Larbert bus drivers' 'anger and grief' over COVID outbreak at depot

A bus driver has spoken of the "anger mixed with grief" he and his colleagues felt as First Midland's Larbert depot became the centre of a coronavirus outbreak.

They have been devastated by the deaths of two colleagues in recent weeks while others have fought the disease in intensive care, and at least one still is still battling the symptoms of long Covid.

Now, the driver wants to know why First Midland continued to run a full service as the new variant of the disease began to take hold - and why they are only now looking to stop taking cash from customers.

The driver, who spoke anonymously, said that during the first lockdown around 50 drivers in the depot were furloughed or told not to work because of underlying health issues.

First Bus Larbert depot staff at the funeral of popular driver, Thomas Rooney (Pic: Michael Gillen)

But he claims that during this lockdown, just four drivers were told by the Scottish Government to shield - the rest had no choice but to return.

He said: "To most drivers this was worry enough. For those of us in the ‘vulnerable’ category it was a living nightmare."

While numbers have now reduced, at one point it is understood that 30 drivers were off work with positive Covid tests.

The driver said: "We know there are many key workers in this area who must also get to and from their place of employment.

"But outside these peak hours, until our depot was hit by its outbreak, we were running buses which were virtually empty, most of the time."

The driver says First has provided plenty of masks, sanitiser and disinfectant wipes.

But he claims that a lack of leadership from senior management has left many drivers feeling they "are just a number."

However, David Phillips, operations director for First Midland, said the company has followed Scottish Government and guidelines throughout the pandemic.

He said: “Employees who were at a moderate risk, given their health conditions, were placed on furlough.

"We also supported members of our workforce who have household members who might be susceptible to Coronavirus. This was above and beyond Government guidance at that time.

“As the pandemic developed through the summer, and as restrictions lifted, dynamic risk assessments were carried out to allow colleagues to return following updated Safe Systems of Work."

He added that while customers are encouraged to use contactless, some people have no choice but to pay in cash, and all drivers have hand sanitiser and stringent wipe-down procedures to follow.

Mr Phillips continued: “After consultation with both Transport Scotland and the NHS, we were advised that the risk of transmission from cash handling is low.

“During the periods of local restrictions in November and the subsequent national measures put in place from December, we have allowed colleagues who are extremely vulnerable or ‘shielding’ on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer to remain at home along with any colleagues who have household members who are also shielding.

“We are fully supporting our colleagues who have tested positive for this awful disease and wish them a speedy recovery.

"We also have a number of other teammates self-isolating due to close contact tracing procedures.

"We are also supporting our people further with tightened rules, more guidance and the presence of Covid wardens on every site."

“We have an excellent, open and transparent relationship with our Unite the Union representatives, who are fully supportive of the measures we have taken.

"We continue to work with the NHS Forth Valley Public Health team to ensure that we can continue to safely provide essential journeys to support communities and key workers across the region.

“In conjunction with the health professionals we have initiated a wide range of additional measures to try and minimise the spread of this horrible disease, including even more intensive and thorough daily cleans, revised PPE requirements and the partial closure of communal areas and amenities within the depot.

“We have conducted multiple rounds of asymptomatic testing on the advice of NHS Forth Valley and we are following any and all guidance provided, particularly reminding the whole team that the rules are there for their own protection and must not be broken.

“At our latest round of staff testing, all staff came back negative and we have now begun increasing operations with enhanced mitigating factors still in place to help keep all of our customers and staff safe.

"We are delighted to report that we are also now seeing a large number of staff members returning to work."

“I would like to pay tribute to the whole team, who continue to work hard, and especially our fantastic staff out there on the frontline who are providing a lifeline to allow key workers to access their jobs in the most difficult of circumstances.”

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