Health secretary Matt Hancock has been branded “grossly irresponsible” after calling for London’s Underground system to return to full operations, after NHS medics complained that they were unable to observe social distancing rules in overcrowded carriages.
Controversy was sparked after health workers put images of busy trains on social media, with one complaining that he was “risking my health” on his journey to work at a hospital in the centre of the capital.
There have been widespread calls for non-essential employees like construction workers to stay home during the three-week lockdown called by prime minister Boris Johnson.
London’s Tube has been running reduced services, with some stations shut, in response to the coronavirus outbreak. And mayor Sadiq Khan has said only key workers, like NHS staff, should use it during rush hour.
But desperate hospital worker Gav posted a picture of a jam-packed early-morning train on Twitter, with the message: “I love my job, but now I’m risking my health just on the journey in?!
“Sadiq Khan put the tube service back to normal so we can all spread out, or Boris Johnson start policing who’s getting on. Help me!”
In a Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock defended the decision to allow people who could not work at home - such as builders - to continue to travel to their jobs, so long as they are able to keep two metres apart from colleagues while they are there.
And he turned on the decision to scale back Tube services.
“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,” said Mr Hancock.
“There is there's no good reason in the information that I've seen that the current levels of Tube provision should be as low as they are. We should have more Tube trains running.”
He added: “When it comes to construction, there's there's many countries that have made the same judgement that you can carry on with people two metres apart from each other.”
A spokeswoman for the mayor said the Government needed to “act urgently to get more people staying at home rather than going to work unnecessarily”.
This is my tube this morning. I live in zone 4 and work in a zone 1 hospital. I love my job, but now I'm risking my health just on the journey in?!@SadiqKhan put the tube service back to normal so we can all spread out, or @BorisJohnson start policing who's getting on. Help me! pic.twitter.com/uTvtfaLPrX— gav (@Gav374)March 24, 2020
She added: “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.”
And Mr Khan said he made this point to Mr Johnson “forcibly” at a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee.
Asked if construction workers in London should be using public transport, Mr Khan told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “My view is no, and I made that point quite forcibly at yesterday’s Cobra, I made that point quite clearly to the prime minister.”
The general secretary of the RMT transport union Mick Cash said: "At a time when we are trying to encourage people to stay away from the Tube so we can concentrate on moving essential workers the government call to reinstate a full service is grossly irresponsible as it suggests it's business as usual.
"The real problem is this government's refusal to give any wage support to casualised workers who will receive no income if they don't travel and go to work.”
Mr Hancock dismissed any suggestion that the UK government decision not to shut down building sites was linked to the £1 million-plus donations from developers to the Conservative party during last year’s election campaign or was driven by the desire to avoid economic damage.
“All the decisions that we're taking are taken in the national interest,” he said.
Asked what staff should do if their employers told them to turn up when they did not believe they were key workers, Mr Hancock said: “We have been incredibly clear about the rules. We strengthened the rules yesterday and essentially flipped the basis of the rules, so it's not ‘Do whatever you like, so long as you don't do the following’, it is ‘Stay at home, unless you've got a good reason’. And we will also enforce against those rules.”
But he stressed that some non-essential workplaces can stay open while still observing the safety rules.
“The judgement that we have made is that in work in many many instances the two metre rule can be applied,” he said.
“Where possible, people should work from home, and employers have a duty to ensure that people are more than two metres apart.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that the Construction Leadership Council had issued guidance to the industry.
He added: “It should continue where it can happen in a way that follows Public Health England and industry guidance.
“We urge employers to use their common sense when managing live projects and ensuring that employees can follow the Government guidance and practice safe social distancing on site.”
House-builder Taylor Wimpey has closed its construction sites, show homes and sale sites.
But rival Redrow said its sites remain open with “strict precautions in place including enhanced levels of cleaning, additional hygiene facilities and social distancing”.