A leading transport workers' union is calling for greater protection for Transport for London (TfL) staff following the deaths of three employees due to COVID-19 in recent days.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union is demanding immediate action amid the surge in London’s cases of COVID infection and the rise of the new variant strain.
The union has written to London Mayor Sadiq Khan and London Underground demanding that only staff running an essential service are required to work and that all non-essential engineering work be suspended.
It is also asking for a supply of higher grade masks for workers and for all vulnerable staff to be sent home.
Of the 57 deaths attributed to COVID-19 across the network, 42 staff worked on London's buses, eight were Tube and rail workers, three staff were from the TfL head office, and four from partner organisations.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said that while the union does not wish to enter into a dispute situation in this matter, it rules nothing out if its demands are not met.
Responding to a request for further information, TfL told IOSH magazine that the transport network is regularly tested for coronavirus, with no evidence of the virus found to date. Since September, Imperial College London has carried out independent monthly air and surface sampling on buses and Tubes. The results from the first three rounds of collaborative sampling were all negative for the presence of COVID-19.
'A one-way system is in place in stations so that people don’t mix,' the spokesperson added. 'This is achieved by measures including closing entrances and ticket barriers and shutting off escalators.'
An enhanced cleaning regime using hospital-grade cleaning substances that kill viruses and bacteria on contact provides ongoing disinfection, while more than 1000 hand sanitiser points and more than 150 ultraviolet light sanitising devices on escalators have been installed across the network.
'All TfL and frontline bus operator staff have been offered face masks to help prevent the spread of coronavirus,' he added. 'These function in the same way as face coverings, in that they could help prevent the wearer from giving the virus to someone else, rather than stopping them from getting the virus.
'Social distancing is in place in depots, with tables and chairs in canteens and other rest areas reduced to force social distancing. At bus garages, stands and stations, additional buses have been parked and designated as staff rest areas and we are in the middle of a programme of installing more suitable larger mess rooms at the most used locations.'
TfL told IOSH magazine that protective film to cover communication holes was added to the screens in bus drivers’ cabs in early April, and UCL analysis found this greatly reduces the risk to drivers of contracting coronavirus from passengers. Temporary middle door boarding was introduced in April to increase the distance between drivers and customers, and to allow for further safety measures to be added to the driver cabs. Analysis by UCL has found that closing up the remaining gaps around the screens to 5mm or less made it possible to return to front-door boarding along with collaborative work with unions and bus operators.
Andy Lord, managing director of London Underground, told IOSH magazine: 'I would like to express my sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of our colleagues who have sadly passed away from coronavirus. The safety of our colleagues and customers is the most important thing to us and we are regularly meeting with the trade unions to work together and respond to their concerns.
'We continue to follow Public Heath England and Government guidance and we are supporting clinically extremely vulnerable colleagues to shield at home. We will continue to take robust measures to reduce the risk of infection in workplaces in addition to the continued regular rigorous cleaning of the transport network and staff facilities.'
A review commissioned by TfL and led by the UCL Institute of Health Equity last summer suggested that many of the London bus drivers who died from coronavirus at the start of the pandemic were suffering with underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure.