With Over Two Dozen Deaths, London Bus Drivers Fear Coronavirus Risk

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At least 28 bus drivers have died since the coronavirus outbreak began. And while new measures have been put in place to protect them, some worry it’s too little, too late.

The New York Times | Europe

London is a city gone quiet. Yet, with a stringent coronavirus lockdown in place and the normal bustle largely halted, bold red buses are still winding their way through the sprawling capital offering frequent service.

The buses are needed to keep essential workers moving — though often transporting only a scattering of riders at a time — and their drivers have spent the weeks since the outbreak plying their usual routes.

Now, more than two dozen of those drivers are dead as a result of the virus and some say they fear for their lives, despite new safety measures put in place in recent days.

“I think we all feel the fact that it could be any one of us,” said Lorraine, 62, who drives a route in South London. She asked that her last name not be used so she does not lose her job. While conditions have improved in recent days, she said, the past several weeks had worn on her.

“To be quite honest, I’ve felt real fear,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve felt such fear in all my life that I could die.”

While drivers have expressed concerns about the risks of coming into close contact with the public, it is impossible to say with any certainty how those who died became infected.

“The worker himself has the risk to be infected anywhere,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, the director of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness for the World Health Organization, “not just where he works.”

London, along with the rest of Britain, has been officially locked down since March 23, with all nonessential businesses shuttered, schools closed and public life halted. But like the public transportation of so many other cities, London’s buses and subways are still up and running, shuttling workers to and from the hospitals, grocery stores and other essential workplaces.

Last week, new protective measures were rolled out citywide requiring passengers to enter and exit buses at the middle or back doors where possible and to sit in those sections, well away from the drivers. Passengers don’t have to pay, for now, to avoid coming close to drivers.

But unions representing bus drivers, as well as the families of the victims, say the measures do not go far enough.

Unite the Union, which represents bus drivers and some other transport workers in London, recently issued a statement demanding that more be done, urging the city to provide personal protective equipment like sanitizing wipes, masks and gloves for all drivers, and urged the city to make face coverings compulsory for people using public transportation.

The measures were too late for Mervyn Mally Kennedy, 67, from Croydon in South London, who had driven a city bus for 16 years. When he reached retirement age two years ago, he decided to keep working, his daughter Penny Palmer said, as he was healthy and felt up to the job.

Ms. Palmer, a nurse, said her father wasn’t initially concerned about contracting the virus himself, though he did worry for his three daughters who work in the health sector. Little guidance was given to transportation workers, she said, describing it as a “forgotten sector.”

“A lot of bus drivers, like my dad, never complained about going to work,” she said. “But I do have a feeling he was nervous.”

On March 31, Mr. Kennedy came home from a 10-hour shift feeling unwell. A high fever and dry cough appeared.

A week later, he was taken to the hospital with shortness of breath. He died with coronavirus on April 7. Ms. Palmer believes that bus drivers still don’t have the necessary tools to do their job safely.

John Murphy, the lead Unite officer for buses in London, said deaths were having a ripple effect on the 22,000 to 24,000 among their “big family” of London bus drivers that he describes as the city’s lifeblood.

“Every time someone in London buses dies it is absolutely devastating,” he said. “The effect is massive.”

He acknowledged that getting personal protective equipment, or P.P.E., for drivers may be unrealistic in a country barely able to provide enough of it for health and social care workers, but added that something must be done.

“We knew this was coming at the very beginning of this year,” he said. “And even today there is no coordinated plan to produce, secure or supply the P.P.E. that’s so badly required.”

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has urged the British government to require that people wear nonmedical-grade masks in public in situations where they are unable to keep safely apart, such as in public transportation.

The World Health Organization has provided general guidelines on the use of masks in public, Dr. Briand said, but noted that the authorities have to prioritize.

“For people who are exposed very often and who can’t physically distance, the use of masks makes sense,” she said. “If they are older workers nearing retirement age or have an underlying condition, this person needs more protection.”

In a statement, Mike Brown, London’s transport commissioner, said the deaths were an “absolute tragedy” and offered condolences to the families of the transport workers who had died. But the commissioner maintained that everything was being done to extend safety measures.

Lorraine said that in the middle of last month, she woke to the news day after day that another of her fellow drivers had died. She considers herself a “proud London driver” who looks forward to seeing the familiar passengers on the route she has driven for decades. But she suddenly found herself scared to go to work.

“And then I thought, if I get Covid-19, I live here by myself, and if I get it and they take me to hospital I am not going to see my children, or my grandchildren,” she said.

So she began writing them letters, offering words of comfort if the worst were to happen.

In a video she made about driver deaths, Lorraine said, “I am put at risk,” adding, while crying, “I am frightened that I am going to die.”

Looking back, she says that she had reached a breaking point earlier this month when she made the video. And while her fears have eased since the front areas of buses were placed off limits to riders, she is still concerned about the city’s future.

Lorraine said she has already seen people begin to venture out in greater numbers, despite the lockdown still in place. That has her worrying about the rush of people back onto public transportation when restrictions are eased.

“They are saying there will be a second wave, and that is quite frightening,” she said. “But I’ll take every day as it comes. I’ll smile. I’ll do my job, because I’m proud to do my job and to get my people where they are going.”


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