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.
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.
At least 37 of London’s transportation workers, including 28 bus drivers, have died from the coronavirus since the outbreak began in hard-hit Britain, according to the latest numbers, released on Friday by Transport for London or TfL, the government body that manages public transportation in the city. Around 27,000 people work for TfL, the group said.
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.
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.