TRANSPORT Secretary Grant Shapps last night unveiled a multi-million package to keep freight services carrying vital goods to the UK operating throughout the coronavirus crisis.
Up to 31 routes are eligible for support, with up to £17 million available for those between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and up to £10.5 million for ferry and freight services to the Isle of Wight and Scilly Isles.
Further support will also be available for critical routes between Britain and the European mainland including Eurotunnel.
The move was part of a major package of transport measures designed to keep essential services running.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing, Mr Shapps said: “The continued operation of both passenger and freight transport is critically important to our resilience as a country.
“So today, Im announcing a new package of measures to ensure transport boosts our national response to Covid-19.”
He added: “I can announce the Government has secured a trilateral agreement, along with the French and Irish governments, which commits our nations to keeping freight roots open throughout this crisis, bringing in life-saving medicines, food, many other essential goods, allowing us time to meet the needs of our countries during this difficult period.
“Operators on many of these routes have been under rising financial pressure due to falling demand.
“Since many of them bring in crucial goods like medicines, raw material and chemicals to purify water, it is important to guarantee the continuation of these services.
“So were protecting ferry routes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland with funding of up to £17million.
“Were also taking action to secure services around the UK including £10.5million for links to the Isle of Wight and Scilly Isles, allowing critical freight to continue to support families in every part of our country.
The Government was also launching a new Transport Support Unit dedicated to keeping rail and other links open.
Light rail systems in Manchester, Sheffield, the West Midlands, Nottingham and Tyne and Wear will receive financial support under the move.
The funding is designed to ensure required capacity levels are maintained on the routes.
Support is expected to be provided within weeks once discussions with operators have been completed.
Four aircraft owned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are among the assets available to the unit, while Highways England can release control vehicles for potential use as mobile coronavirus testing centres.
Network Rail has 8,500 vans and lorries which can be used to transport essential items.
Mr Shapps also promised to fast-track the launch of drone trials between the mainland and St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight to ensure it is equipped to tackle the virus.
He said: “Essential supplies are continuing to flow well, but operators are facing challenges as fewer people travelling means less capacity to move goods.
“Today’s action will help ensure all parts of the UK have the capacity they need and, following on from our action to support the rail and bus sectors, it shows how this Government is acting to protect the transport links the country relies on.
“Now more than ever we need to work closely together, and the new Transport Support Unit stands ready to help our front-line staff and deliver crucial supplies.”