Omnibus drivers and conductors in St. Vincent and the Grenadines will soon have to take a COVID-19 vaccine if they want to be allowed to carry more than half of their licensed capacity.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said on WE FM, on Sunday — National Heroes Day — that his government would this week pass a law to “incentivise” omnibus operators to take the jab.
Gonsalves’ comment came on a day that he invoked national hero Joseph Chatoyer, expressed disappointment that church leaders were not encouraging congregants to get vaccinated, and said carnival would only take place if 70-80% of the nation’s adults are vaccinated by May.
The government is struggling, amidst apparent widespread hesitancy, to get Vincentians to take the jabs, even as the country has received some 45,000 doses of vaccines.
As of Saturday, over 8,000 doses have been administered, according to the prime minister.
“On Tuesday, we are hoping that can go and publish a statutory rule and order where we are tying the increase in the numbers for the minibus operators … to the driver and certainly the conductor taking the vaccine because that is an area where we have been advised by the medical authorities which is one of the more challenging areas,” Gonsalves said.
He said that there are other challenging areas.
“The difference, of course, some people may say, ‘well, what about the nurses who are administering the vaccine and who, themselves, don’t take the vaccine or who are sceptical or slow on the uptake?’” Gonsalves said.
“All what we are saying is that there is a particular regulation at the moment and we will go along with you and increase the numbers which you want to have come in the vehicle.
“Well, if you want that, you get vaccinated. If not, you carry the same half. In other words, you incentivise the matter.”
The Vincentian Transportation Association (VINTAS) has been lobbying the government, and has withdrawn their service twice over the past month, in an effort to get the government to increase to two-thirds of the licensed capacity, the number of passengers permitted in an omnibus.
And while the government has remained unmoved from its position, it has allowed places of worship to accommodate one-third of their possible occupancy, up from an absolute maximum of 10 persons.
The government has also kept the 10-person maximum for all other indoor gatherings, and continues to ban in-establish dining at restaurants.
Gonsalves said that in asking that omnibus operators get vaccinated if they want to increase their ridership, the government is not taking away people’s rights.
“You are incentivising,” he said. “If you don’t want to take the incentive, then that’s fine. You carry half the passengers. Simple. Straightforward.”
He said he was not suggesting doing, as former prime minister Sir James Mitchell has suggested “to say that you pass a law that the policeman can arrest you unless you have the vaccine and the nurses to tell them to go to a different profession.
“But I understand the sentiment which pushed him into that position,” Gonsalves said, adding that he wants to persuade citizens to take the vaccine because the coronavirus will not be “the last of the pandemics”.
“… the growth in urbanisation in the main cities around the world, and also because of climate change, those factors are going to let us have more and more of these viral pandemics,” Gonsalves said.
“I am exercising leadership in this way. I am not just saying that because I take it it’s an example but it’s your personal choice. Of course, I know it’s your personal choice. But, as a leader, I am urging you to take it because it is good for you and good for the country,” said Gonsalves, who took his vaccine in February, after “prayerful consideration”.
The prime minister responded to the question of whether “incentivising” the van drivers could be seen as discriminatory.
“Well, if they want to do that, we are confident that it’s not discriminatory,” Gonsalves said. “We are confident. In other words, the rule is that you have half but if you want more than half, there is this public health issue which has to be addressed.”
It was noted that the rule does not apply to other workers who come into contact with the public on a regular basis.
“Yeah, but I’m not incentivising the other workers. I am incentivising you,” the prime minister said.
“We are incentivising them. But, they don’t have to take it you know,” he said and reiterated that operators who do not take the vaccine would only be allowed to carry one half of their licensed capacity.
“… we’re tying [vaccination to ridership] because what happens is this, all of these fundamental rights provisions which you may have, they always, at the end, say that they can be restricted.”
He said that in this case, there is no restriction of fundamental rights.
“… but even if you restrict fundamental rights and freedoms, you can restrict them in the interest, among other things, of public health, and public order and public safety that the restriction is reasonably required for those public purposes and that it is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
“… I’m not compelling you. So not that we are treating them unequal before the law of discriminating against them, it’s that we are providing an incentive for you to do it.”
Gonsalves said that from the discovery of the smallpox vaccine in the 1790s to the present, “vaccines have assisted in keeping public health in good order and saving lives and livelihoods and that’s what the science tells us.
“Now, for those who are sceptics for vaccines and who are sceptical, I am urging you to take it. And those of you who are anti-vax, I am urging you to rethink your position and I’m strongly urging you to take the vaccine,” he said.