their journeys on some forms of public transport. I know from my discussions with the trade unions and operators, and from surveys of public sentiment, that those are real and live concerns. For that reason, and as a consideration to staff and fellow passengers, people should—and are expected to—wear face coverings as an additional measure when using public transport. I ask people to please come prepared with face coverings when they use public transport.

Of course, there will be situations in which that is not practicable, as is reflected in the detail of the guidance. Furthermore, it is vital that, when using face coverings, the public follow our guidelines on their use, which includes ensuring a high level of hygiene. We will, of course, keep that position under regular review in order to reflect any new evidence that becomes available.

We are looking to increase the frequency of public transport in phase 2 of the route map—although, given the restrictions on the number of people whom we will be able to carry, we need fewer people than normal to travel, especially at busy times. As I have stated, in line with the route map, we are urging employers to show leadership and to be as flexible as possible in order to allow earlier and later starting and finishing times for people who have to travel.

While we move through the phases, we will need to manage expectations in our public transport network around, for example, travelling into cities. We must recognise that it will be not be possible to satisfy demand fully, and we must ensure that our recovery is fair, sustainable and does not exacerbate inequalities in our system.

We will continue to work with a range of stakeholders—transport operators, passengers, local authorities, education, the health service and business—to inform the easing of restrictions and to manage demand for transport, based on the evidence that we gather. For example, the Scottish Government is working with local authorities and transport operators to ensure that transport is in place to get children to school.

It is important that our plan will seek to support reallocation of road space in order to give priority to walking, cycling, wheeling and buses. We have a real opportunity to secure a positive and lasting change in our sustainable travel habits. People continuing to walk, cycle or wheel will allow us to sustain the improved air quality that we have benefited from since the start of lockdown.

In April, I announced the spaces for people fund, which is providing £10 million of funding for local authorities to introduce temporary walking and cycling infrastructure to enable physical distancing. I have been delighted with local authorities’ response to that offer, and we have already received applications or expressions of interest exceeding the initial £10 million. I am very pleased to announce that we are increasing the fund to £30 million with immediate effect. I want all local authorities—urban and rural—to have the opportunity and support to access the fund.

As I said, we will carry on developing the transport transition plan as we move through the phases of the route map. We will continue to gather evidence to inform its evolution we will be ever mindful to take corrective steps, should they be required. The transition plan aims to make the transport system as accessible as possible for people, who should travel only when necessary, while maintaining physical distancing.

We need to continue to take forward the measures that will support people to use our transport system, while managing the challenges of the virus. I encourage transport operators and the public to make use of the guidance that has been published today.