Earlier lockdown could have saved London bus drivers' lives

Unite calls for action following review of high bus driver death rates from Covid-19

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Imposing an earlier lockdown could have saved many bus drivers’ lives, a new report has found.

The review into the high death rate of bus drivers amid the Covid-19 pandemic, commissioned by Transport for London (TfL) and carried out by University College London (UCL), found male bus drivers in London were 3.5 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than males in other occupations across England and Wales.

The study also found that most of the 34 London bus workers  who died from coronavirus first fell ill on the 10 days either side of the lockdown first being imposed on March 23, suggesting that an earlier lockdown could have potentially prevented a majority of bus driver deaths in London.

The report, led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a leading expert in health inequalities, explained why bus drivers were at much higher risk than the general population of contracting – and dying from – coronavirus.

Besides higher rates of exposure on the job, bus drivers are much more likely to have underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure, which are known to exacerbate the virus. The researchers were able to examine 13 death certificates of bus drivers who succumbed to coronavirus after falling ill, and in seven of those certificates, high blood pressure or hypertension were listed as contributing factors in their deaths.

People from Black and Asian Ethnic Minority (BAEM) backgrounds are also more likely to contract the virus because of the systemic inequalities they face, such as being more likely to have health conditions, more likely to live in crowded accommodation, and more likely to live in more deprived areas were the virus is more prevalent.

This played out in the review of bus driver deaths as well – of the 44 total London transport worker deaths, 31 were from BAEM backgrounds.

Commenting on the study, Sir Marmot, the director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, said, “Driving a bus, coach or taxi is among the frontline occupations associated with increased risk of death from Covid-19. Because London was an early centre of the pandemic, it is likely that the increased risk among London bus drivers is associated with exposure.”

“Our review explicitly suggests that lockdown was the main factor that saved bus drivers’ lives,” he added.  “If lockdown had occurred earlier, it would likely have saved more lives. For those with high blood pressure, exposure to Covid-19 is particularly hazardous, disproportionately affecting drivers of ethnic minority backgrounds. In addition to reducing exposure to the virus, all drivers should therefore be screened for health risk, with those most vulnerable to dying from the virus receiving the most benefit.”

Unite regional officer John Murphy called for a full public inquiry into the high rates of bus driver deaths amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This report makes it quite clear that in its approach to lockdown the government tried to lock the stable door after the horse had bolted,” he said. “London bus drivers and their families paid a terrible price for the government’s mistakes during the pandemic and these should be fully scrutinised in a public inquiry.

“The report also highlights the serious health consequences driving buses can have on staff, which left many drivers especially vulnerable to the virus. Bus companies cannot continue to ignore the impact carrying out the role has on their drivers’ wellbeing,” he added.

“Driving a bus has always been incredibly stressful and fatiguing, especially in cities where there’s lots of passengers and busy streets. Practices such as remote sign on, drivers waiting at bus stops to begin their shifts and excessive hours, as well as a lack of access to toilet, hygiene and meal facilities, compound the role’s numerous health risks.

“These issues need to be addressed both by the bus companies and TfL,” Murphy continued. “The coronavirus has not gone away and the potential for second spikes needs to be urgently prepared for.”

Murphy went on to say that there was action that TfL and bus companies can take immediately to mitigate risk.

“In the immediate term, the monitoring of drivers’ health by employers needs to seriously improve, as does access to hand washing facilities,” he said. “As a priority, bus companies must also disclose their plans to deal with further incidents.

“The risks associated with bus driving existed long before the coronavirus pandemic, however, and it is crucial that reforms protect against not only the immediate threat, but the long-term impacts drivers face on their health and wellbeing.”

By Hajera Blagg

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