A FORMER taxi driver has described how the pandemic forced him to sacrifice his livelihood after his wife fell ill.
Tom O’Connell, who is originally from Crosshaven and now lives in the Glen, spoke of how he had to give up his pride and joy — his taxi — to protect his family.
The decision came after his wife contracted pneumonia which left her medically vulnerable.
Tom said a number of taxi drivers remain in similar positions and are now saddled with staggeringly expensive insurance costs after switching to private vehicles.
“My wife was in hospital and it was just too dangerous,” he said of his decision to quit the industry.
“It [Covid-19] would have killed the two of us. To have kept working with that risk would have been an awful thing.
“This was a decision that came to me naturally as I know how badly even a bad flu could set her back. I was really afraid that I’d get it and pass it on to her.”
He slammed what he described as penalties for taxi drivers quitting the industry.
“My licence ran out in August and I cancelled it. Little did I know the trouble this would get me into. When you go back to private you are penalised immediately. If you changed from a fully qualified driver you are deemed a learner. I had to pay out €780 for insurance that I thought would be €400 at the most.”
He said that the threat of Covid-19 is always looming.
“We are not out of the woods yet. I am still taking my grandchildren to school so I’m already taking a chance as it is.”
He said the part of the job he misses most is its social aspect.
“It’s been really difficult losing all the friends. I loved meeting new people. Funnily enough, it was the nurses who I drove that I had the most craic with. I’m thinking of them too and hoping they’re doing well.”
However, Tom stressed that he is not the only taxi driver in this position.
“I was out in Dunnes when I met one of the lads who told me he also couldn’t return because of underlying health conditions. It seems that all the good ones are gone. Many taxi drivers in Cork are older and we all know that the old-aged pension just isn’t enough to live off.”
Two Cork TDs have called on the Government to support taxi drivers in the region who have seen business severely curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Almost a quarter of taxi drivers in Ireland are over the age of 65, making them ineligible for the pandemic unemployment payment, and meaning that many were forced back to work in the middle of a global pandemic.
Taxi drivers are calling for a pause on the issuing of new licences until normal levels of economic activity return, a reform of the taxi advisory committee, continued access to bus lanes, and a temporary two-year extension to the rule that requires taxis to be less than 10 years old.
Sinn Féin deputies Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire and Thomas Gould have also called for support for those working in the industry in Cork and across Ireland, following a protest outside Leinster House on Tuesday.
“Covid-19 has severely impacted on the income of Cork taxi drivers,” said Mr Gould.
“Despite being an essential service for communities, many taxi drivers are now struggling to make ends meet.
“According to evidence given to the Oireachtas Covid committee, 23% of drivers in the industry are aged over 66 and are not eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment,” he added.
“This meant many older drivers were forced back to work early during the pandemic, despite the advice being for older people to reduce their close contacts at that time.”
Mr Gould said the impact of Covid-19 on tourism and the night-time economy has reduced business to a trickle.
“However, the Government simply doesn’t recognise this,” he claimed.
Fellow Sinn Féin TD for Cork, Mr Ó Laoghaire added: “There are 22,000 taxis on the road, including between 1,000 and 1,500 in Cork, and their families are relying upon them to bring in income.
“At the minute they are facing enormous uncertainty, and potentially significant hardship.
“What they are demanding is not unreasonable,” he said. “Taxi drivers deserve real engagement.
“It is abundantly clear that we need financial support for taxi drivers. The current income support schemes are not suitable for rate-based work such as taxis.
“If they go back to work, they will lose the pandemic unemployment payment, but will only be on a fraction of the work.
“Taxi drivers deserve our respect, and they deserve our support.”