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Rail Unions Say New Covid Testing Regime Is “Not Enough” To Stop Train Cancellations

Rail Unions Say New Covid Testing Regime Is “Not Enough” To Stop Train Cancellations

Rail services have been cancelled by multiple train operators this week due to Covid-related staff absencses (Alamy)

4 min read

Rail unions are calling for government to bring in enhanced social distancing measures to prevent more staff being forced into Covid self-isolation as services across the UK face severe disruption as a result of staff shortages.

A third of trains have been suspended at some stations in recent days, with around one in 10 workers off due to coronavirus. Absence figures are even higher for drivers, leading already reduced timetables to be affected further as commuters return to the railways after the Christmas break.

On Tuesday, Boris Johnson outlined plans to prioritise testing for 100,000 key workers across multiple industries, including rail staff, in an effort to reduce the number of people having to self-isolate.

But unions have said the plans are “not enough” to tackle issues caused by staff being off sick or isolating. 

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, which represents drivers, said there is a 10 to 20% shortage across the country right now.

He said he was “intrigued” by the PM’s announcement of daily testing for key workers, but said capping it at 100,000 “massively under-counted” the number of people across critical industries.

“There are 21,000 drivers alone, never mind other rail staff,” he told TimesRadio. He believed a return to tighter Covid restrictions brought in at the start of the pandemic would help keep trains running.

Whelan felt more social distancing would “ease the risk” of staff being forced to self-isolate and prevent workers using “overcrowded mess rooms” they are currently, which is leading to services being cancelled.

The TSSA union, which represents travel industry workers, has called for the introduction of enhanced social distancing measures for staff would help curb absences. 

“The government should have had plans in place to deal with what was widely expected to come from another spike in cases. There aren't even enough tests for everyone,” Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, told PoliticsHome.

“No one – whether workers or passengers – should be put in harm's way.

“Tests, social distancing and robust risk assessments must be used to keep people safe, with the proper arrangements in terms of sick pay and support."

Cortes has also warned that a “national rail strike in 2022 is very much on the cards” as workers face losing their jobs this year without an extension to a no compulsory redundancy agreement.

The TUC criticised the Prime Minister’s priority testing plan, calculating it will not include 99% of key workers under the government’s own definition.

The Rail Delivery Group estimates more than 6,000 staff are currently absent, with multiple train companies announcing reduced timetables and warning passengers of further cancellations this week.

Alex Hynes, boss of ScotRail, said on Tuesday the company had "hundreds" of staff off work due to having Covid or isolating, while John Robson of rail operator CrossCountry said its staff absences were "worsening each day", and they were having to cancel trains to protect core services at peak times between cities.

Bosses at Southern trains decided they cannot run any of their services out of London Victoria, and have cancelled all trains for two weeks as a result of pandemic-related staff shortages.

There are no Gatwick Express services “until further notice” because of the “ongoing effect of coronavirus isolation and sickness”, while East Midlands Railway have replaced some services with buses, and numerous other lines are seeing reduced timetables along with alterations and cancellations at short notice.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told PoliticsHome there is a “logic to adjusting services” due to current shortages, but warned “using this crisis to cynically bulldoze through permanent cuts to services and staffing levels" would meet stiff resistance from his trade union.

"The current situation exposes existing shortages of staff and shows just how the transport companies have been winging it on the cheap for years,” he said. 

“That has to stop. With the ongoing supply side fiasco for testing kit it makes sense for key workers to be prioritised - but it's no excuse for poor planning and central government incompetence."

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh criticised ministers for not showing leadership as passengers who rely on these services face a “nightmare” this month.

“Labour wrote to ministers weeks ago about the need for proper contingency plans for inevitable shortages as staff do the right thing and self-isolate," she told PoliticsHome.

“Today we learn that as disruption mounted, rather than take action, Ministers went awol leaving behind growing travel chaos.

“It defies belief that the transport secretary still hasn't said a word about the huge disruption facing passengers.

“Grant Shapps should come out of hiding, show some leadership, and get a grip on the disruption facing passengers.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “We recognise the frustrations facing passengers and have taken a number of steps to reduce the impact this is having on our railways through accelerating the rollout of our world-leading booster campaign and reducing the isolation period for those testing negative.”

They said train operators were asked to produce “emergency short term timetables” which will come into force from the middle of January and promise to provide a more “reliable and consistent service” to passengers.

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