Coronavirus: ‘Fewer London bus drivers would have died had lockdown come sooner’, UCL report finds

Stock image of man on bus wearing protective mask amid coronavirus panic in UK. Picture: Victoria Jo

Stock image of man on bus wearing protective mask amid coronavirus panic in UK. Picture: Victoria Jones - Credit: PA

Steps to prevent bus drivers being exposed to coronavirus - including provision of PPE - should have been implemented sooner by TfL, according to a report commissioned in the wake of high numbers of them dying of the virus.

Emeka Nyack Ihenacho. Picture: Jessica Nyack Ihenacho

Emeka Nyack Ihenacho. Picture: Jessica Nyack Ihenacho - Credit: Archant

Bus driver deaths from Covid-19 in London exceeded those for the capital as a whole, with 27 of them dying at the start of the epidemic.

A report from UCL’s Institute of Health Equity, commissioned by TfL, said it “seemed likely” that increased exposure to the public had contributed to their deaths, and concluded that had lockdown come earlier it is likely that many fewer bus drivers would have died.

Among the bus drivers who died in early April, were Holloway drivers Emeka Nyack Ihenacho, 36, of St Alban’s Road in Highgate, who drove the 394 route, and Win Tin Soe, 61, who had driven the number 46 bus for 18 years. Nadir Nur, 48, worked for HCT Group and drove the 394 bus between Islington and Hackney. He was described to be in good health before he died of coronavirus.

Paul Aheto, who worked as a supervisor at Willesden garage also died,

Soe Win Tin. Picture: Theai San

Soe Win Tin. Picture: Theai San - Credit: Archant

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At the time their families joined calls for drivers to get personal protective equipment (PPE) at the time, saying it was “very important” for their own safety and the safety of others.

However TfL’s response was to say it was following Public Health England advice stating “PPE is not required in non-care settings and could be counterproductive”.

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TfL only introduced measures for passengers to board buses via their middle doors in mid-April, and some bus drivers who tried to implement that beforehand were threatened with losing their jobs.

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The report from UCL found a variation in the timing to implement actions to reduce coronavirus transmission, which included daily anti-viral cleaning, enhanced cleaning, closing holes on assault screens, restricted access to front seats and middle door boarding, to communications given to drivers, HR policies and advice, access to hand sanitiser, wipes and masks, and access to toilets, enhanced cleaning of premises, adapted premises to aid social distancing, and cleaning inspections.

Some of the actions were initiated by some of the 10 companies that operate for TfL in March, but other operators introduced some measures as late as June. While anti-viral cleaning and advice to drivers was initiated by most of them before March 23, closing holes in the assault screens and provision of wipes was more common after April 3.

Middle door boarding was only implemented on April 20 when TfL announced that customers “will not be required to touch in” with their payment card or device from that date.

Islington councillor and London Assembly member for the Green party, Caroline Russell, said: “Bus driver deaths have been a shocking reminder of the toll of coronavirus on London.

“People going to work just to keep our city moving have lost their lives. The report rightly highlights the need for faster action and a more uniform approach to bus driver wellbeing among bus companies, which the Mayor should lead, through TfL.

“During the lockdown, I urged TfL to bring in middle door boarding on buses, be clear on PPE and improve access to toilets and facilities for hand washing.

“The government have their share of responsibility here, but the Mayor can and should act to prioritise transport worker safety and public health.”

The report said the high number of bus driver deaths could also have been due to factors such as their age, living in areas characterised by deprivation, having a high proportion of members of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups and the presence of underlying health conditions like hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, which are associated with an increased likelihood that infection with Covid-19 becomes fatal.

TfL’s safety chief Lilli Matson said: “We have been devastated by the tragic deaths of our colleagues during this pandemic.

“We commissioned this independent study so we could urgently understand what more we can do to reduce the risk of others contracting coronavirus.

“It’s clear that frontline workers across the country have disproportionately suffered from coronavirus, which is why we worked closely with all London bus operators to introduce measures to help keep the capital’s drivers safe.”

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