Saturday 21st March 2020
Prime Minister Harold Wilson coined the famous phrase “a week is a long time in politics” after tumultuous events before the 1964 General Election enabling Labour to overturn an expected Conservative victory by thirteen seats. I wonder what he’d have made of the seismic developments over the last seven days as day by day we woke up to the realisation a pandemic turns life as we know it completely upside down.
What were unimaginable and unspeakable decisions just over a week ago have quickly gained acceptance as being the very best actions for our healthy futures. John Lewis announces this afternoon all its shops will close after Monday and no one is surprised at all. Pret A Manger too.
All travel, except for essential purposes, is now pretty much on hold. Like pubs and restaurants, normal public transport as we used to know it has effectively closed down for most passengers. Suddenly it’s not worrying about having enough bus drivers attending work because of rampant sickness levels, although that scenario will play out in viral hotspots; it’s more a case of having too many drivers employed as service levels are slashed to reflect Government ‘war time’ advice to “only travel if your journey is absolutely necessary”. Unlike Pret A Manger, bus and train companies can’t just close up and send all staff home to receive 80% of their pay from Government. One small bus company director told me this afternoon of his dilemma whether to seek volunteers to move “off the books” for now, albeit still subject to employment law, with a view to keeping enough staff for the reduced commitment, but then what if those left active get sick and become unavailable? And what if not enough staff volunteer? Sounds like transport is another case for special treatment.
Reduced timetables are now being universally implemented from Monday, some offering a Saturday timetable, others going straight to Sunday service levels with extra journeys to fill gaps. My guess is even these will need to be reduced still further as Spring turns into Summer and a skeleton service is all that’s needed as personal travel restrictions could become mandatory. The tide won’t have turned by then; we all know a lie when we hear it. There’s no way Covid-19 will “be sent packing” within twelve weeks.
I see National Express coaches are moving to Christmas Day timetables from next week which feels poignant. I doubt Roy Wood and Wizard contemplated such an apocalyptic scenario when they wished “it could be Christmas every day”.
With no presents to open, nor the joys of family reunions over a leisurely festive lunch, I doubt our new found alien ‘life on hold’ way of living will be featuring at the top of many wish-it-could-be-every-day lists. Still at least our food and store cupboards are groaning under £1 billion of grocery purchases. We won’t be needing to go food shopping for some time.
Who’d have thought we’d hear Cornwall’s council chief pleading for tourists to stay away not because the County is full up, but because they need to keep it half empty; who’d have thought London Underground PA announcements would be playing out messages telling passengers not to travel unless they’re an essential worker with the Mayor of London regularly tweeting the same message. It makes a change from the “to the Mayor and TfL, every journey matters” inane slogan at the end of adverts on Global owned radio stations promoting TfL’s scrappage scheme – hopefully those adverts will be off air by next week.
Strange times indeed.
As for the coming week, it obviously can’t be quite as seismic as last week, simply because short of a complete legally enforced lockdown there’s not much more left to implement, surely. I’ve managed to survive my first week of non travelling, and am up for plenty more ahead, which is just as well. There’s a whole pile of reading to keep me occupied.
But this period of enforced social distancing also leads one to pontificate and muse so I’ll close these ramblings with two random thoughts.
It’s occurred to me now might be a good time to see how the DRT model for running buses really can shape up.
Coaches can cater for the limited school travel movements for children of ‘essential workers’ making regular journeys from home to school and back while essential workers needing access to employment such as hospitals, care homes and food distribution centres can be catered for by regular bespoke contract type bus or coach journeys all free to users and Government funded; and for the rest of us who don’t have access to a food shop and pharmacy within walking distance of our homes then why not withdraw all conventional bus routes and run a DRT service with minibuses or Enviro 200 type single decks. How about giving it a try first of all in say …. Watford, Liverpool, Leicester, Stockton, Sutton, Ealing and Oxford?
It would be particularly interesting in Oxford, where the performance of PickMeUp was under review anyway due to it being “challenging to operate on a fully commercial basis”, and see how it works across a wide area of the city with all conventional buses withdrawn. Rather than give up on PickMeUp, keep that going and curtail all the conventional bus routes. Just a thought. I don’t think there’d be a problem with passengers keeping to social distance guidelines on board – I’ve always been able to practice self isolation when travelling on DRT buses. DRT might just become the right idea at the right time.
It also occurred to me now might be a good time to bring forward ‘shovel ready’ disruptive maintenance or ‘track improvement works’ on our railways. Instead of shutting a line down during half term or over long weekends for extended track possessions why not get the suitably sanitised orange army out to finish off the works needed to improve access to Kings Cross and a host of other improvements in the pipeline. Financially starved coach companies could run limited substitute services. You might be thinking such workers should be at home keeping healthy and safe, as that work isn’t essential, but I notice the M23 is closed yet again this weekend for completion of the works to convert it into a Smart Motorway. The Secretary of State has already announced there’ll be no more Smart Motorways until remedial measures are added to reduce the danger of using them, so they’re hardly essential works for this weekend I’d have thought.
OK, that’s enough pontificating for now. Back to my pile of reading.