The article below first appeared in Westminster Extra. Nickie writes a monthly column for the paper.
Pre-Covid, 600,000 people came into Westminster every weekday – meaning a significant proportion of many local businesses’ income came from office workers. We need them back this year to save Central London’s ecosystem – the many thousands of pubs, independent coffee shops and sandwich bars, theatres and retailers – which rely on them.
Areas whose population fluctuate most over the course of an average pre-Covid day, the City and the West End, have been hardest hit. Business organisation New West End Company predicts a 70-80 per cent fall in annual turnover of West End shops and hospitality, expected to result in 50,000 job losses by the end of the year.
We must work to give people the confidence to travel to work. I would like TfL, commuter rail operators and the Mayor of London to seriously consider the following plan to give commuters the confidence to return, even if it is for just part of the week to begin with.
Firstly, I would like TfL and the train companies to investigate regular swabbing of our tubes, trains and buses for Covid. Regular random testing of seats, handrails and doors would give people the confidence that vehicle they are travelling in is safe. If coronavirus is detected, areas would need be closed off and deep cleaned immediately.
Next, station staff should temperature-check passengers as they enter our tube and overground stations or at ticket barriers. It’s already happening in many of our shops and gyms across the country.
It takes a couple of seconds - well worth it to give people a bit more reassurance about travelling on public transport. Obviously, it would not be easy to take the temperature of a million plus commuters, but even random testing at key stations could offer confidence and comfort to those concerned.
Finally, while we should encourage people to use public transport, cycle and walk where they can, the Mayor should temporarily remove the Congestion Charge at evenings and weekends and undertake a proper study to understand current traffic flow into the Capital. The charge has been a vital tool in improving our air quality. We must never neglect this important task.
However, the £15 a day seven days a week Congestion Charge is hurting small independent and large businesses alike - at a time when many are fighting to recover from Covid. It has simply become a tax on economic recovery, costing thousands of jobs. Workers are forking out £100 every week - just to get to work.
The charge is also a barrier for visitors and shoppers coming into London to support our businesses. Removing it at evenings and weekends, even in the short term, would encourage more people to come into Central London to visit, shop and work boosting our local businesses. When Central London begins to recover, with the results of a traffic flow study, a proper strategy for the charge going forward should only then be decided.
I hope TfL, train operators and the Mayor of London consider these measures with urgency. We must work together to ensure Central London’s economy bounces back from Covid as quickly as possible.