Picture: ALON SKUY
Picture: ALON SKUY

On Wednesday, transport minister Fikile Mbalula moved to relax the strict regulations in the public-transport sector during the coronavirus lockdown, allowing taxis to carry full passenger loads, provided passengers are wearing masks.

He also announced changes to operating times, with taxis now permitted to operate from 5am until 10am (previously 9am), and from 4pm to 9pm (previously 8pm).

“We don’t expect a taxi in the streets after 9pm or after 11am,” he told a media briefing at the MTN taxi rank in the Johannesburg CBD on Wednesday.

Mbalula announced a raft of amendments to the regulations he unveiled a week ago, aimed at limiting the spread of Covid-19. The pandemic has been confirmed in more than 1,300 people and has resulted in five deaths in SA.

He said that during the lockdown, transport vehicles must reduce the number of maximum passengers to 70% of the licensed capacity if the passengers are not wearing masks.

According to the gazetted orders, a minibus taxi licensed to carry 10 passengers will now be limited to carrying a maximum of seven passengers, while those licensed to carry 15 passengers are limited to 10. A midi-bus permitted to carry a maximum of 22 passengers is now permitted to carry 15, while a commercial vehicle licensed to carry a maximum of four passengers is now allowed to carry two people.

“Alternatively ... all minibus and midi-bus taxi vehicles are permitted to load their maximum, 100% passenger capacity as provided for in their operating licences, provided that all passengers are wearing masks,” said Mbalula.

The masks passengers are required to wear are surgical masks and N95 respiratory masks, he said. Mbalula said his director-general Alec Moemi is working with all the provinces on “operationalising the masks”.

“I know there is a shortage of the masks but we are looking at all of that [in terms of] getting enough masks for everybody, so that the government is able to supply [them], as well as sanitisers. The director-general and provinces will make sure that all masks are provided.”

The transport minister urged public-transport operators to adhere to the regulations on sanitising their vehicles and to put measures in place for social distancing.

Essential service workers

According to the regulations Mbalula announced a week ago, minibus taxis, midi-buses, metered taxis and e-hailing providers, such as Uber and Bolt, will be allowed to transport essential service workers.

Operators need to put measures in place to adhere to social-distancing norms to curb the coronavirus spread. He had said all minibus and metered taxis, and e-hailing providers, must be sanitised after each trip, while taxi ranks need to be sanitised at regular intervals.

The media briefing followed a recent meeting Mbalula held with the leadership of the National Taxi Alliance (NTA), and the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco), SA’s largest taxi association, on the effect Covid-19 is having on the unregulated industry. The industry transports 16.5-million passengers a day.

Mbalula stressed that there will be no more concessions from the government on the matter, and called for the enforcement of regulations to be respected by the taxi industry.

Santaco president Phillip Taaibosch said: “We welcome the relaxation of the regulations. We are ready to ensure that there is distribution of masks to passengers. We want to see SA rid of this coronavirus. We believe the operations will run smoothly from now onwards.”

NTA spokesperson Theo Malele described the “consensus” reached with Mbalula on Tuesday as a “historic milestone”, saying, “Talks were centred around strategies to flatten the curve of Covid-19 from spreading among the commuting masses, and social-distancing … We also welcome the new operating hours that will allow the taxi industry sufficient time to offer services, while adhering to all regulations as promulgated.”

Update: April 1 2020
This article has been updated with comment by NTA.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za