'Instantly aggressive and confrontational'

Bus drivers face increased passenger abuse amid pandemic over face coverings

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Driving a bus has always been a stressful job, but the stresses have only increased amid the pandemic, where instead of just facing the usual challenges of driving a massive vehicle and ensuring passenger safety, they are also now literally risking their lives.

A review published last week 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.

In total, 34 London bus workers have died after contracting coronavirus, with dozens more meeting the same fate across the UK.

Unite has worked hard to pressure the government, bus companies and transport bodies like Transport for London (TfL) to implement additional safety measures for bus drivers amid the pandemic – one key measure Unite secured last month was mandatory face coverings on buses and other public transport.  

Speaking to UniteLIVE after that win, Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton explained why driving a bus was such a stressful job.

“Bus drivers have to play a number of roles in their jobs in addition to driving their buses,” he said. “They have to be psychologists, in managing passenger behavior; they have to be accountants as they handle passenger fares to the tune of thousands of pounds a day; and they have to be health and safety experts to ensure the safety of up to 80 passengers at any one time.”

“In order to carry out their jobs, they have to have an absolutely clear mind, or else they are a danger to themselves, to passengers and to others on the road. Throughout this pandemic bus workers have understandably been extremely anxious that they will catch the virus, or else bring it home to their families. Dozens of their colleagues have died from the virus, and every day for them is an emotional battle as they turn on their engines wondering if they will be next.”

Bus driver abuse

Now that lockdown measures have been gradually lifted, more and more people are leaving the confines of their homes and immediate neighbourhoods – with many boarding buses to go to work, shop or visit family and friends further afield.

With more passengers comes more stress – not only out of fear from being more exposed to a deadly virus that is still circulating in the UK but also from an increase in the incidence of abuse from passengers.

Seemingly every day, more and more news reports have revealed how bus drivers are dealing with aggressive passenger behaviour as lockdown eases and more passengers board buses.

This week, Leicestershire Live reported an incident where a passenger racially abused a bus driver who was driving form Loughborough and Leicester. The passenger then kicked the same bus driver later that very day when he encountered him again on a break.

Meanwhile, in St Helens near Liverpool, a passenger screamed abuse at a bus driver who refused to let her on because she wasn’t wearing a face covering. Such incidents involving passengers refusing to wear face coverings have become widespread.

One bus driver speaking to BBC Radio Manchester explained the reaction he often gets when he reminds passengers to wear masks.

“A lot of people, when asked, will pull one out of their pockets and be quite civil,” he said. “And then there’s a percentage of people who instantly become aggressive, as if you’ve said something rude or insensitive to them, they instantly just become aggressive and confrontational.

“I had a guy wish death upon my children because he didn’t have a face mask and I explained to him he couldn’t use public transport without one.”

In London the problem appears to be particularly pronounced, with many reports of passengers refusing to wear face coverings.

One bus driver, who has lost three of his colleagues to the virus, said it has become increasingly common for passengers to spit at the glass of drivers’ cabins.

Unite rep and London bus driver Joanne Harris said that bus drivers are often put in an impossible situation with regards to reminding passengers to wear face masks.

“It’s so difficult because the Government’s approach to the whole thing was that they didn’t want to make people wear them. Now they do,” she told My London.“If [a passenger] doesn’t wear one you leave it at that, because our drivers don’t want to get involved.

“A lot of our drivers don’t want to be spat at. It’s vile. There’s more abuse now, but bus driving has never been a job where you’re loved by the general public anyway.” 

‘We always push for most severe punishment’

Unite lead officer for buses in London John Murphy said employers must take a zero-tolerance approach to bus driver abuse from passengers.

 “I am aware that some members of public have felt the need to be abusive, and in some instances, use threats and even force,” he said. “We have raised these concerns with TfL and bus operators.

 “We expect that our members, who are entitled to come to work and be treated with respect, are given the opportunity and protection to ensure that they can.

 “We see this, as is always the case, to be the responsibility of the employer for ensuring our members are working in the safest possible environment, whether the employer is TfL or a company offering services on behalf of TfL,” he added.

 “We always push for the most severe punishment as a response for any abuse of our members, who are conducting a vital role in keeping London moving. We are aware that there have been – three at the last count – individuals prosecuted for threats, and spitting.”

By Hajera Blagg

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