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An assault on a railway ticket officer who died of coronavirus after being coughed and spat at while on duty was not reported to police until weeks after she died, sparking fears vital evidence may have been lost.
Belly Mujinga was working on the concourse at London’s Victoria rail station on March 21 when she and a colleague were attacked by a man who told her he had Covid-19.
The 47-year-old died in hospital in Barnet after testing positive for coronavirus two weeks later. Her colleague continues to recover.
According to Mujinga’s union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), Mujinga had been left extremely shaken by the incident and urged her bosses at Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to call the police.
She is said to have pleaded not to be sent back outside, asking instead to work from inside the ticket office. Mujinga had underlying health issues for which she had taken time off work previously, and said she was scared for her life.
The request was allegedly refused and Mujinga was sent back out on the concourse. She died on April 5, leaving behind an 11-year-old daughter Ingrid, and husband Lusamba Gode Katalay.
British Transport Police (BTP) has since confirmed to HuffPost UK it was only made aware of the incident on May 11, seven weeks on. It also said the original date given for the assault, March 22, was incorrect, and it in fact took place the previous day.
The delay in reporting the incident significantly lowers the likelihood of officers finding useable forensic evidence at the station, which will have been cleaned, or of witnesses emerging who have clear memories of the incident.
GTR said on Wednesday it had shared footage of the incident with the force but in a statement on Wednesday evening BTP said only that officers were “exploring possible CCTV opportunities”.
GTR made no further comment other than to say it was investigating the allegations station bosses had forced Mujinga to keep working outside after the attack.
A spokesperson could not say why the matter had not been reported to the police earlier.
There were initially fears the footage may have been wiped altogether as CCTV from mainline stations is typically kept for 14 days unless police request it.
Downing Street has described the attack as “despicable”.
As tributes pour in for Mujinga, her union revealed it had been asking for the CCTV footage for more than a month in vain.
The TSSA reported the incident to the Railways Inspectorate, the safety arm of the Office for Road and Rail (ORR), in April following her death.
A union spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We’ve repeatedly asked the company about CCTV from the day of the incident. We put this in writing in April and continue to wait for an answer on this vital point.”
In the absence of any clarification on this matter, one factor that might be relevant in Mujinga’s case is whether any existing CCTV footage may have been overwritten in the time between the attack and when the police were notified. It is not known whether the footage now supplied to police was taken on the station concourse or a third party, such as a shop.
Detective Chief Inspector Sam Blackburn said: “I know the death of this member of staff has shocked many of us, and our thoughts remain with her family who are being supported by specially trained family liaison officers as they come to terms with their loss.
“We will always investigate any report of assault thoroughly when we receive it, and it’s vital for us to establish the full circumstances behind this incident. We are conducting extensive enquiries to help us do so, including exploring possible CCTV opportunities and speaking to key witnesses.
“I would ask anyone with information to contact BTP by texting 61016 or calling 0800 40 50 40 quoting reference 359 of 11/05/20.”
Manuel Cortes, TSSA General Secretary, said: “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.”
Mujinga’s colleague Linda Freitas, who has worked at Victoria station for 13 years, told the Press Association: “I don’t think people realise how much abuse we get.”
She said: “We have occasions where people become aggressive. It’s very bad – it’s scary.”
Of Mujinga’s death, she said: “I was so shocked. You never think it’s going to happen to someone that you work with.”
Freitas added she was “anxious and a bit scared” about the prospect of more commuters travelling back to work after the relaxation of lockdown and an increase in passenger numbers from Wednesday.
She said: “But eventually we will have to go back to normality. As long as we have protection and can keep our distance, but it will be hard.
“If it’s done gradually let’s see, but if it’s too many people then it will be a bit of a problem.”
A security worker who asked to remain anonymous said he was given a mask on Wednesday for the first time and has to bring his own gloves, adding: “I think they’re trying to cover themselves. This should have been done right at the beginning.”
He said since Mujinga’s death he had become “much more scared” and said encouraging people back to work was a “stupid” decision made “much too soon”.