Sunday’s decision by the Vincentian Transportation Association (VINTAS) to withdraw their service for two weeks, beginning on Wednesday, could result in a practical shutdown across the country.
The group’s newly elected vice-president, Royron Adams told iWitness News the decision to withdraw service was taken over concerns about the spread of the deadly coronavirus COVID-19.
Adams was elected vice-president after the sudden resignation of Angus McKie that same day.
Adams confirmed to iWitness News, VINTAS’ decision to withdraw service for 14 days, but said he was disappointed that members had made it public before the group’s leadership had informed Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and Minister of Transport, Senator Julian Francis.
He said that VINTAS made the decision in an effort to manage the risk to which minibus driers and conductors are exposed as a result of the COVID-19 virus, and the physical distancing guidelines.
Seven cases of the deadly virus have been confirmed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with one of those people having recovered.
Adams said that about 50 persons attended the meeting at the Arnos Vale Sports Complex, where the decision was taken.
He said that the fact that the government was now asking omnibuses to carry nine passengers did not play a role in the decision.
After the confirmation of COVID-19 in the country, the government had asked omnibuses to carry 12 passengers, two-thirds of their licenced capacity.
The government then offered an EC$250 subsidy for two months, before it went on last week to ask that minibuses carry nine passengers – half the number they are licenced to carry.
Adams said Sunday’s meeting focused on the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in the country and the increasing number of persons in quarantine.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said that 460 persons were in quarantine.
In response to a question at a press conference on Friday, Gonsalves had said he saw no need to pass a law ordering that minibuses reduce the number of passengers they carry.
“The road on which we are embarked is a long journey. We are in an episode and I have lived long enough to know and studied situations long enough to know that if you get people’s buy-in for something, it is better,” Gonsalves said.
He said reports are that while most minibus operations were cooperating, some were “recalcitrant”.
“It would be helpful if we get a buy-in. I can go and change the regulations,” he said, adding that that only requires the Cabinet passing a statutory rule and order and publishing it in the extraordinary Gazette, which could be done in one day.
“We are on a journey with them… if I have that relationship with you I don’t want to say to you I’m going to impose this particular provision,” Gonsalves said.
“I’m asking them to let’s work because when we are finished with this — you know the number of complaints about minibus. If we can use this goodwill when we’re going forward…”
Speaking on radio on Sunday before the VINTAS decision, Gonsalves said that his government cited the response of the minibuses as an area in which his government had made progress where persons might have thought it might have been impossible.
Let’s take the minibus men who, historically, most of the country, at least a significant section has had the view that they are and they are not a very disciplined lot. But most of them, the overwhelming majority of them have moved from 18 passengers to 13,” he said, reiterating that they support the suggestion that they move to nine passengers.
The prime minister added:
“I know there’s a lot of contention and I know there’s a lot of fear. And some people have personal agendas. Some people have political agendas. But I’m trying to look beyond all … of these things to the nation as a whole and see how we can handle this challenge which we have, this multi-dimensional challenge in health and economic, social and security and move forward as far as practicable as one. And I think the good neighbour partnership can help in this regard.”