“Business as usual as far as practicable”: transport and scientific personnel speak out about public transport safety

With the announcement from Transport Minister Grant Shapps MP, that national Public Transport networks will recieve a £2 billion grant, are Birmingham City Council doing enough to protect transport workers and commuters from the Covid-19 outbreak? George Bunn investigates.

An independent review was announced on the 21st May looking at infections on London buses after it had been revealed that 33 bus workers have died after contracting Covid-19, 29 of those being drivers. Is there enough protection for Birmingham bus drivers to prevent further deaths? And what is the risk to these key workers?

Johnny Meharry, speaking for Unite the Union, said that:

“It’s been a testing time for all of us…our profession is a naturally unhealthy one, we see conditions like diabetes, quite common in our industry as we are sitting down for sometimes up to ten hours a day

“It’s been a struggle but we’re working through it, and we’re working closely with the company.”

Unite the Union, who have over 1.2 million members nationwide, are calling on the government to provide support for transport workers, as well as making sure that workers are treated fairly and receive the proper furlough benefits.

A representative from National Express West Midlands, said:

“Throughout this crisis, we have worked closely with the union to develop our policy and communicate guidance to our staff. All our safety procedures are jointly agreed with the union – Unite.

“All our buses are permanently fitted with full-height perspex screens around the driver’s cab. And all National Express West Midlands bus drivers have gloves and hand sanitiser available to them.

National Express West Midlands are currently running three quarters of their services as normal, a list of which can be viewed here and they will be updating their services as the country eases out of lockdown.

West Midlands Railway were unavailable to make a comment, however on their website, they state that they will be enforcing social distancing measures and will effectively cut the number of people allowed on their trains by up to 90 per cent.

“We might have to see people using masks”

Willem van Schiek, Professor in Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham, spoke to Birmingham Eastside about how the virus acts in confined spaces such as public transport.

He said:

“It might be difficult if the carriage is busy, so that’s when we might have to see people using masks.

Because of things like the button to open the door on train carriages, it’s very important for people to practice hand hygiene when leaving public transport…I would encourage people to walk or to take a bike as much as they can.”

Jessica Bayton, a Physicians Assistant and microbiology graduate, also questioned the practicality of cleaning systems, saying that because of the multiple surfaces on public transport you have to touch, such as stop buttons, and the hand rails, there needs to be a rigorous and constant cleaning procedure to reduce the risk of contamination.

Exercise Cygnus, October 2016

Exercise Cygnus was a simulation exercise carried out by NHS England to test how well the health system would cope in a theoretical influenza outbreak back in October 2016.

The results of the test revealed that the government was not prepared to fully confront the issue, with one former government official stating in the Daily Telegraph that the results were “too horrifying to publish”.

The Department for Transport was one of the government bodies participating in Exercise Cygnus and, as part of the exercise, had two specific objectives.

  • “To update the department’s knowledge of the pandemic flu planning within the transport sector
  • “To test internal DfT crisis response arrangements”

As part of the Exercise Cygnus simulation, the Department for Transport went with the option that all public transport in the simulation would be run “business as usual as far as practicable”.

In addition to this, the report details that no representative from the Department for Transport appeared at the debrief led by Public Health England.

No one from the Department for Transport was available to discuss the findings from Exercise Cygnus.

In response to the operation, no recommendations were implemented. The full report can be read here.

Image: Pixabay

Emergency Transport Plan

In response to the challenges brought on by the pandemic, Birmingham City Council have announced the Emergency Transport Plan. In it, the council details what must be done in order for transport services to continue as close to normal as they can.

The report states that public transport services must be made as safe as possible in the short term for those who need them, and to transform the city centre to be more pedestrian-friendly with the creation of more walking and cycling routes as the city gradually comes out of lockdown.

The council have announced that, in conjunction with the Birmingham Transport Plan, no current road space will taken away from public transport. Councillor Zaffar has said that:

“This is a reset for how we move around the city. There is a lot more work to do – this is the start of our work to ensure we come out of the COVID-19 lockdown with the ability to travel safely, healthily and sustainably. I know our city can build a bright, healthy future – this is our chance to deliver it.”

Birmingham City Council have said that the Birmingham Emergency Transport Plan is due to be implemented in the course of the coming weeks as the country comes gradually out of lockdown, pending the evaluation stage.


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