Nearly 280 taxi drivers ditch the trade in 12 months after Covid lockdowns cut work

THE number of taxi drivers has dropped by a quarter in Portsmouth after repeated lockdowns cut off trade.

Monday, 16th August 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Monday, 16th August 2021, 8:14 pm

Covid-19 restrictions saw a huge drop in taxi journeys as people stayed at home to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Drivers worked up to 70 hour weeks, taking supermarket staff and nurses to and from work, but struggled to make a living.

Now Department for Transport figures show 958 vehicles were licensed to operate in Portsmouth at the end of March - down from 1,237.

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Mahbub Chowdhury with his taxi in Somers Town Picture: Habibur Rahman

There remain 234 traditional taxis – but the drop has come in private hire vehicles, with 279 fewer in 12 months.

Havant saw a similar drop – with 263 fewer licensed taxis – mainly due to a drop in private hire vehicles. There are now 535 overall in Havant, down from 798.

In Fareham there are 228, down from 258 – while Gosport saw a drop of seven from 135 taxis to 128.

It’s a trend reflected nationally, with the National Private Hire and Taxi Association saying there was a ‘sheer absence’ of government support. Many people have become delivery drivers instead, the association said.

Mahbub Chowdhury with his taxi in Somers Town Picture: Habibur Rahman

Mahbub Chowdhury is a dad-of-three and taxi driver for Aqua Cars. The 41-year-old, who lives in Somers Town, worked during the pandemic.

Mainly picking up NHS and grocery store workers, he was concerned about picking up the virus and spreading it to his 67-year-old mother, three children and wife.

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‘I know a lot of drivers stopped working completely, everyone was scared,’ he said.

‘They didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t want to bring anything home.

‘You’re going to be picking up so many different people. There was that and also knowing that you’re not going to get as many jobs, and financially it’s probably not going to be worth staying in work.

‘In the first two or three months a lot of drivers stopped.’

It was hard for Mahbub during lockdown, knowing by going out he was exposed to the virus - but he needed the money.

The firm he works for reduced costs that had to be paid, but work was scarce.

He qualified for Universal Credit but that was stopped when he accessed the equivalent of furlough for the self-employed. It was paid in lump sums designed to last several months but took him over the monthly benefits earning limit.

‘I still had to take the risk because of the financial side of it,’ he said. ‘There’s only so much money you can borrow before you have to pay them back.

‘Even the people you borrowed money from - they’re going to need that money.’

Both his wife and mother contracted Covid-19 but did not need hospital treatment.

Of his mum, he said: ‘She’s very lucky that she came through without medical assistance.’

Work started to resume after the initial months of the first lockdown but was a ‘huge struggle’ with lots of waiting around for jobs, with just four hours in a day with paying fares.

To get that work some drivers were doing 10-12 hours out just to pick up those jobs.

‘So many drivers haven’t come back, some because they’re not to sure about if it’s right being in a taxi with so many people in and some people were Eastern European driver who fled the country because they wanted to be with their loved ones - for some it was Brexit.

‘It’s a busy year now because we don’t have enough drivers and don’t know whether they’re going to come back - it’s a tough one.’

Forhad Mahmud, 43, has been a taxi driver in Portsmouth for 18 years. He said many drivers do 60 to 70 hours a week to earn enough.

Repeated lockdowns saw earnings plummet, and the recovery is far from in full swing.

‘It’s picking up a little bit but it’s been really tough in the last year and a half,’ he said.

‘We have picked up a little bit but it’s only at the end of the month when people get paid - the rest of the month it’s very quiet.

‘Overall if you look at everything it’s not a very ideal job at the moment.’

Portsmouth City Council is introducing a clean air zone, charging taxis and private hire vehicles to drive in certain areas.

A zone has been mandated by government after not enough was done to tackle air pollution levels in the city.

Southsea-based Forhad said he’s aware of one person who has handed back his hackney plate to the council as he’s unable to afford the £10,000 for a new zone-compliant vehicle.

Councillor Lynne Stagg is the cabinet member for traffic and transportation at Portsmouth City Council. She said a lot of drivers have applied for grants from the council to upgrade their vehicles.

But she said she was surprised by the drop in numbers overall. She said: ‘‘I’m not surprised - there hasn’t been the demand in lockdown itself, and even after that people aren’t going out as much.

‘Although restrictions are being lifted a lot of people are still worried about going in taxis and public transport, it’s buses and trains as well. I can understand that and there’s no real answer to it.’

In response to the allegation there was no support, a government spokeswoman said: ‘The government has announced several measures to support UK businesses through the pandemic, including the taxi and private hire sector.

‘The majority of taxi drivers are self-employed and can apply to the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, and operating companies are eligible for local council grants.’

150 taxis at park and ride in Tipner

AROUND 150 taxis remain at the council-run park and ride off the M275.

Private hire vehicle drivers were allowed to use the huge car park in lockdown, with 250 taking up the offer.

But now there are still about 150 vehicles in place - with the council needing to get them moved.

‘There are 150 private hire vehicles at the park and ride,’ said Councillor Lynne Stagg is the cabinet member for traffic and transportation.

‘We’re trying to get them moved out because we need to get the park and ride open.’

She added: ‘We allowed them to stay there, we had over 250 there. We did our best for the trade, we did everything we simply could.’