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Leading rail expert accuses government of ‘world-class waffle’ on public transport safety

Nigel Harris offers personally to brief the universities minister ahead of future media appearances

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 18 November 2020 16:01 GMT
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Distance learning: the universities minister was asked about students using public transport
Distance learning: the universities minister was asked about students using public transport (Simon Calder)

A leading figure in the rail industry has condemned “ministerial carelessness/incompetence about public transport’s Covid-19 infection rates”.

In the new edition of Rail magazine, managing editor Nigel Harris criticises the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, over what she said – and did not say – during a BBC Today interview on 11 November which touched on public transport safety.

Many studies worldwide – including some funded by the UK government – have concluded there is a negligible risk of contracting coronavirus on trains and other forms of public transport.

Neil Ovenden, head of engineering for the Rail Delivery Group, has said: “Nobody has detected any residues of Covid-19 on any surfaces in any rail environment anywhere in the country.

“Not on handrails, escalators, door buttons or ticket machines.”

Ms Donelan was asked about students travelling home for Christmas. The presenter, Martha Kearney, said: “If they get on public transport at all, should they get a test when they get home?”

Instead of responding by explaining the extremely low level of risk, Ms Donelan, appeared to avoid the question. She said: “The whole point is that they have been through the period of national restrictions. Our advice says that at the end of that they pose a much, much reduced risk to anybody else.

“What we're talking about here is reducing and managing that risk and allowing students to make a choice and have the ability to get home for Christmas.”

Mr Harris describes the remarks as “world-class waffle”. He writes: "Considering the Treasury has been stumping up £900m a month to keep trains running you think that a well informed government minister would seize the opportunity to make that investment count by offering reassuring truths.

"But this minister and her civil servants failed miserably.”

In his article, Mr Harris offers personally to brief Ms Donelan ahead of future media appearances, saying: “Michelle: let me have your details and I'll send you all this.

“If your officials can't be bothered to brief you, then maybe we should.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to allowing all students who wish to return to their family homes for the Christmas break to do so.

“The current national restrictions mean that students will be less likely to transmit Covid-19 when they return home during the travel window, and pose a reduced risk to their families.

“We have been working very closely with rail operators to put in place appropriate measures to make travel Covid-secure.”

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