Baroness Vere calls for local Omicron resilience reviews

21/12/2021
Dominic Browne

Transport minister Baroness Vere has written to all local transport and highway authorities, bus and light rail operators in England asking them to review resilience plans in light of the Omicron variant.

Considering the possibility of staff shortages as a direct result of Omicron, the minister called for a review of local service provisions and asked for regular information and where possible data on staff absences.

The problem of staff shortages appears to be particularly acute in transport as bus and gritter drivers were already in short supply this year due to the HGV driver shortages.

' On bus services, in particular, please can operators and local transport authorities jointly consider now which services and routes they will prioritise if necessary; ensure they stay in close contact as absence levels change (including over the Christmas period) and have strong and effective plans for how this information will be communicated to passengers,' she wrote.

'I appreciate that difficult choices may need to be made here, but I would be grateful if you could ensure that you do all you can to prioritise routes that are vital to Covid-19 vaccination centres, the transportation of children to schools (as they reopen in the New Year) and other essential destinations.'

Department for Transport (DfT) officials predicted that total bus service provision could drop 'below 90% of pre-Covid levels' in some areas.

Baroness Vere notes that high staff absence due to Omicron will be considered as an allowable exception under the terms of DfT bus recovery funding, subject to agreement between local transport authorities and operators about the services to be prioritised.

The Department will also consider continuing payment of light rail funding to operators where staff absence due to Omicron means that existing service levels cannot be guaranteed.

On local roads, the department asked authorities to review winter service plans 'in light of the increased risk of availability of gritter drivers' and to keep Local Resilience Forum (LRF) fully informed.

Authorities 'may need to prioritise even more rigorously the most important roads to be gritted' the minister wrote, requesting prioritisation for COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites and that 'priority routes are kept under review as pop up vaccination centres are rolled out'.

The letter also asked for local authorities to use all available means to communicate the priorities to road users, including social media and VMS signs.

Baroness Vere wrote: 'I would also encourage you to support and work together, and to ensure you have arrangements for mutual gritting aid, including via regional Highways Alliances and ADEPT and the LGA.

'The Department is also considering whether, in extreme circumstances of staff absence and adverse weather combining, additional winter service assistance from National Highways could be provided, depending on the resilience and prioritisation of Strategic Road Network operations, and geographic constraints.'

The letter also links to the latest guidance from ADEPT and the Highways Sector Council about safe operating within the pandemic available here. 

Following an earlier winter resilience survey released in the autumn, the DfT issued a further short survey on 16 December asking for details of any issues with regards to the availability of gritter drivers over the Christmas period (20 December 2021 to 3 January 2022).

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