Britain’s government announced an unprecedented public lockdown Monday night in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But the new restrictions have done nothing to stop overcrowding on London’s trains, buses, and subways, where social distancing remained impossible during rush hour Tuesday.
The new restrictions required people to stay at home, closed non-essential shops and public spaces, and banned gatherings of more than two people in public. But they’ve been widely criticized as coming too late and failing to stop the crowds on public transit. Reports of the packed transport links — where crammed commuters were unable to keep the advised 6.5 feet (2 meters) from each other — prompted London Mayor Sadiq Khan to issue an ultimatum Tuesday for Londoners to “stop all non-essential use of public transport now.”
“I cannot say this more strongly,” he said. “Ignoring these rules means more lives lost. Some of the people on the Tube yesterday and today are not essential workers, I can tell you that.”
In London, the epicenter of the U.K.’s outbreak, officials have kept public transport operating on a reduced service to allow workers in essential industries, like the health service, police, and food supply, to get to their jobs. But health workers heading to their jobs in London hospitals complained Tuesday that the city’s public transport links remained packed — despite instructions from the government to travel to and from work “only if it is absolutely necessary.”
“I love my job, but now I’m risking my health just on the journey in?!” tweeted Nicola Smith, a sonographer at a central London hospital. She called on officials to increase the frequency of services or to restrict those using it.
Julia Harris, a London nurse, told PA news agency she had left earlier and changed her route to try to avoid crowds but still found the trains busy.
“Seats on the train all had at least one person so people needed to stand,” she said. “I still don’t think things have improved.”
Transport union TSSA called for police to be deployed at major train stations in the capital to make sure that only passengers who were providing key services were commuting.
The crowding has been blamed on the government’s refusal to close construction sites, a reluctance from some business owners to close, and reduced frequency of public transport services. Critics have called for London transport bosses to increase the frequency of public transport services to reduce crowding, but Khan said Tuesday that the spread of the virus among staff had made that impossible. One-fifth of transport workers are off work because they were unwell or self-isolating.
Despite that, Health Minister Matt Hancock blamed London’s transport authority, which is run by Khan, for failing to run the Tube service at full capacity.
“The first and the best answer is that Transport for London should have the Tube running in full so that people traveling on the Tube are spaced out and can be further apart,” he told a news conference.
“There is 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.”