A mother working as a ticket collector has died with COVID-19 after being spat at by someone claiming to have the illness.
Belly Mujinga’s family have spoken to Sky News after her death sparked a new row over the safety of key workers, personal protective equipment (PPE), and protecting employees with underlying health problems.
On 22 March, the 47-year-old was working with a colleague on the concourse at Victoria Station in London, when a member of the public claiming to have the coronavirus assaulted both of them.
Belly Mujinga’s cousin Agnes Ntumba says she wanted to spend her shift inside the ticket office
Belly’s cousin, Agnes Ntumba, told Sky News: “They went out and they met a person who said, ‘why are you here?’
“And they said, ‘we’re working.’
“Then the person said, ‘I’ve got COVID’ – and straight away he spat at them.”
According to the family, Belly and her colleague made clear they were scared for their lives and asked not to be sent back out and to instead work from inside the ticket office.
But they were told that people were needed to work outside and were sent back for the rest of their shift.
Despite the pair saying they asked their employer to call the police, British Transport Police (BTP) told Sky News they could find no record of it.
However, the BTP say they are now investigating.
Belly Mujinga and her husband Lusamba Gode Katalay. He says ‘justice must be done’
Within days of the assault, both women fell ill with the virus.
Belly’s husband, Lusamba Gode Katalay, said: “They weren’t given masks, or gloves, so they were exposed to everyone.
“It’s her employer, the company and the state who have to look at that.”
While the two colleagues had no PPE, very few people were wearing masks or gloves at the time of the incident, which happened the day before the coronavirus lockdown began.
Mr Katalay went on to say: “Me and Ingrid (his 11-year-old daughter), we saw Belly on 2 April when she left for hospital.
Belly Mujinga’s daughter Ingrid never saw her mum again after she went into hospital
“Then we didn’t see her again. She’s dead and we buried her without being able to see her.”
Belly died in Barnet hospital on 5 April, two weeks after the assault.
Ntumba added: “Justice must be done. When it happened, she could have bought it in the house.
“The husband is here, the daughter is here. We could have lost all of them. We need justice, if the person is caught he needs to do his sentence – for Belly.”
It’s not possible to say whether or not Belly contracted the virus from the spitting incident, but as lockdown is eased her death raises a number of questions for people being asked to return to work.
Belly Mujinga, 47, died in Barnet hospital on 5 April
To begin with, Belly had underlying respiratory problems and even before contracting the virus had regular hospital appointments as she found it hard to breathe. Should she even have been at work?
By the time of the incident, the World Health Organisation had released guidance saying that people with respiratory disease were in an “at risk group”.
Three days after the incident, Belly’s doctor rang her employers and insisted that she be stood down.
Another five days later, a manager asked her to provide the doctor’s letter in person.
The transport union representing Belly say that the next day she travelled to Victoria Station to hand in the letter, whilst sick with the virus.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary for transport union TSSA, said: “As a vulnerable person in the ‘at risk’ category and her condition known to her employer, there are questions about why GTR (Belly’s employer) didn’t stand her down from frontline 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.
“Anyone who is vulnerable should remain at home and home working 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.”
As lock down is eased and people return to work, another question for the future, is whether Belly had a right to challenge her employer over the health and safety risk of being front-facing with the public?
Employment Lawyer Christopher Hitchins from Katten says: “For any employee, if they have concerns about coming into work they should speak to the employers and ask to see a summary of what measures they have taken to provide a safe working environment.
“The government is setting out guidelines on the types of measures they might want companies to take for example hand sanitizers, masks, maybe in the work place – wearing gloves, not having shared office space – so if you are concerned about it in any way – speak to your employer – find out what action they have taken and whether you are comfortable with it.”
Angie Doll, Managing Director, Southern Railway and Gatwick Express, Belly’s employer, told Sky News: “We are devastated that our dedicated colleague Belly has passed away and our deepest sympathies are with her family with whom we have been in touch with through this very difficult time.
“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.”
Lawyers say it is highly unlikely that someone who spits on someone would be charged with anything other than the relatively minor offence of battery, even if the victim person subsequently became seriously ill or died as a result of COVID-19.
Dr Geoff Pearson, senior lecturer in criminal law at the University of Manchester, said: “The reason for this is that the prosecution would have to prove (to a standard that the jury are sure, or ‘beyond reasonable doubt’) the element of causation – i.e. that it was that saliva that caused the infection that led to the serious illness or death.”
“If you could prove the causation element of the offence, then technically, in a situation where an individual suspects they could have COVID-19 and spits on another who then dies as a result of the infection, this could be manslaughter.”
TSSA representatives have reported the incident to the Railways Inspectorate, the safety arm of the Office for Road and Rail (ORR) for investigation.
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.