GOVERMENT has bowed to pressure from public transport operators by bending the public health regulations to allow them to carry the full load of passengers in their vehicles.
Taxi owners and other public transport operators had been ordered to carry less than the full load of passengers in line with public health regulations aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.
However, the taxi operators felt aggrieved by the regulations particularly after the government failed to cushion them for losses they incurred as a result of having to reduce the number of passengers in their vehicles.
The regulations were first imposed during the first lockdown from 30 March to 5 May 2020.
The public transport owners had hoped the government would cushion them against the losses as it had done with others such as vendors and factory workers who were also affected by the imposition of public health regulations in response to the pandemic.
A fortnight ago, the operators met with National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) officials and Transport Minister Tšoeu Mokeretla for talks aimed at securing an agreement to allow them to carry full loads of passengers.
When they failed to get their way, the taxi owners then threatened to strike, saying they could not continue offering their services at a loss.
They had given the government until the end of last week to accede to their demands.
Maseru Region Taxi Operators (MRTO) spokesperson, Lebohang Moea, yesterday said the government had since granted their request to carry the full load of passengers.
He said while they understood the dangers posed by the Covid-19, demanding to be allowed to carry the full complement of passengers was a last option since the government had failed to explore other options to save their businesses from collapse.
“On Wednesday we went to see Prime Minister (Moeketsi) Majoro,” Mr Moea told the Sunday Express.
“Gaining access to him wasn’t but we stood our ground and we were eventually given an audience with the PM.
“We were then told to wait until Sunday (today) when he (Majoro) would be delivering his Covid -19 update speech. However, we were summoned by the Minister of Transport Tšoeu Mokeretla on Thursday and he told us that we could go back to loading our vehicles to full capacity with immediate effect,” Mr Moea added.
He said given their last week meeting with National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) officials who vowed not to allow them to carry the full load of passengers, the government’s about-turn on the issue was most likely motivated by the fear that the taxi owners would mobilise people to vote against the governing parties in next year’s elections.
Minister Mokeretla was not reachable on his mobile phone for comment yesterday.
NACOSEC communications manager, Baroana Phenethi, yesterday said, “we are aware of the decision made for taxis to operate at full capacity but as for the reasoning behind it, we shall leave that to the prime minister when he addresses the nation on Sunday”.
A fortnight ago, NACOSEC’s chief of staff, Thabo Ntoi, said the decision to bar taxis from carrying full loads of passengers would not be reversed while Covid-19 persisted.
“This decision cannot be reversed because lives are at stake. We have lost many lives and we can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that ferrying passengers in congested cars can be a super spreader.
“While we understand their (taxi operators’) predicament, we can’t risk losing more lives like we did in January when the infections and deaths increased exponentially.
“Allowing taxis to load to full capacity would be as good as giving them a licence to kill and it is unfair for them to arm-twist the government to allow them to operate normally when things are not normal,” said Mr Ntoi.
To date, Lesotho has recorded 10535 people and caused 309 deaths since the first Covid-19 case was detected on 13 May 2020.
Meanwhile, Dr Majoro is expected to deliver a national address on the Covid-19 situation this evening. A statement from NACOSEC said his speech would be broadcast live on national television and radio.
It remains to be seen whether he will open the borders to allow international travel ahead of the Easter holidays early next month.