London Underground. Photo: Public Domain London Underground. Photo: Public Domain

The fares and congestion charge changes will hit the very people being forced to go back to work in the capital the hardest, argues Shadia Edwards-Dashti

At the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, Boris told us we were all in this crisis together – and for a time at least, it seemed that way. But as parts of Britain begin to ease the lockdown it’s clear the pandemic isn’t the great leveller it was made out to be. Despite the virus still being a serious threat, with the UK being the worst affected in Europe, second only in the world to the US, the Prime Minister has come to the conclusion it is safe enough, in his words, to ‘Get Britain moving again’.

It just so happened the call to get the economy moving again came as the capital’s transport network was literally going off the rails, as income from passengers dropped by 90% due to the crisis. Then at the 11th hour, TfL’s request of a £1.6bn bailout was granted. But the Tories weren’t doing anyone any favours. A quick glance at the small print revealed the government now had their sights on creeping their way back into London’s transport infrastructure as part of the deal. Not good news for some of the city’s most deprived residents. 

The crash pad deal between the government and TfL will see a series of measures – albeit temporary – that will undoubtedly punish Londoners. These include hiking fare prices by 1% above inflation, stopping free travel for children and charging over-60s at peak times. These changes will have devastating impacts on London’s poorest and those forced back to work.

There is a choice though, in theory, if workers are afraid to go in, they can stay at home – but their employer doesn’t have to continue to furlough them. And for those who can’t survive without a wage, then they will be forced to risk it and tube it. Of course they won’t be able to afford the journey now either. It’s an impossible situation.

Scientists say the virus doesn’t discriminate and that everyone is at risk. But the statistics tell a very different story. People in London, who are living in more densely populated areas compared to other parts of the country, have been disproportionately exposed to the virus and died as a result. The top ten areas with the highest age-standardised mortality rates are in London, and particularly in the most deprived areas with Newham, Brent and Hackney topping the list.

Most at risk to the virus are security guards, taxi and bus drivers, carers and chefs – all of whom are “encouraged” to go back to work, if they haven’t done so already. And they are up to four times as likely to die as middle-class graduates working as lawyers, accountants and engineers. And they are the majority travelling on public transport. So not only are they putting their lives on the line, and being asked to pay for the privilege.

And when it comes to kids, around four million children in the UK already live in poverty – almost a fifth of those in London, and this curfew will only exacerbate these statistics. With the government pushing to begin phasing in school reopening from June 1st, vulnerable school kids may not be able to afford to get there which will further drive a wedge between the haves and the have nots. And not forgetting pensioners. There are arguments that there are more targeted mechanisms for subsidising travel but the majority of those over 60 travelling at peak times are actually going to work.

Despite telling workers to get back at it, the government advises avoiding public transport, since social distancing may not be possible. Which it categorically isn’t. If the 2m rule was followed the Tube would only be able to carry 13-15% of its normal capacity. Since Boris Johnson “actively encouraged” people to go back to work it’s currently operating at 75%. Rush hour travellers are encouraged to wear masks, but this has neither been enforced nor monitored. In the first week, endless footage appeared online of workers standing on packed trains shoulder to shoulder, maskless and unprotected.

During the height of the lockdown, workers were boarding buses via the middle exit doors to limit contact with other passengers and the driver, a successful social-corona-etiquette that can no longer be observed. It came as 33 TfL staff members – 29 of them bus drivers – died of the virus. And the government has long been concerned about the “R” number, currently sitting still under 1. But when the data catches up with the change, we may well see some very different statistics.

All things considered, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said “public transport must now be the last resort”. But for lower earners without cars, there is no other choice. And, for those with cars, it’s not great news either as the capital’s congestion charge of £11.50 has been reintroduced as has the separate £12.50 ULEZ charge imposed on old bangers. Both of these charges will increase by 30% next month and be in place all week round for much longer hours. So, fork out up to £30 to get in your corona-free personal carriage daily, or risk infection and transmission.

Sadiq Khan says this isn’t the deal he wanted and that he was forced into this platform edge scenario. The government, unsurprisingly, deny his hands were tied. While on the surface it’s easy to point the fingers of blame at Sadiq Khan who ultimately signed it off, it is worth looking into how TfL ended up at this dead end in the first place.

Back in 2015, the Chancellor George Osborne and the then-mayor of London, a certain Boris Johnson, agreed a new financial settlement for TfL. That ‘deal’ required TfL to pay its own way. As a result, shockingly London is the only transport system in Western Europe that receives no direct government funding to run essential day-to-day service. TfL’s income comes from advertising, congestion charges and fares which make up the largest chunk of income. Considering how vital the network is for the economy and people’s livelihoods, this seems rather precarious for one of the biggest and wealthiest cities on Earth.

As a result of the arrangement and the current situation we find ourselves in, TfL is £600 million out of pocket every month. And the bailout, the hikes and temporary changes won’t scratch the surface of fixing this enormous deficit. In fact, this lump sum will barely see the network through till September… interestingly the very same month when the furlough scheme’s ends.

Not only does this send worrying signals about how the government will handle widespread public sector deficits as a result of Covid-19 as the lockdown eases, but it also shows who will be forced to bear the brunt of the financial cost and personal risk. And it’s all depressingly familiar - 2008 financial crisis familiar.

If the TfL model is anything to go by, it’s the most vulnerable that are hit the hardest. Raising ticket fares and the congestion charge when it’s the poorest who can’t work from home, firstly proves that the official change of safety advice of ‘Stay at home’ to ‘Stay alert’ is in other words ‘Stay at home, but only if you can afford it’.

We are evidently NOT all in this together, as London’s most vulnerable are yet again thrown under the bus.

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