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By Orville Williams

To many residents, the sight of several empty seats in the public buses is rather uncommon, but given the unpredictability surrounding the spread of the coronavirus, that sight could remain the reality for the foreseeable future.

Since the start of the pandemic, bus operators at both the East and West Bus stations have been subject to several changes in the restrictions on passenger load. These changes often come when the Covid-19 infection rate is higher than desired and are similarly reversed to allow full capacity when the rate is lowered.

When the restrictions were first ordered, the drivers complained of the financial impact the reduction in passengers was having on their pockets, given the already-struggling economy. It was determined by the health officials, however, that it was a necessary sacrifice to make for the protection of the wider population.

The latest restriction was applied earlier this year, following concerns raised by Chief Health Inspector Sharon Martin, who said many buses were still too packed and the risk of the virus’ spread was being amplified.

The changes that followed saw the drivers of 15-seater buses ordered to transport no more than ten people on each trip and drivers of 29-seaters told to transport no more than 17 passengers at a time.

There were talks months ago of a stipend that could possibly remedy the financial situation the drivers faced with the restrictions, but the agreement now in place sees the registered drivers receive a fuel subsidy, to offset the monies ‘lost’.

The end of that agreement and the return to full capacity in the buses may not come for some time though, on word from Cabinet Spokesperson, Information Minister Melford Nicholas.

Nicholas was questioned on the issue during the post-Cabinet media briefing on Thursday and his response was that reversal of the changes to the passenger restrictions could come with herd immunity.

“We had given certain concessions to the bus operators…some subsidy to allow them to reduce the congestion in the buses and that regime continues in place. We have not given any nod toward relaxing those particular procedures.

“When we get to that level of immunity, a number of the issues and a number of the restrictions that we have would have to be looked at. A determination is going to be made as to whether or not there continues to be a need for those restrictions [and] I supposed that will, as well, involve the public transportation system.”

Many bus operators continue to voice their disapproval of the current restrictions, arguing that the subsidy is not enough to satisfy their losses.

Despite their grievances though, the restrictions must be adhered to under the law, meaning their best bet for a return to normal operations rests with the ongoing vaccination programme and the drive to reach herd immunity.