THE Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon faced questions from frustrated Taxi drivers at a protest in Stormont today, with many calling for more guidance and financial support to navigate lockdown.
A large cavalcade of public and private taxis beeped their horns and displayed a #TaxiDriversMatter banner, referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, as they drove to Parliament Buildings to stage a static protest.
In a surprise move, the Infrastructure Minister appeared to speak directly to the drivers and answer questions for around 30 minutes.
Value Cabs driver Stephen McDonald (50) from Belfast said he felt the industry had been left out in the cold.
He hasn’t worked since March 5 and is living on Universal Credit while anxiously waiting to get back to work.
“We haven’t had any guidance or support. We’ve been left to our own devices,” he said.
“In this time of Coronavirus everybody’s looking for guidance from authorities, but no one wants to deal with us and it seems like the buck is being passed from department to department.”
Mr McDonald said there were conflicting reports about whether plastic screens installed by many drivers were legal and if they would be covered by insurance companies.
“Some of these guys are paying £80 for a screen but Stormont won’t tell us if they’re legal.
“We hear about drivers going in and working 12 hour shifts for between £30-50, which isn’t much when you’re paying for your diesel, your car and depot rent of £80 a week.
“I would be basically working for £1 an hour if I went back right now so Universal Credit pays more.”
Independent Taxi driver Edward Masterson (62) from Strangford said he has lost 90% of his business during lockdown.
“I have a partner who isn’t well and has no immunity, which puts me in an awkward position that I can’t take people into the car.
“I’ve asked and asked MLAs and Stormont Ministers to sort this out. We’ll all be broke it this keeps up.”
Uber driver Mark Foster (50) from Glengormley has worked as a taxi driver for 20 years.
“Uber has had about a 70-80% downturn in business in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“They are an international company, they’ve been very forward in their advice in terms of drivers protecting themselves from Covid-19 out on the road.
“We want Stormont to know that we’ve been given no advice, no grants, no licence extensions. It’s basically been a wall of silence.
“A lot of drivers are also facing not being able to work as their badge is expiring. The only thing is a few companies in Belfast have supplied some online training which has helped.”
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the Minister said: “I understand that a large number of taxi drivers have just fallen through the cracks in terms of not being able to avail of the current financial packages. I’ve been trying to do what I can as a regulator.”
This includes a six month extension on PSV (public service vehicle) licenses, online courses and simplifying licence renewal.
Ms Mallon said she recognised the key issue was financial hardship and that she had raised the issue with the Economy Minister Diane Dodds.
“I’m very clear that there needs to be support packages that there needs to be support packages for sole traders who are taxi drivers, private operators that have fallen through the cracks.”
She added: “I recognise today that there is frustration and that’s why I wanted top come down in person to explain in person what I have been doing.”
Looking forward, she said the Executive needed to consider new support schemes for those drivers unable to access support.
She added that a wider look was also needed on how the taxis fitted alongside the wider transport network.
After speaking to the Minister, Belfast Black Taxi driver Pat Meghan said: “We just want someone to help us."