Amongst the concerns raised on the widely viewed Early in the Morning with Jerry S. George episode on Facebook last Saturday was the matter of social distancing on minivans.
The New Democratic Party President Dr. Godwin Friday weighed in while acknowledging that, “minivan drivers of course want to make a dollar. But they don’t want to endanger their passengers and they don’t want to endanger themselves as well so we say quite clearly this is what you need to do…”
An NDP guided holistic COVID-19 national response would have included, “taking duties off all the imports of parts and so on for the rest of the year [or] reducing the registration fees – it costs about a$1000.00 to register a van.
“So what if the government say listen as part of the stimulus package we’re getting money from the IMF, we’re getting money from the World Bank, we’re going to subsidize to a certain extent. You won’t pay your registration fee for a year or something like that. It gives money back to the van drivers.
“And they are more likely, then, to subscribe voluntarily to the measures because they know it’s in their best interest from a health perspective. So they want to comply but they don’t want to be carrying the bag for the rest …they want to know they’re also going to benefit from the stimulus package,” Dr. Friday posited.
Since then the government issued a Monday March 30, 2020 advisory which exhorted the travelling public to observe social distancing protocols on board minivans by only allowing 3 passengers per row of seats in the body of the van and 1 person in the front.
This ‘rule’ effectively reduces the 18 seater capacity to 12 passengers per ‘full trip.’
Guidelines for 21 seaters which are widely used to transport school children and other passengers to the extremities of mainland St. Vincent have not been published.
A telephone interview published by SVGTV captured the Vincentian Transportation Association (VINTAS) vice president Angus Mckie as he underscored the importance of compliance to the advisor while advising on how public transportation operators may access financial relief.
Operators wishing to avail themselves of the local banking sector-wide moratorium packages negotiated as part of the Dr. Gonsalves-led economic stimulus strategy, must first submit a written request.
“Those van drivers who have loans at the banks, they would be able to write the banks and they won’t have to incur any interests on their loans nor would they have to pay the principal for the loans for at least a 3 month period, but they would have to put it in writing and submit it to the banks,” Angus McKie conveyed.
The VINTAS VP also opined, “for the time being because of the safety of the public I think they would comply because it is in the interest and the own detriment of them and the public if they don’t.
“The public have to do their part in this. If they stop a van and they see the van already have 3 on a seat and the conductor trying to push you in any jam up position, don’t go in the van.”
Further the government, after talks with the relatively unknown VINTAS, announced its retroactive reduction of petrol prices at local pumps by $1 per gallon. Hence the local gas price is now down to $11.97 while the diesel price was also reduced by $1 down to $10.79, with another reduction promised “within the next 3 weeks.”
Other measures include a monthly stipend for 3 months as of April 2020 and cleaning costs to be absorbed by the government. These cleaning costs would cover Health Ministry managed cleaning services to be situated at the bus terminals in Kingstown.
Asbert News Network attempted to verify the precise enforcement protocols and correspondent penalties that would be meted out for non-compliance of social distancing measures, especially given the fact that most vans this reporter has encountered since the declaration of the advisory operate as if it’s business as usual.
Julian Francis, Transport and Works Minister, deferred us at first contact to “the relevant health authorities” as he was cognizant that “this is a medical matter,” even though he is “responsible for public transport.” Since no response was forthcoming from those quarters Asbert News Network reverted to Minister Francis in hopes that a sufficiently clear policy position would be articulated.
Minster Francis again deferred us, this time to the Superintendent of Police Kenneth John.
A quick telephone interview with Kenneth John, who is the Superintendent of Police with responsibility for the nation’s vehicular traffic, brought some further insight.
“[Prime Minister Gonsalves] was willing to give the owner for the minibus a little stipend at the end of the month but you must be registered.”
Asked whether this meant persons must be registered with the new association, the career police officer replied, “no you must register with [the Ministry of] Transport and Works. So that once you register there the money will automatically, whatsoever little that he’s giving you, will just automatically go into your account or something like that.”
The government’s media release described, as part of “a three-pronged response, … its willingness to assist the omnibus operators cushion the economic losses.”
As such a stipend amount between $250 and $300 “will be given to omnibuses for 3 months in the first instance as of April 2020. The registration process, to facilitate stipend distribution, was to have been determined by the Ministry of Finance, the release noted.
The SoP, who has acknowledged acquiescing to the Prime Minister’s request that he delay his retirement a second time, declined knowing the precise progress made by the Transport Ministry as far as operationalizing the omnibus operators’ stipend registry.
Transport and Works Minister Julian Francis confirmed on April 1 that approach was “just decided two days ago [Mar 30]. The system is not yet in place.” He however promised that the registry should be ready, “by next week.”
As for the day to day monitoring of omnibus operators, “my officers went out since 5 a.m. this morning [April 1] … they are saying a number of the drivers are complying and the passengers love that because a lot of persons are concerned for their safety.
“But there are a few in between that still carry the 4 [passengers on a seat]. Those who are complying have a problem with those carrying 4 because if they carry 3 then nobody else should carry 4. So there is a little problem there,” SoP John reported.
Superintendent John stressed that his officers know the law, so despite the fact that the buses might be licensed 18 seaters he urged travelers to judge whether the police are trying to do a good versus a bad thing.
“My concern therefore, is to ensure that our public is safe. It’s just a guideline, we just asking persons to do these things and well the government is supporting it very much so. And I believe it is for the betterment of every [member of the] travelling public; the safety of the passengers, the safety of the conductor and the safety of the driver.”
To help ensure that omnibus operators start complying with regulations now as opposed to waiting until “say 3 or 4 persons get infected,” SOP John deployed the forces at his command to points around mainland St. Vincent from as far north as Sandy Bay, out to the Marriaqua Valley, up the Leeward Coast and around the Kingstown suburbs.
“What we observed was that some of them started out with 3 per seat but as they passed the officers some of them pack up their vans. A number of persons are complying. But what some of them were saying at first, ok then, if they could get some incentive.”
While the consequences of individual operators’ non-compliance would hold dire ramifications for our tiny nation, the imposable penalties for drivers who disregard the health advisory do not satisfactorily reflect the proportionate seriousness of the situation.
SoP John said, “not everything you have to make laws for, you want to tell me something that would protect you and your family, you’re telling me must let the government pass a law to protect you and your family?
“You want to tell me you’re not capable you’re not responsible enough to protect you and your family? We have to be responsible here because we see what happens in the outside world.
“I hope it would never reach to a big-stick approach. One of the standards we’re planning to do too once you decide to carry your 18 passengers and we stop you; we’re saying that you’re not going to move that van from deh unless you comply with the guidelines.”
No further sanctions seem to be in place just yet especially for repeat offenders.
“There is an individual and collective responsibility, don’t you think? I observe a lot of other businesses being very correct and creative,” Minister Francis responded when urged to consider the fact that omnibus operators’ COVID-19 response be regulated given the importance of public transportation to the Vincentian society and the potential for local minivans to facilitate “community spread of the pernicious COVID-19 virus.”
“Is behavior in private residence or public place[s] regulated? No. It’s advised,” the Ministry of Transport and Works boss responded.