Unite’s robust response to COVID-19 – by a London bus driver

London bus driver during COVID-19
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We went into lockdown on 23 March. The private London bus companies found themselves ill prepared for the Coronavirus pandemic that was to take the lives of 33 of our transport workers. 

Twenty-nine of them were my fellow London bus drivers.

Everyone was taken by surprise by this silent killer, but London’s bus companies were particularly slow to react, which added to the number of drivers being off self-isolating or actually contracting this horrible disease.

Two weeks into April bus companies were still not deep-cleaning buses and using the incorrect non-alcoholic hand-sanitiser.  Social distancing was not being observed or enforced in garages. It took a concerted effort from Unite’s lay bus driver members and regional officers to get all the bus reps in London stood down to oversee the cleaning of buses and to ensure the garages were being mapped out in a socially-distanced-friendly way.  

The reps were to become the most important people in the fight against Covid 19 in the bus garages.  They ensured buses would not be allowed to leave the garages unless they were fully cleaned each day, which led to many reps being in the garages for 12 hours or more to oversee the process.

Many drivers still felt vulnerable as the companies did not offer PPE. They demanded that front doors be sealed as many European companies were already doing.  Unite fought and won this, ensuring the front doors were sealed and the two seats behind the driver were taped off.  

Unfortunately, Transport for London advertised the scheme incorrectly by advertising that bus travel would be free, which actually vastly increased public usage thereby increasing the chance of passing on the virus.  Bus colleagues were dying on almost a daily basis and my colleagues were fearing for their lives whilst keeping the wheels of London moving.  The buses were running a Sunday service which meant fewer buses on the road, but longer hours for the bus drivers. Up to 12-hour shifts were commonplace. 

Realising that rear door boarding couldn’t last forever, as it meant no fares income for TFL, Unite campaigned to have the drivers’ cabs fully sealed and the air con rerouted  Unite London & Eastern Regional Secretary, Pete Kavanagh and lead Bus Officer John Murphy worked tirelessly with advice from University College London Virology to ensure that bus cabs were properly sealed and the front doors could once again be opened and cash taken.

As passenger usage increased, so did drivers’ fears, as more people crammed onto buses, many without face coverings.  Unite then campaigned and won the fight to restrict the number of passengers able to use the bus to avoid lack of social distancing.With the pandemic dynamics changing on a daily basis it has been a real fight to get in front and to make public transport safe for workers and for the public, but I believe Unite and bus driver reps have excelled themselves in the fight back against this vicious disease.  To those that have paid the ultimate price we must bow our heads in sorrow to remember them. To those that have worked flat out to keep London’s buses moving, as essential workers who can’t work from home, we must offer our heart-felt thanks