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Finland pays for 4,500 quarantine taxi rides, but not face masks

Falling incomes make desperate drivers brave the risk of infection and over 10-hour waits for fares at Helsinki Airport.

Helsinki-Vantaan lentoasemarakennus T2 terminaali
Helsinki Airport's Terminal 2 (file photo). Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle
Yle News

Yle News has learned that the government has paid for some 4,500 taxi rides for people arriving at Finnish ports and airports, but provides no personal protection equipment for either drivers or passengers.

This is despite the fact the taxi rides only occur because the passengers – who are required by law to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon entering the country – are banned from using public transport in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection.

The government says it’s the taxi companies’ responsibility to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), but companies and drivers Yle News spoke to said it’s up to taxi drivers themselves.

Finland's public health guidance only recommends taxi drivers provide face masks in situations where a passenger is showing symptoms of Covid-19.

"The guys working now have no choice"

The situation is being made worse by the fact that the coronavirus crisis has cut taxi drivers’ incomes by up to 80 percent, according to Abdul*, a self-employed driver contracted by Taksi Helsinki.

He had been picking up quarantined passengers from Helsinki Airport before his fear of Covid-19 infection made him stop.

"I think no one likes to work as a taxi driver at this time, but I think the problem is the income,” he said. “The guys who are working right now, I think they have no other choice."

This can lead to extreme examples of drivers working long days, Abdul claimed, as a large number of drivers queue up to serve a dwindling number of passengers.

"For example, we are in the queue for more than 10 hours, and then when we get a customer maybe we get a long ride to other regions or other parts of the country," he said.

"The worst thing is when we stay in the queue for more than 12,14 hours and we get a very short ride like to go to Helsinki downtown. That’s 40, 50 euros, something like that."

Travellers returning to Finland are required to go into quarantine conditions for 14 days upon entering the country, according to guidance from the Institute for Health and Welfare, THL.

This means that using any form of public transport for their onward journey is not allowed, including domestic flights.

Official guidance from the Ministry of Health and Social Care says passengers should first look to make journeys either using their own cars or arrange to be picked up, but if they can’t, they get a government-funded taxi.

The knock-on impact of this is that many taxi drivers are expected to drive long distances, taking customers home to quarantine in places far from Helsinki, like Jyvaskylä, Oulu, and even Rovaniemi.

"Imagine someone doing work for 20 hours," Abdul told Yle News, "especially when they’re driving and their mind is working."

But the long journeys can earn drivers a lot of money. Yle News has seen evidence of at least one trip from Helsinki Airport to North Ostrobothnia which cost more than 1,000 euros.

Using protection

Finland's Taxi Association provides guidance on PPE for drivers on its website. It states drivers should 'protect themselves if necessary by wearing masks and single-use gloves'.

Guidance from the Institute for Occupational Health suggests that sick passengers should be offered face masks 'if available', but Abdul told Yle that some journeys are taking place with very little protection.

Taksi Helsinki, one of the companies contracted by the government, confirmed that its drivers are carrying out "one or two hundred" quarantine trips each week, ferrying returning passengers from Helsinki Airport to their homes across the country.

The company said around 60-70 of its vehicles have plexiglass shields between the driver and passengers. Yle News was unable to confirm whether or not these specific vehicles have been used to transport passengers from Helsinki Airport.

Guidelines from the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health (TTL) say "the goal" is to use vehicles that feature a barrier between driver and passengers. The guidance to drivers only suggests taking extra protective measures if a passenger shows symptoms of Covid-19.

"If there are different types of fleet available, vehicles with existing safety cabins are to be used," they continue.

Abdul told Yle he had "never seen" another driver using such a barrier, and that the vehicle he had used to provide airport transportation did not feature a barrier.

Another company contracted to provide taxi services to the government, Lähitaksi, told Yle it had "recommended" that its drivers obtain protective and cleaning equipment, including "transparent plastic foils in their cars to separate the driver and the passenger and provide more safety to both."

Lähitaksi said it had not directly provided any drivers with PPE.

According to the Ministry of Health and Social Care, "the employer is responsible for ensuring that a protection plexiglass or the like can be installed between the customer and the driver."

TTL's guidance for drivers only recommends offering protective equipment to passengers displaying symptoms of coronavirus, saying: "If there are face masks available, one can be offered to the sick passenger, especially in long-distance transport."

Taksi Helsinki said it was "not obligated" for its drivers to use face masks and claimed that 1,000 masks from "a donation" had been distributed to drivers, although the spokesperson was "not sure" of the current situation as "that was roughly two weeks ago."

Abdul told Yle News he had not received any protective equipment from the company, and said that drivers were expected to provide their own protective equipment and cleaning products.

Taking responsibility

Traficom, the government agency in charge of overseeing the taxi contract, told Yle News that information on reducing the risk of coronavirus infection was provided to the participating companies by THL and the Ministry of Health and Social Care.

Traficom's transport service director Jarkko Saarimäki said: “We are relying on the guidance that the healthcare professionals are giving to all taxis and all public transport.”

"They are using the standard guidelines on how to arrange transport safely and also how to protect the drivers' safety," he said.

In an email, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health told Yle News that the details of contracts with taxi companies were the responsibility of Traficom.

The ministry said that final responsibility for driver safety rested with the taxi companies themselves, saying: "the protective equipment of the taxi drivers is an occupational safety issue, so giving instructions about it and providing the equipment is the responsibility of the employer."

Taxi firm Lähitaksi told Yle News by email: "We have not directly been given instructions from THL but we have been following their guidelines and instructions closely, and at the early stage of the pandemic, we contacted them for instructions to be given to our entrepreneurs, drivers and customers. We also follow the recommendations and information provided by the Finnish Taxi Union."

Taksi Helsinki did not respond to requests for further comment.

*Abdul’s name has been changed to protect his identity as he feared repercussions for speaking openly.

EDIT 29.4.2020: Edited to clarify Abdul works for Taksi Helsinki, and to clarify Lähitaksi's policy on providing PPE.

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