Fragmentation of bus market has led to unclear Covid-19 guidance, says Labour

Jim McMahon has said that the fragmentation of the bus market has resulted in a “lack of clear guidance and advice” for drivers, and called on the government to provide clarity for the transport workers throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

In a letter to the government today, Labour’s new transport spokesperson urged Grant Shapps to set out clear guidance on issues ranging from whether cash should be banned on buses to how social distancing can be effectively managed.

He expressed concerns about the differing approaches being taken by operators and backed calls by trade unions for the creation of a national operators’ forum to bring together the government, the various bus companies and unions.

McMahon wrote: “There is a mix of overlapping and at times contradictory scientific advice and guidance in circulation. While this is understandable during an unprecedented time, the job of government should surely be to cut through that noise and give those that need it clear, unified and constant guidance and direction.

“The fact that different bus operators have diverging views on the best approach is confusing matters further. This can only be achieved with guidance for all transport operators which is then published and publicised by your department.

“There is concern relating to the provision of PPE, and which approach provides the best protection, the risk in transmission through cash handling, and how passengers can be managed as the lock down is lifted and patronage increases.”

In the correspondence, the Shadow Transport Secretary outlined the issues that he states the guidance should cover but not be limited to:

  • Whether drivers should be handling cash or should there now be a total ban on using cash on buses, if the latter is supported then that can only be realistically achieved by the government covering all revenue risk, in the same way it has with train operators;
  • Whether drivers should be issued with gloves, masks, and other PPE items as standard, what specification this PPE should be and, if there isn’t sufficient PPE, whether buses should still run;
  • Whether physical barriers (ie. screens) should be in place for all operating buses, and if the government will provide specification on the most effective installation;
  • How frequently buses should be cleaned and to what standard this cleaning should be, including routine deep cleaning;
  • The need for drivers to have additional breaks, where social distancing can be applied, built into shifts;
  • Whether a set number of seats from the driver should be unusable to ensure the driver is a minimum distance from passengers;
  • How social distancing can be effectively managed on buses (and for that matter within all modes of public transport), and how queuing and boarding can be managed to provide a safe environment for passengers and workers;
  • Whether, if possible, all passengers should board from doors other than the front, as is the case in London.

The intervention from McMahon follows accounts of bus drivers having fallen ill with Covid-19 over a period of several weeks. Trade unions have been calling for the transport workers to be provided with PPE throughout the crisis.

The number of recorded coronavirus cases in the UK is 138,078 – but with low levels of testing, the true figure is thought to be much higher. Confirmed hospital deaths from the virus have reached 18,738.

Below is the full text of the letter sent by McMahon to the government today.

Dear Grant,

I am sure you will join me in paying tribute to transport, distribution and logistics staff across the country. Without them our country would grind to a halt and we could not hope to respond to beat Covid-19. With all our frontline workers, they are the very best of us.

Across the country people are shocked and saddened by increasing reports of bus drivers losing their lives to Covid-19. Our thoughts are with the families of these brave professionals. Our drivers are keeping the country going in extremely difficult circumstances, and they will be central to our economic recovery.

I appreciate it is a tremendously difficult time for those in your Department and you’ll recognise the constructive approach that the Opposition is taking. I do, though, feel after weeks of this situation escalating, that it’s right to ask for clarity on a number of concerns that I, council leaders and drivers’ unions have.

There is a mix of overlapping and at times contradictory scientific advice and guidance in circulation. While this is understandable during an unprecedented time, the job of government should surely be to cut through that noise and give those that need it clear, unified and constant guidance and direction. The fact that different bus operators have diverging views on the best approach is confusing matters further. This can only be achieved with guidance for all transport operators which is then published and publicised by your department.

There is concern relating to the provision of PPE, and which approach provides the best protection, the risk in transmission through cash handling, and how passengers can be managed as the lock down is lifted and patronage increases. I believe such clear guidance should include but not be limited to:

  • Whether drivers should be handling cash or should there now be a total ban on using cash on buses, if the latter is supported then that can only be realistically achieved by the government covering all revenue risk, in the same way it has with train operators
  • Whether drivers should be issued with gloves, masks, and other PPE items as standard, what specification this PPE should be and, if there isn’t sufficient PPE, whether buses should still run
  • Whether physical barriers (ie. screens) should be in place for all operating buses, and if the government will provide specification on the most effective installation
  • How frequently buses should be cleaned and to what standard this cleaning should be, including routine deep cleaning
  • The need for drivers to have additional breaks, where social distancing can be applied, built into shifts.
  • Whether a set number of seats from the driver should be unusable to ensure the driver is a minimum distance from passengers
  • How social distancing can be effectively managed on buses (and for that matter within all modes of public transport), and how queuing and boarding can be managed to provide a safe environment for passengers and workers
  • Whether, if possible, all passengers should board from doors other than the front, as is the case in London.

It does appear that the fragmentation of the bus market has, in part, caused the lack of clear guidance and advice from being passed both from government to drivers but also from drivers up to your Department. I support calls from our trade union representatives that a national operator’s forum with government, operators and unions with driver and other bus workers’ representatives would greatly help in understanding the frontline issues, varying approaches, and practical solutions.

Finally, I know everyone in government is working hard to do all they can in this trying time, and I’d be grateful if you could pass on my thanks to those that work in your department.

I am raising these issues in the spirit of constructive engagement. I thank you for the continued dialogue that we’ve shared over the previous fortnight.

Yours Sincerely,

Jim

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