The families of transport workers like Belly Mujinga who have died after contracting Covid-19 must receive the same £60,000 payout given to NHS staff, Labour’s Dawn Butler has said.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed last week that 54 transport workers – including Victoria station worker Belly Mujinga – had died after contracting coronavirus during the pandemic.
In April, the government announced a new life assurance scheme for the families of frontline NHS and social care staff killed by coronavirus.
However, despite being classed as key workers and having worked throughout the pandemic, transport workers are not included in the scheme.
“Like NHS and social care staff, they are at a higher risk of catching Covid-19 and unable to avoid the risk due the nature of their work,” said Butler, MP for Brent Central. “Like NHS staff, they are dying.”
A study by the Office for National Statistics in May warned that men employed as taxi drivers and chauffeurs, and those who drive buses and coaches, were among the workers at increased risk of dying after contracting Covid-19.
Butler, who was the Labour Party’s shadow women and equalities secretary until April, started quizzing the government about the working conditions faced by transport workers during the pandemic after learning about Mujinga’s death.
The influential backbencher’s plea for action comes amid reinvigorated calls from the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – the union that represented Mujinga – for transport workers, the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic, to be included in the compensation scheme.
In many cases, a “railway salary” can be a family’s main income, Butler said. “Abruptly losing that income can mean being unable to pay rent or mortgage, on top of funeral costs.
“It can mean a newly single parent having to find a job, or change careers, just to pay the bills, whilst also trying to comfort children who’ve suddenly lost their mother or father whilst themselves grieving a loved one.”
Extending the life assurance scheme – which gives bereaved families a £60,000 payout to help support them – to transport workers “won’t bring Belly, or any transport worker back,” Butler said.
“But it will ease the financial trauma of their deaths for those closest to them. It will give the grieving a vital financial breathing space, allowing them to pay their bills, to keep their homes, while they live through the first traumatic months.”
Mujinga, a 47-year-old mother-of-one, died in April with Covid-19 after she was reportedly spat at by a man claiming to have the virus.
The British Transport Police (BTP) closed the case in May, saying there was “no evidence of anyone spitting” during the incident and that a man who had been suspected of doing so had given a negative antibody test result for coronavirus.
However, the Crown Prosecution Service has since been asked to review the evidence in the case. Almost two million people have signed a petition calling for justice for Mujinga and her family.
In June, the government announced plans to erect a memorial to transport workers who have died with coronavirus, with the transport secretary suggesting it could be placed at Victoria station in honour of Mujinga.
“If that’s something additional they [the government] would like to do in the future, then fine,” Butler said. “But that is not a response to this case and the questions that need answering.”
Among them is whether the antibody test given to the man involved in the alleged spitting incident was accurate.
“They [BTP] said that the person accused had an antibody test and that was negative,” Butler said. “I think that needs further probing, because we are aware that the early antibody tests were very unreliable.”
The TSSA is also calling for more than just a memorial for its members who have died.
Manual Cortes, the union’s general secretary, said it was “absolutely right” that the families of NHS and social care staff who died from Covid-19 get compensation from the government.
“But the best doctor in the world can’t do their job if they can get to the hospital,” he said. “In the last three months, our country has depended on our members, public transport workers, going into work to make sure that our NHS and our care workers could get to their workplaces.
“That meant putting themselves at greater risk of exposure to the virus and that’s why so many transport workers, like Belly Mujinga, have lost their lives to this virus.”
The death of a transport worker can leave their families juggling grief with serious financial pressures due to the loss of income, Cortes said.
He added: “Public transport workers have been unsung heroes these last three months and it’s only fair the government looks after them in return.
“That’s why it’s now time for the Tory government to extend the new £60,000 death in service benefit for our NHS and our care workers to public transport workers and to retrospectively award it to the families of public transport workers, like Belly’s, who have sadly died in the line of duty”.
A spokesperson for the government said: “Our thoughts are with those transport heroes who have died from Covid-19. We continue to review support for key workers on the frontline.”