New Normal on Buses Could Be Just Ten Passengers

Union officer says they are concerned for transport workers as lockdown eases

empty london bus
Picture: Mark Hillary

“Every driver will know someone or know of someone who’s been affected by coronavirus,” said union rep John Murphy, who represents London bus drivers.

The Unite union’s regional London officer said the capital’s 20,000 drivers are anxious about working during the coronavirus pandemic which has claimed the lives of 30 of their colleagues.

“They are nervous, that’s crystal clear,” he added.

He said bus travel in the future would need very strict limits of how many people can travel on a bus and it could need more buses and more drivers to cope with demand.

Passengers would also need to wear masks as a matter of course – at least until there is an effective vaccine and vaccination programme.

Mr Murphy – who was a driver for 24 years – said the government needs to give guidance on the number of passengers a bus can carry in the future to protect drivers and bus users from coronavirus.

He said: “We can’t avoid the facts of the matter – as we access buses, drivers will be affected disproportionately.”

Mr Murphy suggested seats could be taped off with a red cross or other markers to show they were out of bounds to ensure social distancing of two metres to try and reduce infection rates and a much feared second wave of the pandemic.

Bus travel in the foreseeable future could see passengers and drivers wearing face masks.

Currently drivers’ cabs are sealed off from the public and passengers are not allowed to board at the front of the bus.

But Mr Murphy said it could be difficult to police and could be down to hard pressed drivers to do

“We need to look at how to enforce that,” he said, and added the government needs to set out the figures.

He suggested double decker buses in the “new normal” era of coronavirus could carry just 10 or 15 passengers.

And he said London buses are currently running with just a quarter of the usual numbers of passengers. “It is taking 85 per cent off our normal scheduled buses. If you had ten people on the bus you will need more buses – and how is that going to be managed?” he said.

One bus driver who has lost a colleague and friend to coronavirus said: “London buses are the most diverse work force.

“A lot of my colleagues are really frightened. What we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks is a lot of people coming on the buses in huge numbers even though the front doors are closed.”

He said drivers wanted PPE and masks, which Mr Murphy said bus companies will supply.

He explained that some passengers have complained that buses are running late because of the reduced service and some have even got on drunk.

He said drivers are aware they are taking key workers like NHS staff to work and as construction staff are being encouraged by the government to head back to work he wants to see them put on face masks too if they have to get a bus.

Whilst he joins in the weekly Clap for Carers he said: “I’m also clapping bus drivers. We should have the same. We are taking carers to work.”

He added drivers are potentially exposed to the virus throughout the day which is adding to their stress levels.

And he called for bus drivers to be considered as key workers when it comes to access to affordable homes, alongside their colleagues in the NHS and teaching.

“It’s the most diverse industry and the lowest paid. We are often overcrowded,” he said.

His comments come as figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal that bus and coach drivers in England and Wales have disproportionately high death rates from coronavirus with 26.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the next phased step of recovery from the virus, London Mayor Sadiq Khan called on Londoners and commuters into the capital to carry on avoiding public transport.

Mr Khan stressed: “You must not use public transport for any unnecessary journeys. If you really have to travel, please avoid rush hour. Please walk or cycle whenever possible.”

Mr Khan added: “You must still stay at home as much as possible and keep a safe two-metre distance from other people at all times when you are out. Everyone must continue to work from home if they possibly can.”

And he emphasised: You must not use public transport for any unnecessary journeys. If you really have to travel, please avoid rush hour. Please walk or cycle whenever possible.”

He said London has a long way to go to defeat coronavirus and “we have not returned to life as it was before.”

It comes after the Department of Transport announced emergency travel plans to encourage people to avoid public transport and use greener methods of transport instead.

They include pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors.

Advice on the virus from Public Health England is available here.

Jessie Matthewson - Local Democracy Reporter

May 12, 2020