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Blog by Joanne Harris, London bus driver

RESPONSE TO THE TfL COMMISIONED REPORT OF THE SECOND STAGE OF A STUDY BY UCL OF LONDON BUS DRIVER MORTALITY FROM COVID-19.

As you would expect the point of the report is to avert any blame for the 51 London bus driver deaths from coronavirus over the last year from those who commissioned it, Transport for London (TFL).  I would say that whilst outwardly it seems to have done so, it also suffers from inconsistencies and untruths.

The report starts by telling us that (TFL) leapt into action as soon as it became apparent that London bus drivers were becoming victims of this horrible disease and of course this was far from the case.  Back in Mid-April 2020, when garages were told to introduce hand sanitiser to garages, many did so but they bought the cheaper non-alcoholic version which, according to doctors, had no effect on CV19. 

By Early May many of us were hearing about bus companies across Europe in France, Germany and Spain sealing driver’s cabs and closing the front doors of buses to stop passengers from coughing or sneezing over bus drivers.  Unite started to campaign, and myself and others went on news channels to voice our concern over the lack of effort to protect bus drivers.  London and Eastern Unite officers and lay members piled on the pressure in in talks with TfL and Bus Companies, demanding they get a move on with these measures but it was a very slow process. 

I still argue that TfL and UCL’s claim that many BAEM colleagues died because they lived mostly in “areas of deprivation” is an easy cop out. There is far more to it than that.  All bus drivers are paid roughly the same so all are living in roughly the same conditions.   However Covid deaths for BAEM people are disproportionately higher than for their white colleagues, and we need a real in-depth medical study to ascertain why this is the case.  

The blame for all this lies squarely at the feet of an inept, out-of-touch government.  They deemed that economic wealth was more important than workers’ lives and we should never allow them to forget that. 

TfL state that they sealed the cabs of all 9,000 bus cabs to protect the drivers but later in the report mention they have introduced an improved ventilation system on 2,000 buses.  What about the other 7,000? It’s these continued half measures that create these situations.  What about the government’s ‘wash your hands’ campaign? How do you wash your hands correctly if the on-road toilets often have no cold water, let alone hot, and they are so filthy that they stink and are not fit for dogs, let alone humans.

No, it was the growing death toll of our wonderful bus colleagues that got TfL and the government motivated. It was Unite who put pressure on TfL and the bus companies and got all the London reps on permanent stand-down to ensure buses were being cleaned correctly, and ensured one-way systems, social distancing and the wearing of masks in communal areas were in place.  It was Unite, through pressure on TfL, that got the bus cabs sealed, the seats cordoned off and passenger numbers reduced.

The report also touches on the issues of fatigue and refers to Loughborough University’s 2019 report on that issue.  That report condemned TfL and the bus companies for the system in place which creates fatigue in drivers, causing the many accidents we saw in the press and drivers taking time off for stress-related issues.  They responded by sending bus company managers off on fatigue awareness training and trying to convince drivers that fatigue was of their own making.  We had posters appearing in garages asking ‘have you had enough sleep’ and questions were being asked of drivers to see if they went down the pub.  

Well, I can offer a solution to fatigue quite easily but it’s not one they would wish to hear.  Reduce the hours at work, give drivers a decent meal break and stop this endless fascination with having buses at exactly the right distance apart.  Get rid of 12-hour days, get rid of 40 minute meal breaks, stop trying for perfection in the busiest city in the world and you may just start to reduce fatigue and stress in London’ bus workers.

The launching of TfL’s £500,000 fatigue fund will be of little help to the driver but I suspect many companies will rush for the bonus.

Many drivers I have checked with also are wondering where are all these TfL staff that are supposed to be chasing passengers who refuse to wear masks. They seem to only appear when the news cameras are about, most of the time it’s left to the drivers who have been told not to get involved.

So, to finalise I would say like most government issues, the blame will inevitably be aimed at the bus drivers because we live in poverty-stricken areas, we don’t just go home and jump straight into bed so we can be refreshed for the next day, we do unfit stuff like socialise down the pub occasionally with friends that we shouldn’t have, etc, etc.  This is the usual pass the buck type of report that you would expect from an establishment that expects the working class to live to work for as little pay as possible and to doff our caps in thanks.  

The lives of bus drivers have played second fiddle to the bus companies’ lust for more profits.  The repayment for the bus drivers working their way through the pandemic is starting to be attacks on their pay, terms and conditions with one company trying to introduce fire and rehire.  The government were slow to react and go into lock down and the blame ultimately lies with them, so please forgive me if I don’t clap and cheer over the release of this report because the lives of our colleagues simply were worth far more than that.