London’s “army of black cabs” has urged the government to use it to help roll out the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme while supporting an industry devastated by the pandemic.
The Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, which represents the capital’s taxi drivers, has offered to drive elderly and vulnerable patients to and from medical centres to help the government reach its target of offering the vaccine to 15m people by mid-February.
In a letter to vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi seen by the Financial Times, the association said drivers “desperately struggling to make ends meet” could be contracted en masse at a fixed rate.
“It is a complete no-brainer. We have an army of elderly, vulnerable and less mobile people that need to be taken in, this is the final leg of the struggle,” the LTDA’s general secretary, Steve McNamara, told the FT.
The letter referenced Conservative MP Charles Walker advocating in the House of Commons for “the army of black cab drivers eager and waiting to help”.
The industry first pushed to be used to support the NHS last spring, but was not taken up on its offer, other than ad hoc arrangements with some doctors’ surgeries and NHS trusts.
Taxis might have been built for social distancing, Mr McNamara insisted: they had plenty of space, a partition between driver and passenger along with easily sterilised interiors designed to cope with the excesses of “Friday night drunks”.
Free Now, a ride hailing app for black cabs and minicabs that operates in nine cities in the UK, has also written to ministers to offer logistical help and push for drivers to be given priority access to the vaccines.
The lobbying comes as cab drivers struggle in a city that has been gutted of potential passengers.
Those that are still working swap horror stories at cab ranks: the unfortunate colleague who queued for 18 hours for an airport run at Heathrow, or the driver who waited at St Pancras station for four hours for an £8 journey.
The number of people travelling in London has fallen sharply during lockdowns, with shops closed, offices deserted and pubs and restaurants shuttered. Illustrating the decline in people moving about the city, London Underground ridership has fallen this month to about 15 per cent of its pre-pandemic level.
The number of active black cab licences has fallen by more than a fifth since the end of June, according to TfL figures, cited by the LTDA, from more than 18,000 to just over 14,300.
But, Mr McNamara said, the vast majority of the remaining drivers were not working, and those still on the roads were only able to pull in around a fifth of their normal income.
One who hopes to make it out of the crisis is Howard Taylor, who followed his father into the trade and has been driving his cab for 33 years.
“I can’t even begin to describe it to you; dead is underplaying it. The city is bereft, it is desolate. It is like tumbleweed,” the 60-year old said.
Although he plans to return, Mr Taylor said he found it too disheartening to drive the empty streets at the moment.
“I have tried, I can’t,” he said.
Drivers are eligible for government support for the self-employed, but many lease their vehicles and are struggling to keep up with repayments, or have had to sell them at a significant loss.
Some have given up and switched to other jobs such as driving delivery vans for supermarkets or even heavy goods lorries across Europe.
Dale Forwood began driving deliveries for Asda during the first lockdown in March, but still drives her cab two days a week. “It has been really quiet, so this delivery job over the past 10 months has really saved me,” she said.
She said many of her new colleagues were also black cab drivers, eager to take whatever work they could.
Facing stiff competition from digital private hire companies such as Uber before the pandemic, London’s black cabs became a symbol of the fight against the disruptive power of technology as much as an icon of the city.
But, despite the arrival of myriad competitors, drivers said that before the pandemic, their business had been recovering and attracting new passengers thanks to the rollout of card payments and new electric vehicles.
“We had seen a massive return of our customer base, we saw a much younger demographic of people hailing a cab in the street,” Mr McNamara said.
Now, drivers are back to wondering where their next fare will come from — and like many other industries are left hoping for more help from the government.
“We could help roll out this vaccine and I really want the government to use us,” Ms Forwood said.
A government spokesperson said ministers were "extremely grateful for every single offer of support" but did not indicate whether the taxi drivers would be used to help deliver the vaccination programme.