Police conduct checks on omnibuses in Campden Park on Friday. (iWN photo)

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.

He added:

“… 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.

7 replies on “Gov’t offers no subsidy but asks minibuses to carry fewer passengers”

  1. We are just waiting for a disaster to happen. What about the rules for the containment of this desease? Corvid 19 is transmitted person to person through contact and the virus lasts up to 17 days on hard surfaces. All public transport should be suspended for at least a few weeks. The big bad guy Corvid19 is only waiting for a chance to strike. Don’t be stupid, start buying the medical supplies you might need. We understand that better than if later some people make money and others lose their life.

  2. Professor King says:

    What utter nonsense from these greedy van drivers. They need a reality check and thank God they are still operating. A lot of far advanced economies than SVG have all public transport closed, and millions at home from their livelihood. What is happening is a global emergency. And hear that idiot talking about “communist”. Stupidity. Come on, it’s time for everyone to make the required sacrifices. The whole world is facing this hardship.

  3. It takes one person to infect a ton load of people, so putting 12 or 18 person in a minivan wouldn’t make a difference. If you are in those massive buses like overseas,then I can understand the point. Are we going to practice social distancing in minivans? Good luck. In china and other places they have cut down public transportation to 50% capacity. Can our minivans operate at 50% capacity? Sure but would it be worthwhile for the owners? The government is already pushing back on subsidies for the minivan transportation.

    The best solution for folks using public transportation is to use a mask while traveling. Its the only thing that will give you a peace of mind in these uncertain times. By the way, do we have sufficient masks in vincyland for at least 50-75.000 individuals if need be?

    And of course keep sanitizing and washing your hands properly.

  4. Reducing the number of passengers will not work either way. That’s why some countries ban passenger vehicles. Folks can still be open to the virus. The van operators should just park their vans until the government subside the operation of transportation. Once the people cannot move around then the government will do something because the population will take up the fight and not the mini vans operators. If they try to continue working and the police start give with problems, then they are stupid. All it takes is one week off the road.

  5. Concerned citizen says:

    I recently spent some time in st lucia, and was amazed at how public transportation is organised there, vehicles load up passengers and depart in a orderly fashion with no significant overcrowding like occurs in svg. The price for journeys was comparable to that here, with vehicles denoting destinations using a numbering system. Buses pulled off to the side of the road to embark and disembark passengers with no notable race track behaviour as is often displayed here. I know I will have negative comments levelled at me for this observation, but the main reason for the lack of forward development of our island is the dog eat dog attitude of some of our citizens, we should go to some of our sister islands to see how attempts at organised society is done so that we can move on from the disorganised chaos which prevails here. Bus drivers could make a decent living by copying what happens elsewhere, instead of playing russian roulette with the lives of their fellow Vincentians. I do not know if any study has been done on the economic impact to the owners of these vehicles and general society engendered by the way these vecles are operated. The passenger load should be permanently reduced to 15 inclusive of the operators even if this means allowing a small increase in fares as compensation.

  6. Do I understand this right? We have no virus cases in SVG but there are still only a certain amount of people allowed in supermarkets and soon, in vans? Is this going to prevent the virus? Are we all supposed to believe that these measures will stop or reduce it? What about people standing or sitting together in the market? All the vendor-infested areas that are so crowded, it is near-impossible to walk without touching someone and breathing the same air they do?

    Are the police going to break-up these crowded vendor-infested areas?…I think not!

    What if a person gets the virus and sits in a van with 7 other people, and all the others that will sit in that space afterwards, does anyone think that because of these rules none of the other passengers will get the virus and it will not be passed-on?
    I would suggest that we do not yet do all these inconvenient things that are only inconveniences and stupidness at this time and instead we all try to protect ourselves (possibly with gloves and masks) and slowly try to prepare ourselves for if and when the virus hits us: stock-up certain supplies. inform the public what KNOWN measures will happen (country-wide lock-up) and consider what may happen and for how long.
    It seems that up until now all the news about all the cures may be hoaxes because if this news were true we would hear other news that these “cures” and “innoculations” were being mass produced. Now I hear that those that have had the virus and have FULLY recovered are at least for a short time, immune. Who knows if that is even true?

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