As thousands of people returned to work across England on Wednesday morning, images of packed London Underground trains have sparked fresh criticism of the government’s strategy for easing the country’s seven-week lockdown.
Photos circulated on social media of commuters crowding onto congested train platforms, some without masks, or piling into crowded double-decker buses, raising questions about how Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to get the country back to work without causing a second wave of coronavirus infections.
Criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis was compounded over the weekend, when Johnson delivered a confusing and seemingly contradictory speech about how the country would ease its way back towards normality.
In a pre-recorded address to the nation on Sunday night, Johnson announced that anyone who couldn’t do their job from home “should be actively encouraged to go to work” while adding that workers “should avoid public transport” because there would be limited capacity on trains. Johnson also suggested that people should get to work by car, bike or on foot if possible.
Johnson’s speech, which seemed to imply that people would be allowed back to work the following day, was criticized by the leader of the opposition, who said it was “quite a thing to spring on people for tomorrow morning,” and the chief of one trade union who described the messages as “both confusing and disbelieving.”
By Monday morning the government was forced to clarify that people should only return to work on Wednesday, while the other nations in the United Kingdom told people they should continue to remain at home.
In London, as with any major urban area, many people work in the service industry, and many will not have their own mode of transport, so the scenes of packed Tube carriages were somewhat inevitable given Johnson’s guidance. And while the government on Tuesday advised people to wear masks in enclosed spaces, they are not mandatory.
At Wednesday afternoon’s weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson expressed concern at the number of commuters using London’s public transport network, and said the government was urging people to avoid traveling during rush hour.
“We are working very actively with TfL [Transport for London] to ensure that what we do is we have more capacity, we discourage people from going to work during the peak, and that operators – particularly TfL – lay on more tube trains when those are necessary throughout the day,” Johnson told lawmakers in parliament.
He is likely to find stiff opposition to this suggestion. Mick Cash, general secretary of the powerful Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union, said transport workers would go on strike if better protections weren’t put into place.
“If our members aren’t safe, we’re saying to them, put yourself in a place of safety and refuse to work,” Cash told Sky News. “We’re talking about keeping passengers as well as staff safe … crowded trains, crowded platforms, crowded buses are actually not safe for anybody and we could risk more people getting the Covid-19 virus and actually make the situation worse.”
The outcry on England’s first proper day out of lockdown is more bad news for Johnson after returning to work following a life-threatening bout of the coronavirus.
The criticism of his handling of the outbreak is coming not only from politicians on the other side of the aisle but also from previously supportive lawmakers and commentators. And he has a new leader of the opposition in Labour’s Keir Starmer, who happens to be a former director of public prosecutions, now building a political case against Johnson and his government.
The roadmap to exiting lockdown was a real chance for Johnson and his team to gets its coronavirus response back on track. If the government cannot straighten out its messaging, it might face the humiliating prospect of having to reverse its relaxation of restrictions. And that could be dangerous – both to his political reputation and more importantly, to millions of Britons – as the public grows increasingly weary of this crisis.