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'Give us bloody masks': Union calls for Covid-19 protection

Sydney bus drivers won’t rule out strike action as governments, employers and transport experts grapple with how to keep people safe as restrictions ease.

A Covid-19 sign at St Peters station, Sydney. The Rail, Tram and Bus Union says increased passenger numbers due to the easing of coronavirus restrictions must not threaten workers’ safety. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

The union representing bus workers in Sydney has said it cannot rule out strike action if the increase in passenger numbers due to the easing of Covid-19 restrictions threatens drivers’ safety.

The secretary of the New South Wales Rail, Tram and Bus Union, David Babineau, criticised NSW government advice that drivers should not enforce new 12-person capacity limits on buses and instead accept all passengers who attempt to board as unclear and potentially hazardous to drivers.

Asked whether the union would consider industrial action if physical distancing could not be maintained on buses, Babineau told the Guardian “nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety” of drivers.

State governments, employers and transport experts are grappling with how to keep passengers safe on public transport as restrictions ease.

The NSW transport minister, Andrew Constance, announced measures on Monday to ensure physical distancing, which include a reduction in the number of people allowed in a train carriage from 123 to 32, delegating where people can sit and stand, and securing more public parking to accommodate the anticipated increase in drivers avoiding public transport.

On Tuesday morning the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said drivers “have every opportunity to enforce safety and have access to anything which makes them be safer”.

But Babineau said the contradiction in messaging had led the union to consider implementing its own information campaign for drivers and public transport users to encourage safe social distancing.

“There needs to be a huge public campaign about the new rules here. The union needs to bypass the government entirely and appeal to passengers directly.”

He also pleaded with the government to “give us bloody masks”.

“We’ve been asking for it forever, masks, masks, masks.”

The NSW government advice about the limits states that “all drivers have ongoing access to hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes”, but does not mention masks.

Babineau also said he was frustrated the new limits were announced only days before the full return of schooling in the state.

“There’s a total lack of clarity on this. We’re being told social distancing is vitally important,” he said, pointing out the advice to drivers also states school children and vulnerable riders should never be left at a bus stop and urges drivers to avoid confrontation with passengers flouting distancing, regardless of whether the 12-passenger limit has been reached.

“There’s no mechanism to enforce this. Is it a rule, a guideline, or a suggestion? They’re all very different things. Someone needs to do something concrete here.”

The Guardian contacted Berejiklian’s office for clarification, and received a response from a Transport for NSW spokesman that said: “Our frontline transport staff have been doing an amazing job during this unprecedented time and we urge customers to keep showing them their respect and understanding.”

Ensuring physical distancing on public transport is not as simple as just limiting the number of passengers. It requires coordination between a number of systems, said Prof Mark Stevenson, an epidemiologist and urban transport expert at the University of Melbourne.

Stevenson said that creative thinking was needed to make up for the reduction in the number of seats on buses, trams and trains.

“Public transport is a finite resource, you can’t just increase the number of trains,” he said.

“If 20% of the train is filled up [towards the start of the journey], it’s going to be a very difficult scenario for people at later stops to get access.”

Instead, cities should be looking to facilitate “active transport” options: walking, running and biking to work, he said.

“In Victoria, 14% of all car trips are under 5km in distance, and they could be made by either walking or cycling. But the reason people choose not to do that is often for safety,” Stevenson said.

“I think there is potential for governments to think of this time as an experiment, and say ‘OK, in the short term, we are going to provide at least one lane or half a lane on major roads to cyclists within a 10km radius of the city to allow them to ride on a roadway that is safe’.

“You don’t have to spend an enormous amount of money on infrastructure.”

Australia has experienced a massive boom in bike sales since coronavirus lockdown measures came into place.

James van Rooyen, the founder of Australia’s largest online bike retailer, Bicycles Online, said it had seen a “second wave of people wanting [to buy bikes] for their daily commute”. In the past month, the company had a 225% increase in commuter bike sales and a 310% increase for e-bikes.

As a result, companies have also had to think about how to facilitate this shift towards active transport. The deputy chief executive of ANZ, Alexis George, said the company had to rethink original plans to close communal showers in its offices.

“We have a lot of people who want to run or bike to work if they are so inclined … so we’ve had to think about whole new cleaning regimes around those bathrooms and how we can keep those open for those who cycle,” she said.

Staggering work hours has also been suggested as a means of mitigating the pressure on peak-hour services.

George said a recent staff survey revealed the main concern of employees about returning to work was around catching public transport safely.

“I think they have faith that we will keep our office safe, but it’s the public transport. So that’s about being a bit creative around the start times … we can’t all come in at 8.00am to 9.30am because those are the typical peak travel times,” George said.

Stevenson said governments should create policies that would help commuters combine active and public transport options. These include allowing riders to take their bikes on public transport, and staggering bus start-points so that workers can ride to a certain point along their commute to catch an empty bus.

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