While many people have died in the current coronavirus outbreak, transport workers amongst them, one recently revealed case is particularly shocking.
Belly Mujinga, a ticket office worker with Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) Southern at London Victoria station, died of coronavirus in April after being spat at on the station concourse. She was 47 years old and leaves behind her an 11-year-old daughter.
On 22 March 2020, Belly and a colleague were on shift at London Victoria. They were out on the concourse by the ticket office when they were assaulted by a member of the public who spat at them, coughed over them and told them he had the virus.
Not surprisingly, Belly and her colleague were shaken by their experience and went into the ticket office to report the incident, asking for the police to be called.
The two women asked not to be sent back outside but instead work from inside the ticket office with a protective barrier between them and the public for the rest of that day. They were concerned for their safety, but management said they needed people working outside and sent them back out onto the concourse for the rest of their shift.
Within days of the assault, both women fell ill with the virus.
Belly had underlying respiratory problems for which she had previously had time off work. She had problems breathing and had had an operation as well as regular hospital appointments.
Belly’s condition grew worse and she was taken to Barnet Hospital by ambulance on Thursday 2 April. She was put on a ventilator but died on 5 April, 14 days after she was assaulted. The last time Belly’s husband saw her was when she was taken away in the ambulance. At her funeral on 29 April, only ten people were allowed to attend.
Belly was a member of the TSSA union, which has reported the incident to the Railways Inspectorate, the safety arm of the Office for Road and Rail (ORR), for investigation. TSSA is also taking legal advice on the situation and supporting her family and colleagues. The British Transport Police is also investigating the incident.
Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, said: “We are shocked and devastated at Belly’s death. She is one of far too many front-line workers who have lost their lives to coronavirus. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock recently announced that £60,000 would be paid to the survivors of health and care workers who die as a result of the pandemic. Our view is that this compensation should be extended to the families of all front-line workers who perish trying to keep our country and vital services going.
“Sadly, Belly’s is just one of many family tragedies where children have had their parents taken away from them. However, there are serious questions about her death, it wasn’t inevitable. As a vulnerable person in the ‘at risk’ category and her condition known to her employer, there are questions about why GTR didn’t stand her down from front line duties early on in this pandemic. The assault she suffered at work was scary and we do not think the company treated it seriously enough.
“Rather than talking about the easing the lockdown, the government must first ensure that the right precautions and protections have been taken so that more lives are not lost. Anyone who is vulnerable should remain at home and home working should be the default wherever possible. Our rail industry needs to have a very serious look at what tasks are deemed ‘essential’ and must put protections in place for all our members and our passengers.”
Angie Doll, managing director, Southern Railway and Gatwick Express, said: “We are devastated that our dedicated colleague Belly has passed away and our deepest sympathies are with her family, with whom we have been in touch through this very difficult time.
“Tragically, many people across the country have now been directly affected by Covid-19, including those in the rail industry who are doing the vital job of ensuring train services can continue.
“We take any allegations extremely seriously, and we are investigating these claims. The safety of our customers and staff, who are key workers themselves, continues to be front of mind at all times and we follow the latest Government advice. We urge people only to travel if it is absolutely essential.”