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U.K. Construction Workers Choke Tube Amid Virus Curb Confusion

March 24, 2020, 5:56 PM

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus by urging people to stay home was undermined on Tuesday by images of construction workers turning up to project sites as normal.

The government said it’s fine for construction to continue, so long as workers stand at least two meters apart to reduce the risk of contagion. But health workers complained the London Underground was packed with non-essential travelers, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan called it “astonishing” ministers think people on building sites can stick to rules on social distancing.

“What I think has not landed is the fact that we face not just a social and economic crisis, but a public health crisis,” Khan told LBC radio on Tuesday.

The London Underground, which is meant to be carrying just key workers or people on essential journeys, was already running a reduced service and the sickness or self-isolation of a third of its workforce has cut its capacity, Khan said. Pictures on social media showed people tightly squeezed into carriages, increasing the risk of the virus spreading.

The mayor, who once worked as a laborer on a construction site, said he pleaded for all building work to be stopped at a meeting of the U.K’s emergency committee, but was slapped down. Transport for London, which falls under the mayor’s jurisdiction, is suspending work on its own sites, including the flagship east-west Crossrail line.


“I was overruled by the prime minister, who doesn’t believe construction workers should be at home, the prime minister believes they should be going to work and they can do it safely,” Khan said. “People are making choices for reasons that I understand -- they are self-employed freelancers working in the gig economy -- and the government’s got to step in and help them.”

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, later told reporters both the prime minister and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had raised the issue of London’s reduced underground service with the mayor. Health Secretary Matt Hancock later said there is “no good reason” for the network not to run a regular service.

“Transport for London should have the Tube running in full so people traveling are spaced out and can be further apart and obeying the two-meter rule wherever possible,” Hancock said at a televised press conferencing, blaming Khan -- a member of the opposition Labour Party -- for the overcrowding. “We should have more tube trains running.”

Slack said building work is permitted during the lockdown as the government seeks to tackle the virus.

“It should continue where it can follow Public Health England and industry guidance,” Slack said, and employers should use “common sense” over the restrictions. “If builders are already working on a site they should continue to do so if they can work two meters apart.”

The gravity of the outbreak was underlined when Hancock said a temporary 4,000-bed hospital will be opened at the ExCel convention center in east London next week. He also appealed for 250,000 volunteers to help support the fight against the virus, which has claimed the lives of 422 Britons.

(Updates with Hancock comment in seventh paragraph, temporary hospital in final paragraph)

--With assistance from Edward Evans.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Thomas Penny in London at;
Kitty Donaldson in London at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Tim Ross at

Stuart Biggs, Mark Williams

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.