Ellen Kennedy had only been living with her dad for a few weeks, but already they had settled into an easy routine. Mervyn Kennedy, known to all as Mally, would wake up at about 9am and ask his youngest daughter to go for breakfast with him. Ellen, 31, would demur – the vegan options around their south London flat weren’t great – but Mally would insist, and so they would walk together to the Pond cafe in Thornton Heath.
Mally always ate breakfast at the Pond cafe before a shift, because it was opposite his bus depot. The 67-year-old bus driver had moved to the UK from Zimbabwe in 1999 in search of a better life for his wife, Patricia, and daughters, Melanie, Penny and Ellen. And it more or less was a better life, although Patricia died suddenly in 2004, a loss from which Mally never really recovered.
At the cafe, Mally would order a vegetarian breakfast – after persistent badgering from Ellen and Penny, he had given up meat. Ellen would have hash browns and a veggie burger, and Mally would double-check the waiter knew she was vegan, and they would sit there and chat, usually about Ellen’s plans for the future, or Mally’s plans for when he retired. He had recently inherited some land from his parents, in Zimbabwe.
As they were eating, Mally would often pull a list out of his pocket. (He loved to write lists.) A typical Mally list would read something like this:
Pay the rent
Sort the girls out (Ellen never understood exactly what this meant, but it was on every list)
Make plans to build on the land
Call Anne (his younger sister)
After Mally consulted his list, he would stop off at Greggs to grab a doughnut before clocking on for his shift at Thornton Heath bus depot. He drove the 250, which skirted the edge of Streatham Common, through residential streets where Mally would wait for mums with prams and older people with shopping trolleys to be seated before pulling away, up to Brixton police station, where detectives sat in narrow offices drinking bad coffee.
At the depot, Mally did his usual checks. These took a while. Mally had to check the air pressure, the warning lights, the fuel levels. Was there water in the radiator? Were the windscreen washers cleaning correctly? Under the bus – were there any leaks? Once these checks were completed, Mally inserted his starter key – all London bus drivers have their own starter keys, coded with a unique employee number – turned the engine on, waited for the warning light to clear, and then switched on the ignition.
It was 28 March, a day like any other. Mally put his bus into gear and drove away. Within two weeks, he would be dead. Mally died at Croydon University hospital on 7 April. It was the same hospital that Patricia had died in all those years before.
Mally and Patricia Kennedy did not leave Zimbabwe to escape a life of poverty. They were comfortably middle-class. Patricia worked in a bank, and Mally ran a garage. (Late in life, he could diagnose what was wrong with a car engine just from listening to it.) They had a maid and a beautiful family bungalow in the game reserve of Bulawayo. “You’d look out of the window,” remembers Penny, 33, a paediatric nurse from Sutton, “and you’d see an elephant. They’d eat from our mango trees. My parents would say: ‘Don’t go too far back! The baboons will catch you!’”
But throughout the 1990s, the economic situation in Zimbabwe began to deteriorate. By 1999, inflation was at 57%. You needed a wad of notes to pay for a packet of crisps. “My parents looked around and thought: ‘If it’s this bad now, when the girls are adults, there won’t be any jobs,’” says Penny.
The family moved to the UK in November of that year, claiming citizenship through Patricia’s grandfather, who was Scottish. Melanie was already working in the UK, so they stayed in her small flat in Croydon. “When you live in Africa and hear about first-world countries, you imagine skyscrapers and amazing buildings,” says Penny. “But we moved to the UK in the middle of winter. I remember driving back from Heathrow, we saw sleet for the first time. We thought: what is this ice falling from the sky? Everything was so grey. And then you get to a little house and you realise this is where you’re living, and you think: ‘Why is it so small? Where’s the garden?’”
The family struggled to adjust to life in drizzly south London in the dead of winter. “It was hard,” says Penny. “We hardly saw our parents, because they were always working. We didn’t make many friends. My mum saw that we weren’t happy, but she kept promising us that it would get better.” Patricia was a care worker and Mally was a labourer. “Dad didn’t have a car back then,” says Ellen, “so I remember him waking up at 5am to catch the train, walking out into the dark, and then coming home late at night.”
Despite their struggles, Mally and Patricia’s relationship stayed strong. They were childhood sweethearts, marrying at the age of 19 and 18. “In my own relationship, I try to live up to their relationship, but it never compares,” says Penny, who is married with children. “We never saw them argue. If they had money worries, we never knew. Every evening they’d go for a walk together, holding hands. People used to say: ‘Your mum and dad – that’s what we all want to be.’ We all wanted what they had.” When the family were watching TV, Mally would rub Patricia’s feet. He would never go into the kitchen without fetching her a drink.
In 2004 tragedy struck. Patricia was hospitalised with pneumonia. It was serious, but none of the family expected it to be fatal. By now, Mally had started training to be a bus driver – he’d had to stop labouring, because he had a bad back. On the day Patricia died, Mally was at work. Melanie and Ellen had visited Croydon University hospital, then known as the Mayday hospital, to check on their mum. “When they walked out of the room,” says Penny, “she went into cardiac arrest. Trying to get hold of my dad was a nightmare. We eventually got hold of him and said: ‘You need to get to the hospital asap.’ But by the time he got there, she had gone.”
Patricia’s last words to Mally before she died were to look after the girls, and finish his bus driver training. He took them to heart. After she died, Mally worked, looked after the girls, became a bus driver, and did not do a whole lot else. “I don’t think he ever recovered [from mum dying],” says Penny. “He just worked, came home, put on the news and fell asleep. I think he was depressed. He never spoke about Mum, and if you brought her up, he wanted to change the subject really quickly. But he always made sure we had everything we needed.”
For the next decade, Mally’s routine was: go to work, come home. Sit in the lounge. Order takeaway food. Watch TV. Fall asleep. The girls would try to push him to live a little, to go on dates. “I’d say: ‘Get over it!’” Ellen jokes. “‘Do you want to text your dead wife?’” But he never really got over Patricia. “He didn’t pick himself up until his dying day,” says Ellen. “He was still pining for my mum.” Penny agrees. “His soul died when Mum died,” she says. “He became a shell of a man.”
Mally was generous to a fault. “Dad would always call me after work,” says Penny, “and he could tell from the tone of my voice if something was bothering me, or if I was upset. He’d say: ‘I’m going to put £100 in your account – go and treat yourself.’” If Ellen ever went to the shop to fetch groceries, Mally would make sure to leave a £20 note on her desk. Penny’s children thought he was rich, because they always saw him giving people money.
When Mally was a child, his mother dreamed that he would win the lottery one day. “He had more lottery tickets in his wallet than money,” Penny laughs. “Oh my God. Even if he knew his number hadn’t won, he’d keep the tickets anyway. I’d say: ‘Dad, why are you keeping these?’ He’d say: ‘Just in case they made a mistake with the numbers.’ He’d get anxiety if he didn’t have time to buy a ticket.”
Lists, and lottery tickets, and plans, which seldom came to fruition. When Mally was on his breaks at work, he would always call Penny or Ellen for a chat. (Melanie by now was living in New Zealand, where she works as a doctor.) “He always had plans to visit Melanie in New Zealand,” says Penny. “He’d phone and say: ‘We’re going to New Zealand!’”
When she was alive, Patricia was always the one to carry out Mally’s grand schemes. “My dad would plan and Mum would put his plans into action,” Penny says. But without Patricia, “the plans never materialised”.
We know now that being a London bus driver during the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the most dangerous jobs you could do – riskier than being a doctor, nurse or care worker. But in March and April, as station concourses emptied out and trains shuttled between stops devoid of commuters, that had still to emerge.
After the UK went into lockdown on 23 March, Mally kept driving the 250. Thornton Heath. Norbury Hill. Telford Avenue. Brixton Road. By now, hand-drawn pictures had appeared in the windows of the homes Mally drove past on his route. Smudged rainbows and childlike stick figures, holding hands. “Thank you NHS.” “NHS heroes.” On Thursday evenings, Britain clapped for the NHS. Hardly anyone clapped for the bus drivers transporting NHS workers or care home staff to work.
On 20 March, Mally had stopped by to visit Penny and her kids, and stayed for dinner, which was unusual for him: usually, after he had been at work, Mally was anxious to get home and rest. It was at this dinner that he told Penny he had been given protective gloves to wear while driving by his employer, Arriva, which is contracted by Transport for London (TfL) to provide some bus services in the capital. “I said: ‘A pair of gloves won’t protect you,’” Penny remembers. “He shrugged. So I said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you a mask and some hand sanitiser.’” After Mally died, Penny found the mask, unused, in his jacket pocket.
At the time, the UK’s limited personal protective equipment (PPE) stocks were being prioritised for frontline NHS staff and workers, after the government had let nearly half its existing PPE stockpile expire in 2019, without replenishing it. “We need everyone to treat PPE like the precious resource it is,” said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, on 10 April, as doctors and nurses complained of having to raid hardware stores for goggles and make aprons out of bin liners.
At this point, London was at the centre of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak: by 23 March, about 150,000 people were contracting Covid-19 every day in the capital, according to modelling from Cambridge University and Public Health England (PHE), with a total of 795,000 total infections. But non-NHS key workers were not seen as a priority when it came to PPE, which is how Mally was allowed to keep driving a London bus during the first weeks of the pandemic with only a pair of plastic gloves for protection. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, set out the official line on 8 April: “On a number of occasions we’ve sought advice from not just Public Health England, not just the Department for Transport, not just the Department for Health, but also the World Health Organization [WHO]. What they’ve told us is that personal protective equipment should only be used in care settings. There is a shortage of PPE anyway for the NHS and social care staff. As recently as yesterday we chased the government on this. Their advice is quite clear – that transport workers should not be wearing PPE.”
Frustrated by Transport for London’s approach, bus workers began organising online for better protection. Private Facebook groups, where drivers had previously complained about cyclists, fare-dodgers and people who can’t find their Oyster cards, became hotbeds of union activism. “Is any other bus driver scared shitless right now?” posted one driver on 23 March. The consensus was that, yes, everyone was. “Scared every time someone coughs or sneezes,” one responded. “It is scary, but no one is going to back us,” another responded.
“Effectively, we were whistleblowing,” says Moe Manir, 33, a bus driver from Dagenham. “But we didn’t care. We thought it was a health emergency.” Manir, who is a trade union activist for Unite, was instrumental in helping to organise London’s 25,000 bus workers into a powerful campaigning force during those early weeks of the pandemic.
Facebook became an important platform. “Our Facebook group grew from 3,200 to 4,400 members during the pandemic,” Manir says. “The drivers had nowhere else to get information from. If we hadn’t had that platform, workers would have been isolated.” Their first demand was straightforward: hand sanitiser. “It took about two weeks from lockdown starting for hand sanitiser to be rolled out to every bus driver,” Manir says.
“At the start of the outbreak there was a nationwide shortage of hand sanitiser, with suppliers prioritising the NHS,” says TfL. “TfL and bus operators worked hard to procure hand sanitiser in these circumstances and provided it to drivers as soon as it arrived.”
Bus drivers also started sealing up the speaker holes in the Perspex assault screens that protect them from passengers. “We need to practise self-responsibility as the cowboy operators we work for are devoid of any duty of care over coronavirus,” one driver posted on Facebook on 24 March, with an explanation of how to use clingfilm to block up the holes. Other drivers followed suit, and in early April TfL agreed to seal up the screens. “You’d think that was basic,” sighs John Murphy of Unite, which represents bus drivers. “Seal them up. But we had to convince the bus operators and TfL that it was the right thing to do.”
Bus operators began closing assault screen holes on around 3 April. “The covering of holes on the driver screens was first trialled to test its efficacy, and once agreed, was rolled out across 9,000 buses as quickly as possible,” says TfL.
Since late March, Manir and his colleagues had been hearing rumours that bus drivers were getting sick and going to hospital. “We knew the virus was spreading,” says Manir. Drivers were afraid. “People were saying: ‘We need to shut down the network,’” he remembers. “Some drivers were saying: ‘I’m not going to work – I’m off isolating.’ There was a panic.”
By 4 April, five London bus workers had died. “Every day a bus driver left the house in this period to go to work, they were essentially playing Russian roulette with their lives,” says Murphy. “There was such a lack of information at the time. No one knew how to make themselves as safe as they could be.”
TfL committed to introduce further safety measures for London bus workers on 7 April, including deep cleans of the buses, blocking off the seats closest to the driver, and social distancing in depots and garages. But, picking up their buses for the start of their shifts, some drivers said they found discarded rubbish in the cab – they didn’t appear to have been deep cleaned as promised. They took to social media, tweeting photos of the dirty buses and tagging the mayor in their posts. “We thought: ‘People are dying,’” says Manir. “‘We will shout and scream.’”
“Extensive daily cleaning takes place across the network and has done since the start of the pandemic,” says TfL. “Sadly, there were and may still be occasions when litter or marks are left on a bus while it is in service.”
More deaths. More activism. By 13 April, 15 bus workers had died. “When we heard that there had been 15 deaths,” says Manir, “we knew it wasn’t stopping. These safety measures were still not working.” Drivers decided to put notices on their buses, insisting passengers use the middle doors of the bus when boarding, to minimise exposure to the general public. In response, at least one bus operator threatened disciplinary action. Union bosses pushed back, and TfL gave way on 20 April, announcing that customers would not be required to touch in with their payment cards. “We had to fight for everything,” says Manir. “Nothing was given to us on a plate.”
“The introduction of middle-door boarding followed a risk assessment and trial at one garage to ensure it would be beneficial and not create further risk,” says TfL.
Amid all this online organising and clapping in the streets, bus drivers continued to sicken and die of Covid-19. By the end of May, the scale of the devastation was clear. Thirty-three London bus workers were dead of Covid-19, including 29 drivers. Mally was one of them.
The experience of losing Patricia had left Mally with a lifelong horror of hospitals, so much so that when he got sick he refused to call an ambulance, a decision he stuck to stubbornly, even as his lungs filled with fluid and he couldn’t walk to the toilet unassisted, instead having to urinate in a bucket by his bed.
His shift on 28 March passed without incident. On 29 March, Mally complained of a headache. The following day, a Monday, he began shivering, but he insisted that he would be OK to go to work the next day, even though Ellen tried her best to stop him. When he came in from work on Tuesday evening, he was in a bad way. “He stumbled through the door in a state,” Ellen remembers. She ran her father a bath and helped him to bed.
The following morning, 1 April, Mally finally relented and called in sick. For the next three days, he stayed in bed, refusing all food and barely drinking any water. “Even having a conversation was a struggle,” Ellen remembers. “He turned off his phone and the TV. He literally lay in a dark room. I tried to encourage him to open the windows, but he said no.”
Mally told Ellen not to worry her sisters, who both work in healthcare, but she ignored him and sent Penny and Melanie updates on his condition. By Wednesday, Penny was so alarmed for his safety that she donned PPE and went over to the house to check his temperature, listen to his chest and monitor his breathing. “He was coughing so badly he couldn’t put a sentence together,” she remembers. “I said: ‘Dad, you need to go to hospital.’” Mally refused to go.
By 4 April, Mally seemed to be improving. (This pattern has been observed by clinicians, who witness a brief lull in symptoms, before a desperate, sudden plunge into the final stretch of the virus.) It was his birthday, and, although he was not well enough to receive calls, Penny assured the well-wishers who phoned that her father was on the mend; he had come through the worst of it. Mally spent the day in bed watching Netflix. His temperature was gone. He even started eating again.
His apparent recovery was a cruel trick. In the early hours of 6 April, Mally took a turn for the worse. “I was asleep,” says Ellen, “and I could hear him breathing. He was hyperventilating.” Frantic, she asked her father if she should call the ambulance, but he was insistent: no. Standing over him throughout the night, Ellen worried that Mally could stop breathing at any moment. By Monday, Mally was too weak to make it to the bathroom, and Ellen begged him again: let me call the ambulance. “He said: ‘It’s fine.’”
She honoured his wishes for most of the day. “I said to myself, as soon as he says he can’t breathe, I’ll call the ambulance.” At around 7pm, Mally admitted it: he couldn’t breathe. Ellen dialled 999, but lied and told her father the ambulance crew wasn’t going to admit him to hospital. “He thought they were coming to check him over,” Ellen says. “As soon as they put the oxygen on him and said: ‘We’re sorry, Mr Kennedy, but we have to take you in,’ his eyes opened and he stared at me. I think if he hadn’t been so weak, he’d have run away. He was fuming.”
At the hospital, Mally went into cardiac arrest within hours. Doctors resuscitated him and intubated him, but they couldn’t get his condition to stabilise. Staff explained that Mally’s organs were failing, and it would be better for him to die with dignity, rather than suffer on a ventilator for days. His daughters were offered the opportunity to FaceTime Mally, to say goodbye, but they declined.
“We didn’t want to see that image of him,” Ellen explains. “We wanted to remember the jolly person who’d wink at us, not this person with all these tubes in their throat.” Although Mally was unconscious by this point, staff put a phone by his ear, for Penny and Ellen to say their goodbyes. Melanie had passed on a message. “I told my dad that it was OK to let go,” Penny says. “‘We’ll be fine. You don’t need to hold on any more.’”
The doctors withdrew his life support, and Mally let go. He died on 7 April, with two nurses beside him, one holding each hand. “Maybe in his mind,” says Penny, “he thought it was me and Ellen, holding his hands.”
The small, socially distanced funeral was on 12 May; only Penny and Ellen, Penny’s family and some family friends attended. (Melanie was unable to travel, due to the restrictions.) Mally would have liked it: no fuss. “No one needed to take a day off,” says Ellen. “No lunch needed to be prepared.” He was buried in Sittingbourne in Kent, besides Patricia. More than 300 people logged on to watch the live stream on Facebook.
Proportionately, more London bus drivers have died than almost any other profession, including healthcare workers. The mortality rate for male London bus drivers aged between 20 and 64 was 3.5 times higher than the national average for men. Almost every bus driver knows someone who died. “When you think about it,” says Manir, “there’s 29 drivers that passed away, out of around 25,000 drivers in total. The bus garages are close to each other … When someone died in your depot, or the depot next door to you, it felt like someone from your family.”
Manir lost a close friend, a Romanian-born bus driver called Nicu Enciu. “The night I heard he passed away,” Manir remembers, “the day after, I had a shift. That was the first day I called in sick. I said: ‘I can’t do it any more. I need some space and time.’” Manir took five days off, and then he returned to work and redoubled his union organising efforts. “My colleagues said: ‘Moe, continue what you’re doing,’” he says. “‘Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it for him. You’re fighting for safety measures in tribute of those who passed away.’”
He says that London bus drivers are used to having to fight for what they need. “We haven’t got toilets on some routes,” says Manir. “We have histories of having to fight literally for a right to use a toilet. But we should be treated like heroes post-Covid.”
Penny is angry at how her father was treated. “My dad was 67 when he passed,” she says. “He was never seen as a vulnerable person, he was never once offered furlough … Giving him only a pair of gloves is beyond belief. I put the blame on TfL.’”
“We were devastated by the deaths of bus colleagues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Claire Mann, the director of bus operations at TfL. “Mr Kennedy’s death has been an indescribable loss for his family and friends, and our thoughts remain with them, along with all those who have been affected by the deaths of our colleagues.
“We have always been committed to staff safety. We have followed government guidance at all times, and worked with the trade union to ensure a wide range of safety measures were put in place as soon as was humanly possible. Many of these safety measures were then adopted by other bus networks across the rest of the UK.”
“We were devastated to learn of Mervyn’s death,” says Bob Scowen, Arriva’s regional managing director for London. “Mervyn was a much-loved and valued colleague, who performed an incredibly important role keeping London and Londoners moving. Our deepest and heartfelt sympathies go to Mervyn’s family, colleagues and loved ones. The safety of our colleagues and customers has been and continues to be our No 1 priority. Throughout this terrible pandemic, we have followed the advice of government and public health authorities, adopting and implementing their guidance and recommendations.”
Bus workers are not eligible for the £60,000 death-in-service payment the government has made available for NHS workers who died during the pandemic. An independent review into the deaths of London bus drivers from University College London’s Institute of Health Equity found that an earlier lockdown would probably have saved the lives of many bus workers, as most became infected before lockdown started on 23 March. It also found that many of the bus drivers who died of Covid-19 had underlying health conditions, particularly including high-blood pressure. Many were from BAME backgrounds.
“The timing of actions by TfL and most companies was related to when advice was available from WHO, PHE and the science on what would be effective,” the authors found. “Several bus operators were, however, slower in initiating some of the [safety] actions recommended, and there was inconsistent action and advice.” It recommended that all drivers be risk-assessed for underlying health conditions, ahead of a possible second wave of the pandemic.
On 17 April, Unite organised a minute’s silence in honour of the transport workers who had died of Covid-19. Buses idled at the side of the road, as drivers bowed their heads in recognition. Then they switched their engines on, and took London’s key workers where they needed to go.
Recently, Penny and Ellen cleared out Mally’s house. They found receipts, and old lottery tickets, and lists. Curling, dogeared reminders from Mally to himself, to do what he had spent his life doing: look after the girls, for Patricia.