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Packed trains on the Underground again today despite Boris Johnson's appeal in lockdown London

The prime minister said last night that people can travel to work “only where this is absolutely necessary”.

Critics claim that social distancing guidelines are impossible to follow on Underground trains
Critics claim that social distancing guidelines are impossible to follow on Underground trains
Image: PA Images

LAST NIGHT, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the public: “You must stay at home.”

This morning in London, some of the trains on the Underground were packed as if a country-wide lockdown hadn’t come into effect to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Rush-hour in London on a typical day would see thousands of people packed onto platforms and onto trains in the extensive Tube network. 

However, even as Johnson ordered non-essential businesses to close and two Tube lines were shut by Transport for London, many people still got up and went to work this morning.

The city’s Mayor Sadiq Khan led the calls this morning for people to follow the advice and just stay at home, as he tweeted: “Employers: please support your staff to work from home unless absolutely necessary. Ignoring these rules means more lives lost.”

Johnson’s speech

The people who are still told they can get out and go to work are being classified as “key workers”. These key workers can still send their children to school, where teachers will still supervise these children over the course of a school day. 

However, the criteria for key workers goes beyond healthcare staff and other emergency services.

Key public services are deemed to include those essential to the running of the justice system, religious staff, charities and workers delivering key frontline services, journalists and broadcasters providing public service broadcasting, as well as workers responsible for the management of the deceased.

Those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery are also included, along with “administrative occupations essential to the effective delivery of the Covid-19 response” in local and national government.

Staff needed for “essential financial services provision”, such as bank workers, key telecommunications staff and postal services and delivery workers are also on the list.

As a result, shops permitted to stay open in the lockdown include supermarkets and other food shops, health shops, pharmacies including non-dispensing pharmacies, petrol stations, bicycle shops, home and hardware shops, launderettes and dry cleaners, garages, car rentals, pet shops, corner shops, newsagents, post offices and banks.

It’s clear this definition of key workers would mean a large number of people are still travelling to work each morning. 

The prime minister said last night that people can travel to work “only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home”.

It is unclear what is meant by “absolutely necessary” and it means that some people who are not classed as key workers are still using public transport and travelling to get to their jobs.

Some of those still heading out every day have included people working on building sites.

In many cases, due to the degree of ambiguity, it is left up to individual employers on what course of action they should take. And it’s believed this is contributing to the number of people still taking public transport to work in the English capital in recent days.

Retailer Sports Direct was one large employer forced into a late u-turn after initially indicating its doors would remain open despite the shutdown because it claimed it was an essential service. JD Sports also said it would be closing its doors today but that its website would continue to accept and fulfill orders.

Reaction

The packed platforms and trains means that social distancing guidelines are almost impossible to adhere to – for both commuters and staff on the Underground.

coronavirus Source: Yui Mok

Nurse Julia Harris, who commutes to work at Imperial College NHS Trust, said she had left earlier and changed her route in a bid to avoid crowds but still found services busy.

She told the PA news agency: “Seats on the train all had at least one person so people needed to stand, and the District line was busy as well. I still don’t think things have improved as a large amount of people are commuting early in the morning.

It is concerning because I have to come to work. The choice isn’t there and my commute is quite long. I worry for my health more on my commute than actually being in the hospital.

Harris said the reduction in TfL services meant “you now have more people waiting and piling onto the Tubes and trains”.

“The issue is key workers aren’t just health professionals – I think we under-estimated how many people are needed to keep things running.”

Finn Brennan, district organiser for train drivers’ union Aslef, said: “Getting lots of reports of early trains being full on the Underground.

“If the government doesn’t shut construction sites and pay self employment, people will die.”

Mayor Khan said today that “growing numbers” of TfL staff are now off sick or self-isolating which means “we cannot run more services than we currently are”. At the same time, Prime Minister Johnson has said that people who flout the lockdown rules can be sanctioned. 

Johnson himself is under pressure to provide clarity for workers as the lockdown – expected to last until at least Easter – takes hold.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “There now needs to be clear guidance to employers and workers about which workplaces should close – and the government must close the loopholes to give security to all workers, including the self-employed, as well as renters and mortgage holders.”

With reporting from PA

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Sean Murray

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