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Middle door bus policy is ‘raising risk of virus spread’ as passenger numbers soar

Driver blames fare-dodgers for increase in passengers and union calls on TfL to protect the public

22 April, 2020 — By by Sam Ferguson

A memorial to bus drivers who died with Covid-19 outside Holloway Bus Garage

DRIVERS and unions are calling for more buses on the roads to protect travellers from coronavirus after a “huge increase” in passenger numbers this week in the wake Transport for London’s new middle-door boarding policy.

TfL has been under fire for weeks amid calls for greater protection for their workers, who are battling to transport key workers to where they need to be as the crisis continues.

Concerned by rising numbers of deaths among TfL workers, reported to be at least 29 on Tuesday, transport staff and unions have made urgent demands for extra protection.

Their demands included more PPE, enhanced cleaning and the introduction of middle-door boarding, introduced on London buses this week.

But the policy has now led to an increase in passenger numbers as people take advantage of the system to travel for free, with drivers now raising concerns about the ability of people to socially distance on busy buses.

“Basically it’s seen as free travel,” said Highbury bus driver Robert Murphy. “We are getting a lot of people hopping on and off.

“Yesterday, for example, my first trip was busy to the point that people were not able to keep a safe distance from each other. Added to what I’ve heard from other drivers, it’s fair to say there’s been a huge increase instantly from Sunday to Monday.

“We’re running a Sunday services so there aren’t enough buses to keep people safe.

It’s a case of passenger increase and no increase in the number of buses on the road.

“There’s no payment whatsoever. The Oyster readers are all at the front of the bus. It’s free travel across London now on the bus network.

“For us drivers, that’s not a bad thing because we’re sealed off from the general public. But you can see that people are on top of each other. I’ve had to tell passengers to move upstairs where there’s more room.

“I think TfL need to re-think the running service. I think they need to increase the amount of buses on the road so people can maintain social distancing while on the buses.”

Buses have a new middle door boarding policy [Photo: Simon Lamrock]

Unite the Union has said it is not surprised at the increase in passenger use, and called on TfL to take action to protect the public.

Regional officer for London buses John Murphy, who is no relation to Robert Murphy, said: “Unite is not surprised at the increase, we have discussed this concern with TfL and recognise that it also coincides with the partial return to work in sectors such as construction.

“It is the responsibility of Transport for London to monitor bus usage and if buses are busier then it is imperative that they take measures to ensure that social distancing is maintained on buses.

“If there is a funding issue then the Department for Transport needs to assist, the safety of drivers and the travelling public must come first.”

Unite has also called for face coverings to be compulsory for people using public transport, and demanded more PPE for drivers.

The Tribune previously shared footage filmed by Mr Murphy, who lives in Highbury, which showed his cab covered in “saliva stains” and other signs of uncleanliness, despite TfL’s promise of enhanced cleaning to protect drivers.

Mr Murphy said: “PPE is still a huge thing for drivers. The situation is terrible. Lots of drivers would like to be wearing face masks. I don’t have one, but I’ve ordered one and am waiting for it to arrive.

“A lot of drivers are making their own, and are tying all sorts of bandanas around their faces.

“We have hand santiser but it runs out very quickly, so we often go two or three days without until it’s replaced.”

 

Last week Unions joined together to mourn colleagues and protest the lack of PPE available for drivers outside Holloway Bus Garage.

Unite’s Mr Murphy said more needed to be done.

“Personal protective equipment like sanitising wipes, masks and gloves must be available to drivers if they want it – and not all do – and face coverings should be compulsory for people using public transport,” he said.

“Testing in even the simplest form must be carried out urgently.

“Unite is demanding consistently high and uniform standards across all London’s bus operators and we will continue to work tirelessly to make sure our members are treated with the respect they have more than earned, keeping the capital’s transport moving for key workers at this time of national emergency.

“It is time for those responsible for London’s bus network to step up further, and provide the proper and sufficient amounts of PPE our members need so badly.”

A TfL spokeswoman said: “We will always do absolutely everything possible to protect transport workers and customers, and have introduced a wide range of measures to improve safety on buses including middle-door boarding, covering the holes in drivers’ protective screens with film, enhancing the cleaning regime and asking customers not to sit in the seats nearest the driver

“The Mayor recently wrote to the Government to request updated guidance on the issue of face coverings, noting that some other countries are using this approach as part of their strategies to recover from the crisis.  We are aware that the Government is now reviewing the evidence about use of face coverings by the general public and we will continue to do all that we can to ensure a safe public transport network for Londoners. The Mayor has also asked us to look into the availability of PPE stock for transport workers, in case the advice from public health experts changes.

“We are doing everything possible to ensure people can observe social distancing. We are running around 85 per cent of bus services, which is the maximum that we are able to run given the levels of staff illness that the bus industry, like every other, has faced during the pandemic. These services are currently seeing around 15 per cent of the usual number of journeys.

“Middle door boarding was introduced following discussion with the Unite union to help give further protection to bus drivers. We are monitoring the new system closely and will clearly need to review it regularly as the country moves through different phases of restriction of movement.

“We continue to urge everyone to consider carefully whether their journey really is essential. Most Londoners can do their bit to protect our bus colleagues and those making essential journeys by remembering: stay home, don’t travel, save lives.”

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