Business groups hail HS2 launch despite Covid uncertainty

Critics say demand for additional long distance rail travel will not exist post-pandemic

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the HS2 Solihull Interchange building site in the West Midlands on Friday
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the HS2 Solihull Interchange building site in the West Midlands on Friday

Business groups have hailed the formal beginning of construction on HS2 despite the uncertainty around Covid-19 raising questions about whether the controversial infrastructure project is needed in post-pandemic Britain. 

Bosses at the country's biggest business groups welcomed the official start of the project, which could cost the taxpayer as much as £106bn when complete. 

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the CBI, said: "Much has changed since the CBI welcomed HS2 ambitions as proof of government commitment to its promised ‘infrastructure revolution’ back in February – but the case for HS2 has not.

"As the government looks to build back better after Covid-19, delivery of HS2 in its entirety will be more relevant than ever."

On Friday, Boris Johnson insisted that HS2 would be "crucial for our country" as he marked its formal launch. 

Activists take part in a demonstration against HS2 outside the Department for Transport as its construction officially began

The Prime Minister acknowledged that more people are working from home due to the virus but insisted that transport networks would be critical in the years ahead.

Speaking at the "shovels in the ground" event in Solihull, West Midlands, Mr Johnson said: "I think loads of people have had the benefit of working from home... It's been magnificent and it's definitely enhanced people's quality of life.

"But I've got absolutely no doubt that mass transit transport infrastructure is going to be crucial for our country, not just now, but in the decades ahead."

Directors at the British Chamber of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses and Make UK, the manufacturing trade group, also cheered the launch, citing the employment and regeneration benefits it will bring to the Midlands and the North. 

Tej Parikh, chief economist at the IoD, said: "Covid may affect some business travel in the medium term, but the need for better transport links across the UK has been acute for a long time now."

However, critics believe that the project will not "rebalance" the economy and argue that increased demand for long distance rail travel will not exist post-crisis as more people work from home.

Lord Berkeley, the former deputy chairman of a Government-commissioned review into HS2, has called for another assessment of the project due to the virus-induced disruption.

He said: "Investment should go into the regional services rather than the long-distance ones, which are actually pretty good anyway. I think it’s crazy to carry on without a serious review about whether it’s the right scheme and whether we can afford it and whether there’s a demand for the extra capacity given [that more people will be working from home]."

Additional reporting from Ben Gartside and Oliver Gill