Fear on the buses

In the lockdown and beyond bus drivers want greater protection

By Julia Gregory, Local Democracy Reporter.

“People are saying ‘if I die, I die’ a bus driver revealed as he shared concerns about what could happen if we go through a bad winter dominated by coronavirus. The driver who lives and works in London said some of his colleagues are now fatalistic about Covid-19.

He agreed to talk to the Local Democracy Reporting Service but asked to stay anonymous.

He explained that “bus drivers never have a future, a career. Some people just do it to pay their bills. They are really down”.

And he said many drivers do not have family – partly due to the hours and the stress of their work – which can lead to marriage breakups.

“My biggest worry this winter is that potentially we might see double deaths,” he said.

His comments come after a challenging spring which saw 45 transport workers in London die from coronavirus, including 30 bus drivers, many from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, some of them with underlying health conditions which made them more vulnerable to the virus.

 It saw drivers campaigning for more safety measures, including boarding at the back or middle of the bus only, instead of at the front near the driver, protective screens round the driver’s cab and mandatory use of face masks. The measures were brought in during the spring.

Transport for London (TfL) said researchers from University College London found that safety improvements made to screens made it possible to return to frontdoor boarding as they reduced the risk of drivers contracting coronavirus from passengers.

The driver – who did not wish to be named – said: “We’ve had loads of problems with over-filled buses and people do not obey the maximum limits. It should not be for drivers to enforce it. Some press a button on the radio to inform the customers because it does cause conflict.”

As Londoners brace themselves to see if coronavirus rates rise again, the driver said he would like to see more safety measures. He called for:

– Temperature checks when staff clock in at every depot

– Shielding vulnerable staff on full pay

– Sanitisers on every bus to protect customers and staff

He claims that some transport staff are “not normally adhering to social distancing at bus depots and are even shaking hands.

“I think people think it’s going away” he said, some measures to encourage people into the city have helped, such as dedicated bus routes which have “improved traffic flows”. However, he fears that part of a bailout for cash-strapped Transport for London could see job cuts.

TfL has lost millions as passengers stayed away during the height of the pandemic and bus capacity has still been limited.

It was given a £1.6bn bailout in May and is now asking the government for a further £5.7bn to help it survive the next 18 months.

Claire Mann, TfL’s director of bus operations, said: “We have been devastated by the tragic deaths of our colleagues during this pandemic and protecting staff continues to be our top priority. We commissioned an independent study from University College London so we could urgently understand what steps we can take to further reduce the risk of others contracting coronavirus while at work.”

She said bus companies are signed up to a series of safety measures to prepare for any second wave.

 They include cleaning, inspections if concerns are raised and using long-lasting anti-viral cleaning fluid.

She said drivers are encouraged to report symptoms and reminded people about the steps to follow to stay safe, such as social distancing at depots and mess rooms, and she added that hand sanitiser and face coverings are “readily available”.

TfL also looked at the effectiveness of temperature testing to prevent the spread of coronavirus amongst bus drivers and said it is “allowing individual bus operators to decide on whether to introduce the measure, as the evidence is mixed”.

Senior TfL staff are also visiting depots to inspect mess rooms and toilets to ensure they are safe.

And Ms Mann added: “Enhanced sick pay is available for those suffering from coronavirus symptoms or having to self-isolate for up to 14 days because someone in their household has symptoms. This means drivers can take the necessary time off without fear of financial implications.”

She said: “Those who were previously shielding and considered too vulnerable to work are currently covered by the government’s job retention scheme, and we are working with bus operators to ensure that when this comes to an end, they are able to continue to minimise risk.”