UK government takes over railways in virus outbreak
Passengers squeeze on to a busy Central Line underground train at Stratford station, east London, March 23, 2020. AFP
The British government took over the railways on Monday in a bid to ensure services keep running for key workers during the coronavirus outbreak.
The transport ministry said it was suspending normal franchise agreements with private operators, taking over "all revenue and cost risk" for at least six months. Train services are being reduced from Monday, as passenger numbers slump in the wake of government advice to avoid all non-essential travel to stem the outbreak of COVID-19.
The government updated this advice late on Sunday, warning people not to travel to "second homes, camp sites, caravan parks" whether for holiday or to isolate themselves.
It followed concerns about how many people flocked to rural beauty spots and beaches over the weekend, defying advice to stay away from other people. Several politicians are calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose tougher measures to force people to comply.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday that some people's behaviour was "very selfish", warning they must keep two metres apart. "We're willing if we have to, to take more action," he told BBC radio.
MPs on Monday debate proposed emergency legislation to give police and immigration officers increased powers to force people to isolate themselves. The Department for Transport's plan will see train operators continue to run services day to day, for a small management fee. "We are taking this action to protect the key workers who depend on our railways to carry on their vital roles," said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
At the same time, the move would give "operators the confidence and certainty so they can play their part in the national interest", he said. A ministry statement warned that leaving operators to go bust "would cause significantly more disruption to passengers and higher costs to the taxpayer".
The management fees will be set at a maximum of two percent of the cost base of the franchise before the outbreak began. Passengers with existing tickets on services that have been cancelled will get refunds, Shapps said. Johnson on Sunday warned the spread of coronavirus was "accelerating" in Britain, as the number of dead rose to 281.