We are nine weeks into a lockdown that was originally estimated to last three or four and the economic effects are dire. Millions have been laid off and millions more are about to be from businesses now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
The news that Rolls-Royce, one of our global success stories, is laying off 9,000 workers has brought into stark relief how deep this economic malaise already is.
Yet within all the doom and gloom, there is a glimmer of hope – London. With the number of new cases plummeting and with the fabled R rate at 0.4 and falling, London is ready to go back to work.
Furthermore, as the Health Secretary revealed, a Government study has estimated that 17 per cent of Londoners have already had coronavirus. The true figure may be even higher and others have suggested the epidemic could have come and gone from the capital.
London is important because it holds the key to getting the economy back on its feet. The economic effects of London working will spread all over the country: after all, it accounts for approximately a quarter of UK GDP.
However, standing in the way of this opportunity is a desperate level of dysfunction which has caused confusion for those who travel to work. London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, should by now recognise the need to make bold decisions, cut through red tape and reduce unnecessary costs to help get business moving. Instead, he has got himself locked in a spat with central government over his decision to reinstate the congestion charge while also increasing it by 30 per cent and extending its hours of operation.
This has become a farce. Told to avoid public transport and drive to work, are Londoners now to be penalised for following government advice?
The simple truth underpinning this issue and that seems to have gone missing, is that London is much more dependent on public transport than any other city in the UK. Getting these services running is vital for the capital to function economically and that means it’s vital for the rest of the UK. The national Government therefore has a duty to get a grip on the situation.
Solving the public transport problem for London should be a matter of urgency. Constituents of mine who are health workers have sent me pictures of overcrowded trains as they try to get to work.
Telling those who rely on public transport to cycle or walk while Transport for London has cut train numbers does not address the dilemma people face about going back to work. One train operator told me that trains should by now have hand sanitiser bottles installed in carriages and TfL staff regularly wiping shared surfaces down while people wear face masks. He’s right.
The Government also needs to take further vital decisions to help transport and business as we unlock. One way in which ministers could do this immediately is by reducing the two-metre rule on social distancing. The WHO recommends that 1 metre is sufficient. Germany, widely recognised as having a good record in combating Coronavirus, uses 1.5 metres. This really matters. One restaurant owner making preparations to open his restaurant told me this week that at 2 metres distancing he will be reduced to 30 per cent of his pre-Covid turnover, yet at 1.5 metres this would increase to 70 per cent.
From public transport to pubs and restaurants, the positive economic effect of moving from two metres to one is enormous. With over 50 per cent of younger adults now admitting they have broken lockdown rules, I believe they are ready for the change. The public message now needs to explain the appalling effects on our health and wellbeing of a flat economy in which the poorest suffer most.
Establishing a proper balance of risk is vital and we don’t have a lot of time.