Bus drivers fear for their safety and are calling on their employers to clean up dirty vehicles after 14 transport workers died from coronavirus in London alone and further deaths were recorded in Birmingham and Bristol.
Transport for London (TfL) announced on Wednesday that it was trialling a new system that will see passengers board via doors in the middle of the bus to reduce contact with drivers.
The Unite union said there was no time for a trial of the new boarding system and that it should be rolled out across London immediately after nine drivers and five other TfL workers died in the capital.
It came as one grieving mother issued a tearful plea on Wednesday for transport workers to be given protective equipment after her 36-year-old son, Emeka Nyack Ihenacho, lost his life to coronavirus.
Drivers say they are scared of catching the coronavirus because they do not have personal protective equipment (PPE) and buses are not being properly cleaned.
One London bus driver, Joanne Harris, who has been doing the job for 12 years, told The Independent: “The bus drivers are scared to death at the moment, they really are.
“Now drivers are starting to hear that people are dying out there. We’ve lost a friend in out garage – 32 years he was in this business. He died in the last few days.
“We used to sit down and have lunch together in the canteen. We were good working colleagues, always chatting. It’s so hard to lose these people, it really is.
Ms Harris knows three other people, who don’t work as drivers, who have also died from the virus.
“When you see four people that you know just die, that brings it home to you.”
She believes TfL and the bus companies that run the network have not fully introduced boarding via the rear doors because it will reduce revenues.
“It’s all about money. If you close the front doors [passengers] would all go for free, but we’re only supposed to be taking essential workers anyway.”
Unite is calling for the front doors on London buses to be locked immediately and alternative arrangements should be made for payment.
For buses outside of London, the union is demanding that all buses are fitted with a fully enclosed screen separating the driver from passengers, and that cash payments are no longer accepted. It also wants the maximum number of passengers to be reduced.
Unite regional secretary for London Pete Kavanagh said: “The coronavirus is a clear and imminent threat and tragically too many bus workers have already lost their lives.
“TfL needs to roll out the policy of locking the front door on all its buses immediately. Card readers can be moved to the central doors but the priority has to be safety, not income. Bus workers are key workers they must be treated as such and not as second class citizens.”
Anne Nyack, mother of Emeka Nyack Ihenacho, a bus driver who died after contracting coronavirus, criticised London Mayor Sadiq Khan over the lack of PPE.
Appearing on Good Morning Britain, she said: “He needs to get out there and have a look at the buses and see what condition the drivers are operating in.
“They are at risk, my son was at risk, sadly he died.” She said her son had spoken to his partner and his sister about the “dirty” conditions on the buses.
Ms Nyack pleaded with Mr Khan to provide better protection for transport workers and asked him to visit the families of those who have died.
She said of her son: “He was given hand sanitiser – he had no mask, no gloves, nothing.
“Plus, he was asthmatic, he was open to the elements.
“I don’t want a letter or a telephone call, I want him (Mr Khan) to see the real faces of the tragedy, which is me and all the other bus drivers that have lost their lives.”
In an emotional tribute, a tearful Ms Nyack described her son as “a lovely man with a heart of gold”.
“He would help anybody,” she said. “He was full of laughter and always a joker, he had a nickname for all of us.”
Additional reporting by PA news agency