Covid-19: Scientists stood firm behind advice that taxis should only operate at 70% occupancy

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  • Scientists warned that allowing taxi occupancy levels back to normal, would increase the risk of Covid-19 infections.
  • The Health Department made scientific advisories public on Thursday, after refusing to do so for months.
  • 69% of SA households made use of taxis every day, driving an unregulated industry worth roughly R50-billion a year.

Scientists advising government, explicitly recommended that minibus taxi occupancies should remain at 70%, and even be reduced to 50% in areas experiencing high numbers of Covid-19 cases.

But government, in what was seen as bowing to pressure from the taxi industry, allowed a return to 100% capacity in early July.

This followed threats by taxi industry bodies that they would start loading taxis at full capacity again, in late June.

Meanwhile, the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19 advised on 3 July, that taxis should only be allowed to travel with 70% occupancy, and in areas where coronavirus cases were surging, capacity should be reduced to 50%.

This was according to two of 45 advisories penned by the MAC which were made public by the Health Department on Thursday.

The MAC's made up of more than 40 scientists handpicked to advise government, and was chaired by Professor Salim Abdool Karim.

For months the department refused to make the MAC advisories public, with Health Minister Zweli Mkhize stating the advisories would be misconstrued as government policy.  

On 16 July, News24 filed a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) request asking for the advisories to be made available. The request was denied, and News24 filed an internal appeal on 18 August.

A second PAIA application for access to more detailed Covid-19 data had been ignored, and an appeal was filed on 19 August.

The advisories on taxi occupancy showed:

  • The MAC was asked whether an increase in taxi occupancy from 70% to 100% would pose a public health threat of increased coronavirus transmission and what could be done to mitigate those risks;
  • On 3 July, the MAC advised that occupancy should not be increased above 70% and consideration should be given to decreasing occupancy to 50% in "areas where the numbers of active Covid-19 cases are high and rising"; and
  • Six days later, on 9 July, an addendum to the original advisory provided advice on mitigation factors if an increase to 90% or 100% occupancy was to occur "following discussions with the Transport Department and the taxi industry".

The 9 July addendum pointed out: 

The MAC on Covid-19 does not advise going above 70% occupancy, however, acknowledges that this decision requires consideration of many factors besides health.

The addendum advised that if 100% occupancy was to be implemented, strict steps should be taken to mitigate risks, including that the driver and occupants should all wear masks; all passengers should sanitise before entering; and window jammers should be installed to ensure air flow through the taxi.

The MAC even recommended minimising risk through staggering work hours, to lower the number of people using transport at the same time.

'We want 50%'

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, at a press briefing in mid-July, expanded on the decision to allow taxis back to 100% occupancy, saying that to continue to restrict taxis' operations would result in the industry collapsing.

On 29 June, Mbalula invited taxi bodies such as Santaco and the National Taxi Alliance to speak with him over their grievances, but said their threats to return to 100% capacity, would set them on a "collision course" with the law.

Just weeks later, and despite scientific advice to the contrary, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that government would allow taxis to once again load at 100% capacity.

Mbalula was quoted as saying at a media briefing on 16 July:

We want no 100% and we want no 70%. We want 50% so that we can see visible distancing. If you were to do that... 50% in taxis, let's confront the reality, where would the taxi industry be in the next two months?

The science told a story of extreme risk to the South Africans who used taxis daily, and to drivers and conductors.

"The coronavirus spreads from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets and contact when people touch contaminated surfaces," the MAC advisory of 3 July said.

"Direct and prolonged (more than 15 minutes) contact in poorly ventilated areas are considered to carry the highest risk," it continued.

"Most notably, drivers and conductors carry a particularly high risk of coronavirus infection as they have the longest exposure to potentially infectious individuals each day without the benefit of social distancing."

The MAC recommended strict sanitising regimens, screening for drivers and conductors as well as mask wearing to reduce infection risks. It said that having the windows open was a crucial measure to minimise the "increased risk from close contact".  

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