A former Transport for London (TfL) board member has accused academics of providing “political cover” for the Mayor of London with a report on bus driver deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.
At least 29 bus drivers have died of Covid-19 in the capital, and University College London (UCL) issued the first stage of its report on the issue two weeks ago.
But Michael Liebreich, who served on the TfL board between 2012 and 2018, claims the report failed to adequately consider Sadiq Khan’s duty of care to drivers, or the underlying problems that may have contibuted to deaths.
The report’s author, Sir Michael Marmot, said he “firmly rejects” any accusation of political bias in his research.
The first phase of UCL’s Institute of Health Equity report on bus driver deaths was to assess the safety measures put in place by TfL during the pandemic and recommend improvements if necsssary.
It found bus companies’ reponses to Covid-19 varied, with some operators slow to put extra safety measures in place to protect staff.
It also noted that the number of deaths had varied between companies – but academics have not yet analysed the possible significance of these patterns.
Researchers urged TfL to plan a more co-ordinated response in case of a second wave.
But the study also suggested that most drivers who died caught coronavirus before lockdown – and blanket restrictions were therefore the best protection.
More bus drivers would have survived if lockdown had been brought in sooner, it concluded.
But Mr Liebreich, who has previously campaigned for the Conservative Party, branded the stage one findings “outrageous” and “absolutely extraordinary”.
No report would “exonerate” Public Health England or the Government, both of whom “dropped the ball” on protecting bus drivers, he said.
But the UCL study failed to sufficiently examine the Mayor’s responsibility, Mr Liebreich claimed.
In a letter to Professor Marmot sent last week he argued that the study shows “a quite inexcusable lack of academic rigour”.
The evidence available does not prove that lockdown is the most effective protection for drivers – and the report’s future recommendations to TfL suggest the network could have taken more action to save lives, he claimed.
“Either you believe TfL has the tools to help, or you don’t,” he told the Local Democracy Service.
Mr Liebreich said the Mayor could have acted sooner and brought in his own rules for London – such as making face masks mandatory on public transport ahead of the rest of the country.
“If his only job is implementing national policy then why do we have a Mayor,” Mr Liebreich asked. “Why not have a civil servant who is competent?”
The former TfL board member is also concerned that bus companies did not implement safety measures uniformly when TfL asked them to – and that the UCL report is too willing to accept the network’s timeline without challenge.
The Local Democracy Service has previously reported bus drivers’ concerns that companies were not all following through on promises of extra protection.
To restore the credibility of the report, the next phase must fully consider the underlying problems that put bus drivers at risk, Mr Liebreich said.
As well as the generally sedentary nature of the job alluded to in phase one, this should include fatigue caused by long hours and work pressure, he said.
A study by Loughborough University last year found one in six London bus drivers had fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous 12 months.
Mr Liebreich said his letter was not an attempt to “embarrass” UCL or to suggest that the Mayor alone is responsible.
He said he wanted to “raise the stakes” and make it “impossible to ignore” bus drivers’ working conditions.
But Professor Marmot said Mr Liebreich’s concerns were mostly “political rather than scientific” and should be raised by politicians in public debate.
“We are committed to maintaining the integrity and probity of academic research and firmly reject any accusations of political partiality,” he said.
“Our independent study is only at stage one and we are considering the scientific aspects of the points raised in making plans for stage two.”
TfL health and safety chief Lilli Matson said the UCL study was helping the network “urgently understand” how to stop more drivers catching Covid-19.
“The recommendations in the report provide us with a roadmap to further protect bus drivers,” she said.
“It is clear from this piece of work and others that there are certain characteristics that make people more vulnerable to coronavirus.”
The second phase of the report will assess how the nature of bus drivers’ jobs increased their exposure to the virus and will include interviews with around 1,000 drivers, TfL has said.