Government 'ignored expert advice against exceeding 70% taxi capacity'
Committee advised reducing occupancy to 50% in hotspots, ministry reveals
The government seemingly ignored advice from a panel of experts when it allowed taxis to fill up to maximum capacity.
The experts, in two letters written six days apart in early July, recommend that taxis should not be allowed to fill up beyond 70%. In fact, the experts stated that in areas where Covid-19 cases were surging, only a 50% occupancy should be allowed.
Instead, taxis were allowed to operate at 100% capacity.
This is revealed in two letters from the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19. The health ministry on Thursday released 45 of the MAC advisories to the public, with minister Zweli Mkhize saying that “less than 5%” of them were not implemented “in their entirety”.
One of those is the controversial decision to allow taxis to operate at full capacity for trips under 200km.
Taxis were originally allowed to operate at 50% capacity under lockdown laws, but this was increased to 70% as the government seemingly buckled under pressure from the taxi industry. Later, as lockdown restrictions were eased further, taxis were allowed to operate at full capacity.
The committee, in a letter dated July 3, makes it clear that the risks with a 100% capacity were high — to the point that it advises that it should not be permitted. And, it states, in areas where Covid-19 cases are peaking, the capacity should in fact be reduced to 50%.
On July 3, SA had recorded 177,124 total Covid-19 infections, with 9,064 of these confirmed in the previous 24 hours. Gauteng (4,411 new cases), the Eastern Cape (1,554), the Western Cape (1,091) and KwaZulu-Natal (1,083) had all recorded more than 1,000 new cases since the day before.
“Taxi occupancy should not be increased above the current 70% level. Consideration should be given to reducing occupancy to 50% in areas where the numbers of active Covid-19 cases are high and rising,” it recommended.
The committee — made up of experts who advise the government, particularly Mkhize, on health-related matters — explained that the 100% capacity proposal “presents a high risk of accelerating coronavirus transmission”.
Drivers and conductors, it states, are at great risk because they are “in close contact with potentially infectious individuals for many hours each day”. These drivers and conductors then “pose a risk of transmission to their close contacts, including their families and to passengers”.
“The 100% capacity also presents a risk for infected passengers to transmit the virus to other passengers,” the letter states.
In a second letter, six days later on July 9, the committee again says the 100% capacity idea is not a good one. This time, however, it directly acknowledges that there are other non-health factors at play.
“The MAC on Covid-19 does not advise going above 70% occupancy, however [it] acknowledges that this decision requires consideration of many factors besides health,” the letter reads.
It adds that if the transport department went ahead with the proposal, strict measures would need to be in place. These include:
- every person (driver/passenger/conductor) must wear a mask;
- all passengers should sanitise on entry into the taxi;
- window jammers need to be put in place to allow constant air flow through the taxi;
- taxi drivers need to take ownership of safety measures and ensure they are applied;
- law enforcement is needed to help enforce mitigation measures; and
- every effort of minimising risk through staggered work hours are recommended.
Many of these recommendations were ultimately put in place.