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Sadiq Khan is having a terrible coronavirus crisis. He must act now to end Tube overcrowding

We should not be surprised that there is disagreement about who the Government meant when it said that “key workers” must be allowed to continue working. After all, the phrase is open to interpretation. We can all agree that it’s essential that nurses and doctors whose job is now focused on treating coronavirus victims are included. But what about hospital canteen workers whose job is to feed those life-saving professionals? What about hospital cleaners?

The full list of key workers published by the Cabinet Officer last week includes anyone working in banks, building societies and financial market infrastructure as well as those in the oil, gas and electricity sectors. It also includes those working in “food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery”.

But the flexibility of the definition of “key worker” was stretched to breaking point when, in some parts of the country, “beauticians, hairdressers, museum workers and pet shop employees” assumed they were included in the category.

More than one eyebrow was raised when Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct chain of stores insisted on staying open during the crisis (a decision now reversed) on the basis that it sells sporting and fitness equipment and that that “makes the firm a vital asset during a national shutdown”. If wearing track suits as day wear indicates a healthy lifestyle, that would make Glasgow the fittest city in the world (spoiler: it really isn’t).

But a more serious dispute has arisen between the Government and London mayor, Sadiq Khan, the latter of whom believes that construction workers should not be going to work, in contrast to UK ministers’ advice. This has added heat to a decision by Khan to drastically reduce the number of London underground services in the capital, meaning that, despite a big reduction in the number of commuters, they are still being packed into crowded carriages, increasing the chances of the virus being spread.

Khan cites health and safety concerns and insists that, with up to 20 per cent of the Transport for London workforce self-isolating or sick, more trains cannot be run safely. For the mayor, the problem is his past comments. Although Boris Johnson likes to cast himself as the mayor of the town terrorised by a great white shark in the movie, Jaws, who insisted that the beaches stay open despite the threat, it is Khan whose comments earlier this month provoked the same comparison.

“There is no risk in using the Tube or buses or other forms of public transport or going to a concert,” he said at the start of this month. And if travelling with your face jammed against the armpit of a complete stranger is safe, then presumably going for a pint or to a football match is nothing to be scared about either. Few public officials now would agree with that assertion, and Khan, we must assume, is one of them. No doubt he would prefer to erase the historical record on that one: complacency in the midst of a health crisis is not a good look for a directly-elected mayor hoping to win a second term.

Yet even if he has now taken better advice, his willingness to see his electors risk infection by cramming them into the Tube suggests he hasn’t quite squared his own circle. The mayor is no doubt correct in believing that some people who should not be travelling at all are doing so. But blaming the public for trying to get to work, instead of providing enough carriages to reduce the risk of cross-infection, is a bold move.

Those who use the Tube regularly are well aware of the risk to their own health as a result of overcrowding. We must assume that they, as adults, are not undertaking such journeys out of frivolous motives or because they like to play fast and loose with their lives. They queue on platforms and jam themselves into heaving carriages because they feel they have no alternative. Some of them will be doing so because they believe their work is essential to the wider community, others will be doing so out of fear of a drop in their income and of what that would mean for themselves and their families. Perhaps at least some of them will have taken to heart the mayor’s previous (wrong) advice about the safety of travelling in close contact with others.

Unless a significant proportion of those commuters decide themselves to stay at home in the next day or so, the decision to cut Tube services – and to increase over-crowding – will have to be revisited by Mayor Khan. In a city where alternative transport arrangements are so few, hard-pressed workers (literally speaking) need the support of their Mayor, not excuses from him.