Melbourne Uber drivers fear for their health as they transport passengers to Covid-19 tests

Some Melbourne Uber drivers say they are afraid for their health after unknowingly transporting potentially infectious passengers to Covid-19 testing facilities.

Melbourne driver Karan Taneja said he was scared to hold his infant child for days after picking up a rider who suspected she could have Covid-19 and wished to get tested.

“Before we pick up the passenger we don’t know where we are going … When I saw the address I didn’t know there was corona testing there,” he said.

“When we were two minutes away she told me ‘I have to get tested for Covid, I have to be tested in your car’, I was really shocked.”

The rider told Taneja the Covid-19 hotline had instructed her to wear a mask and use public transport or an Uber, and she had opted to be driven due to the test facility closing soon.

Unsure what to do, Teneja said he took her through the drive-in testing centre and dropped her home.

“I was so scared because I have a 10-month-old baby. I was looking for any symptoms, I didn’t want to hold my child for two days … I don’t want to take a risk like this,” he said.

Taneja said he didn’t know if the rider’s actions were legal, and operators on the Covid-19 testing hotline could not tell him.

When asked about the issue on Thursday, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, seemed to suggest it was allowed.

“The most important thing is that people get tested. But if you’ve got symptoms, you need to make sure that you’re coming in contact with the smallest number of people possible while you get tested, and certainly coming in contact with nobody between your test and when you get your result,” he said.

“The assumption has to be that you’ve got it … That’s one of the examples why some of the changes we’ve made in commercial passenger vehicles, regardless of which company runs them, masks and things of that nature and passenger limits and things like that, was the right choice to make.

“I have not made those calls. That’s based on detailed consideration by the public health team.”

The department of health and human services told Guardian Australia late on Friday that ride share and taxis can operate subject to restrictions, and people in the community travelling can use ride sharing and taxi services for a permitted purpose.

“Drivers must wear a face covering and maintain good hygiene practices for them and their vehicle,” a department spokesman said. “People travelling to get tested should avoid using public transport, taxi or ride share services where possible, and must wear a face covering and practise physical distancing and good hygiene when leaving home.”

People who are unable to drive, or who do not have someone to assist them may be able to take a taxi or ride share to attend a testing centre if required. Those who usually provide care or assistance to someone who may otherwise have difficulty getting tested, such as an elderly relative, can take them to a testing centre.

The Department of Health website is less clear, and instructs people getting tested to avoid using public transport, taxi or rideshare services, “if you can”.

However, rideshare or taxi services can also be crucial for people with disabilities who may be unable to drive or easily use public transport.

“The DHHS website says to avoid public transport or taxis, but doesn’t list an option for people who don’t drive and don’t live close to a testing site,” said Jae Evergreen, who is autistic and does not drive. .

“There’s brief mention of home testing, but only a contact number that’s open weekday hours, and no information on whether anyone can access it.”

People With Disability Australia chief executive Jeff Smith said the organisation was also aware of concerns about how people with disabilities would get tested.

He said home testing would need to be available for those who needed it, while help would be required for people who would prefer to get tested at a facility.

Taneja has had to continue to work, but said he is afraid another incident like this will happen.

“People were saying I’m a frontline worker like doctors, but they have all the PPE. All I have is a mask and hand sanitiser.”

The Rideshare Drivers’ Association of Australia secretary Les Johnson said drivers should be allowed to see the drop-off address before accepting a ride.

“[The apps] will give you a first name and where you’re doing the pickup but you’ve got no idea of where you’re going until you’ve actually done the pickup. So the drivers are basically flying blind,” he said.

“It feels like the drivers really are an expendable item.”

Johnson said there was no clarity from government on the issue of transporting potentially infectious people.

“I don’t think anyone has a straight answer. Every time the premier comes up to the microphone to talk about what they’re doing. There is never any talk about the personalised transport industry,” he said.

Johnson noted that many rideshare drivers are already in vulnerable and low-income categories.

“A high percentage of drivers who are doing rideshare work have come from other countries. Their grasp of the English language might not be the best … They are doing this work to put food on the table for their families … These people are going out there and risking being exposed for what could be less than a fraction of the normal work.”

A spokeswoman for Uber said drivers were able to not accept or cancel a trip at any time if they feel unsafe, without penalties.

The company declined to comment on drivers being unable to access a passenger’s destination before they are collected.

“Victorian riders are required to wear a mask while travelling via the Uber app. Since March we have asked riders to only sit in the back seat, wash their hands before and after each trip, and to open the window to improve ventilation. We have also been clear that riders should not travel if they are feeling unwell,” she said.

“Since mid-July we have been distributing up to 860,000 single-use face masks to active [drivers] who request them in Victoria. New in-app technology also verifies if driver and delivery people are wearing a mask by asking them to take a selfie before they log on to the app.”

From Thursday Uber is also encouraging riders and drivers in NSW to wear masks while travelling, but it is not required..

During Melbourne’s suburb-specific lockdowns in June, ambulance testing crews were set up around residential streets, and Department of Health workers delivered at-home testing kits that could be self-administered by the symptomatic person and collected later.

Guardian Australia ask the health department if these testing options are still available for those unable to drive or catch public transport to testing sites, but did not receive a response.


Matilda Boseley and Luke Henriques-Gomes

The GuardianTramp

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