Rail firms could be allowed to run fewer trains because of coronavirus, Shapps suggests – Politics live

Politicians like to maintain some semblance of control but in recent days it has become clear that the coronavirus outbreak is threatening to overwhelm public health systems, the economy and even everyday life to a staggering extent. Only 11 days ago Boris Johnson was saying that as far as possible it should be it “business as usual for the overwhelming majority of people in this country”. Only five days ago Rishi Sunak delivered a budget that featured a total coronavirus rescue package worth £30bn. Less than a week later, with sections of the economy grinding to a halt, that is starting to look well short of what’s needed. Mel Stride, the chair of the Commons Treasury committee, said as much on the Westminster Hour last night. He told the programme:

The forecast upon which the budget rests is already well out of date, it doesn’t show booming growth over the following years anyway. If this continues and there is a fundamental and deep and longer term impact, there will be some very difficult decisions to take around borrowing, taxing and spending.

It must be serious because No 10 let Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, give an interview to the Today programme this morning. Here are the main points he made.

We are working with [the rail companies] to see what it is that we need to do to sustain them. People still need to be be able to travel. Some of that is about how many trains are put on the line at any one time. I’m meeting with the train companies this week.

Asked if that meant companies being freed from some of their current obligations, he went on:

It is quite clearly an exceptional international moment in time, international crisis. And we need to be flexible as a country to react to that. And I’ll be driven by, amongst other things, the demand. There is no point running ghost trains any more than there’s any point in running ghost planes. But those are conversations which are ongoing.

By “ghost planes” Shapps was referring to rules that require airlines to fly planes, even if they are empty, just to preserve their landing slots. He claimed that he had been successful in obtaining a dispensation from these rules from the EU.

  • He said the government would be considering measures to help the airline industry. He said that he had been speaking to the aviation industry over recent days, and that he would be taking their proposals to an economic business and response committee being chaired by the chancellor to discuss what the government could do to help. Asked what the government would do, he said the industry had “a variety of different asks”. He did not say how the government would respond, but he said the industry was “clearly right at the forefront of this”.
  • He stressed that the advice to the over-70s would not rule out their going out in any circumstances. Asked if people would be free to go out, for example, to walk the dog, he said:

That’s exactly right … It is the case that people will be able to go out and walk the dog. It’s about being sensible but not mixing in crowds.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.15am: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, holds an off-camera briefing on coronavirus.

11am: Downing Street lobby briefing.

12.30pm: The Welsh government holds a briefing on coronavirus.

Early afternoon: Boris Johnson chairs a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency committee, to discuss coronavirus.

Late afternoon: Johnson holds a press conference after the Cobra meeting.

As usual, I will be covering breaking political news as it happens, as well as bringing you the best reaction, comment and analysis from the web, although I expect to be focusing mostly on the political aspects of the coronavirus crisis. But this is a global story that goes well beyond Westminster politics, and even politics generally. For the full picture, do read our general coronavirus live blog, which is here.

You can read all the latest Guardian politics articles here. Here is the Politico Europe roundup of this morning’s political news. And here is the PoliticsHome list of today’s top 10 must-reads.

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