Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on Sunday said that a subsidy to minibus operators could cost the government as much as EC$640,000 per month.
He suggested that the government cannot afford such a figure and Ministry of Finance officials will decide what the government can do, if anything at all.
The prime minister’s comments come even as minibus operators are being asked to reduce their payload from 18 to 12 passengers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking on WE FM on Sunday, Gonsalves said:
“If you have 1,600 minibuses and they are all properly registered and doing work and you given them … $400 a month as some kind of a subsidy, … that’s 640,000 a month. And if it’s two months, that $1.28, call it $1.3 million.
“So, you see right away, $400 is not something which is affordable, so it might be a lesser number. Where that number is, the Ministry of Finance would say if that is done or if at all.”
Gonsalves said that there is some relief “given in other places”, adding that he can understand a subsidy if minibus operators are cooperating and carrying fewer passengers.
“… but you can’t be still not cooperating with doing 13 or nine passengers and then you have the thing with your 18 still and then you line up at the trough at the end of the month like everybody else. It can’t be fair.
“And I can’t have an army of transport observers employed by the Ministry of Transport to see what these 1,600 minibuses do. We can have some spot checks and so on and so forth. So I am talking now … policy options and practical implementation.
The prime minister said that the EC$70 million stimulus he announced last week would undergo some change by the time it is taken to Parliament on April 7.
Minibus operators have been asking if the government would provide a subsidy amidst the efforts of the police to get them to reduce the number of passengers they carry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, Gonsalves told Parliament, as he had done in a national address the previous day, that he was concerned about minibuses and the spread of the illness.
“That is a problem which is something which we have to monitor very closely. I gave a warning last night, I gave advice last night — strong advice. If you overcrowd the vehicle, the minibus, if you have too many persons inside of it, the police can pull you off the road and your license can be taken away not just for overcrowding, but if you are doing something which is harmful to the to the health and welfare of the country,” Gonsalves told lawmakers.
He assured Parliament that “if at any time in the assessment of the risks and taking the professional advice, that we are of the view that there is a real danger in all the circumstances in respect of any aspect in the management of this COVID business, we will take action to the fullest extent that the law and the Constitution permit”.
Minibuses in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are generally licensed and registered to carry 18 passengers and sometimes carry more than that number.
However, on Friday, one omnibus operator plying the Kingstown-Campden Park route contacted iWitness News, saying that a police officer had instructed him that he can carry three persons per seat except for the front seat.
In the front of the van, the driver is allowed to carry one passenger, instead of two, he said, citing the instructions of the police.
This would mean that an 18-seater van would then be reduced to a carrying capacity of 12-passengers — in addition to the driver and the conductor.
In dollar terms, this translates to EC$12 less per trip for vans on the Kingstown-Campden Park route.
The driver said that the police officer told him that the actions were taken to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus if the illness were to affect the country.
SVG registered one case of the virus on March 11 and that patient tested negative after receiving treatment, Minister of Health, Senator Luke Browne said in a national address Friday night.
The driver told iWitness News that since the first case of the virus was confirmed in SVG, he has been keeping a bottle of rubbing alcohol in his vehicle.
He said he disinfects his vehicle every other trip and also makes its available to passengers to sanitise their hands.
He said that while he wants to keep his passengers safe, he too does not want to contract the virus.
COVID-19 has claimed over 34,000 lives from among 725,000 persons infected, 152,000 of whom have recovered.
The driver told iWitness News that reducing the number of his passengers that he carry can have “a serious financial impact”, noting that with schools close, there are fewer commuters.
The driver said that if the number of passengers that he can carry is reduced, his minivan would run close to or at a loss.
“I still have all my expenses,” he said, adding that he could lose as much as EC$100 per day as his conductor would not take a pay cut and the gas station “won’t ease up”.
The driver said that buses operating longer routes, such as Kingstown-Chateaubelair, the loss could be EC$60 per trip.
He said that the prime minister did not announce any subsidies for minibus operators in his national address last Wednesday.
Further the driver said that the police were heavy-handed in their approach on Friday.
“It was as if we’re living in a communist country,” he said.
He said that he tired to reason with the police, telling them that the van was licensed and insured to carry 18 passengers.
However, the police told him that they are the licensing authority and could amend the regulations as they see fit.
The driver said that in an effort to evade the police, some van servicing routes north of Campden Park, drove through the Plan area of that community, onto the Industrial Estate road before rejoining the Nelson Mandela Highway in at the clinic in Campden Park or in Chauncey or Questelles.
On Friday afternoon, iWitness News was present at the bridge in “Sweet Spot” Campden Park when a Station Sergeant of Police Parnel Browne stopped a minibus travelling the Kingstown-Vermont route.
The officer told the driver about the coronavirus and its spread and said that while he could not order him to carry fewer than 18 passengers, he would strongly recommend it.
On Saturday, police said in a press statement that operators of omnibuses have been advised to confirm to the physical distancing guidelines by allowing on only one person to sit in the front passenger seat and no more than three persons on the other seats.