The UK government is facing mounting pressure to reverse its controversial decision to scrap free public transport for under-18s in the capital.
More than 120,000 people and counting have signed a petition calling on British officials to reconsider plans to suspend free travel for children and teenagers, as part of a £1.6 billion Transport for London (TfL) Covid-19 bailout package.
The move, which officials believe will help avoid overcrowding on transport, is due to come into effect before September when schools reopen. But concerns have been raised that some of the most disadvantaged children in the capital may not be able to return to class if they cannot afford to get there.
Olivia Faria, 17, who launched the petition, told Metro.co.uk the rule change is ‘upsetting’ and has added unnecessary stress to London families, particularly at a time when many are already financially struggling due to the pandemic.
The Year 12 pupil, from Croydon, said: ‘I felt that it was very interesting how they have targeted young people and that so many people are going to be affected by this – especially disadvantaged families.
‘In extreme cases some people may not be able to go to school. A lot of younger kids really rely on the Zip card,’ she added. ‘It’s sad that people aren’t seeing how important this is to us.
‘It seemed if no one speaks up it was just going to happen. It’s like the government’s almost getting away with certain things.’
Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) launched the Don’t Zap the Zip campaign, encouraging the public to email their local MP alongside an almost 200,000-strong petition. It said the move has ‘hit a nerve’ at a time of economic instability and that ‘no youngster should be left behind’.
Since 2005, Londoners under the age of 18 have had access to public transport for free or at a discounted rate by showing a Zip card.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the plan to temporarily scrap free transport was added by the government as an eleventh-hour condition of TfL’s support deal, following weeks of discussions. He branded the move ‘unfair’, adding that it will ‘hit the poorest Londoners hardest’.
Olivia, who travels 30 minutes by bus and tram to get to school, will be one of thousands of young people who would not be able to pay for her own travel.
Under current plans, it will soon cost her £3 a day to get to and from school, which adds up to £30 a week or £120 a month. This figure is not including extra-curricular activities, school trips, or visiting friends and family.
She said: ‘It definitely would be a struggle and it would mean we would have to reduce other things. I have a sister too, so it would be £60 a week extra – it’s such a large cost.’
But families who may not be able to afford to send their children back to school, and cannot drive, cycle or walk there, face fines in September.
Olivia said: ‘Ultimately, some families might just think it’s better taking this one fine than paying £60 each week. The amount of kids going to school will definitely decrease.
‘It’s sad to think that some kids – who barely have enough money for lunch – may just lose faith and not want to go. I don’t want anyone to go through that.
‘It worries me because it seems like the government almost doesn’t prioritise young people – especially those from poorer backgrounds.’
CPAG’s London Campaigns manager Alice Woudhuysen said: ‘We all want London children to have a good start in life but if free travel is axed it will make it harder for kids to get to their school or college, take part in social activities and access support services. That isn’t right.’
She said officials should be ensuring that all children have what they need to ‘thrive’, adding: ‘The Government must heed the swell of support for this petition because it shows Londoners are really concerned that no youngster should be left behind.’
The mayor of London has called on the government to find an alternative solution.
A spokesperson said: ‘Sadiq has been clear that suspending free travel for under 18s is unfair, could hit the poorest Londoners hardest and will place additional administrative and financial burdens on already stretched schools and local authorities’.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: ‘The decision about under-18 travel is a temporary measure to help tackle the spread of Covid-19 and reduce the risk of crowding on our transport network.
‘We have also ensured the concession for children eligible under national legislation for free home to school travel will continue.’
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