UK rail worker dies of coronavirus after being spat at while on duty

By Matthew Weaver

The family and friends of a railway ticket office worker who died of coronavirus after being spat at while on duty say the incident raises serious questions for her employer.

Belly Mujinga, 47, was working on the concourse of Victoria station in south-west London on the morning of 22 March when a man who said he had Covid-19 spat and coughed at her and a colleague. Within days of the assault, both women fell ill with the virus.

Mujinga, the mother of an 11-year-old girl, Ingrid, was admitted to Barnet hospital and put on a ventilator but died on 5 April.

Her cousin Agnes and a colleague who witnessed the incident said Mujinga had pleaded against working outside the protection of the ticket office without PPE.

They alleged her employers, Govia Thameslink, knew she had respiratory problems but still insisted she work on the concourse and interact with passengers.

They claimed she was also sent back to work on the concourse after the spitting incident despite physically shaking with the trauma of what had happened.

A colleague who witnessed the incident said: “We begged not to go out. We said ‘our lives are in danger’.”

But she said they were told they had to go out.

“We were told that we are not even allowed to put on masks,” the colleague added. “Govia has behaved reckless and negligent. They have failed in their duty of care. We are treated like we are robots.”

Agnes said: “She shouldn’t have been sent out without any PPE. We want justice for Belly. They need to find the person who did it. And the company should compensate the family; her daughter doesn’t have a mother any more. They should protect those who are left.”

Angie Doll, the managing director of Southern Railway and Gatwick Express, which is owned by Govia, said: “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.”

A spokeswoman for Govia said official government advice at the time of the incident was that “PPE for our staff was not required”.

She added: “We have regularly briefed our people to keep washing their hands and to socially distance as far as possible while working.

Downing Street condemned the incident. A spokesman for Boris Johnson said: “It is despicable for a key worker to be attacked in this way while serving the travelling public. Our thoughts are with Mrs Mujinga’s family at this terrible time.”

The TSSA union has reported the incident to the Railway Inspectorate, the safety arm of the Office of Rail and Road, for investigation and is taking legal advice.

The TSSA general secretary, Manuel Cortes, said: “We are shocked and devastated at Belly’s death. She is one of far too many frontline 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 frontline 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 she wasn’t stood down from frontline duties early on in this pandemic.

“Rather than talking about easing the lockdown, the government must first ensure the right precautions and protections have been taken so more lives are not lost.

“Anyone who is vulnerable should remain at home, and homeworking 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.”

British Transport Police has launched an investigation into the incident. It said: “Inquiries are ongoing and anyone who has any information is asked to contact BTP by texting 61016 or calling 0800 40 50 40 and quoting reference 359 of 11/05/20.”

Mujinga’s colleague, who did not want to be named, said: “She always made people smile. That’s what people will miss about Belly. She brought sunshine into the ticket office.”

Mujinga’s husband, Lusamba Gode Katalay, said: “Belly came home and told me everything.

“The man asked her what she was doing, why she was there, and she said they were working. The man said he had the virus and spat on them. They reported it.”

Katalay said his wife had an operation four years ago and had underlying respiratory problems. Within a week of the incident, she began to feel ill and was admitted to hospital on 2 April.

“That was the last time I saw her,” he said. “We just said: ‘Be good,’ and that God is in charge. We did a WhatsApp video in hospital, but then I didn’t hear from her again. I thought she might be asleep, but the doctor phoned me to tell me she had died.”

Katalay and Ingrid were two of just 10 people at Mujinga’s funeral. Mujinga was born in the the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to the UK in 2000.

Katalay said: “She was a good person, a good mother, and a good wife. She gave her friendship to many people. She was a caring person and would take care of everybody.”