Community transport for some of the most vulnerable users in Northern Ireland could be forced to close down due to the impact of the pandemic, a report showed.
It offers door-to-door transport known as “dial a lift” for those with no other options, usually due either to the rural nature of the area in which they live, or disability.
Social distancing has at least halved vehicle capacity.
To enable distancing means organisations could have to use double the usual amount of fuel, maintenance and staff to carry the same number of passengers as before Covid-19, the sector said.
The Community Transport Association dossier added: “This means that, even if demand returns, organisations which hire community transport services to carry groups may not be able to afford these additional costs.
“Worse, these organisations may close down themselves; with the economy suffering a downturn.”
The Covid-19 vaccination programme is targeting older and more vulnerable groups first during the early part of 2021 but public health experts have warned it will be some time until life returns to normal.
Community transport provided more than 250,000 journeys last year to help people living in isolated rural areas, including the elderly and those with disabilities.
Halting group hire services and the reduction of dial-a-lift since March represents as much as £70-£160,000 of financial loss for community transport organisations.
With reduced used of vehicles during lock down many organisations saved on fuel and maintenance and reduce driver hours.
The association added: “For many organisations, there are concerns that, in the long term, these cost-saving mechanisms will not be enough to replace the loss of group hire income.”
There are fears of suppressed demand, with the possibility that people will choose not to travel to protect their health, a report into their worries said.
It recognised significant Government support during the pandemic.
That included the furlough jobs retention scheme, additional funding from district councils and third sector organisations and a special fund covering rural transport.
They are pressing for:
– Multi-year grant funding from the Executive;
– Ringfencing of community transport in the Infrastructure Department’s budget;
– A reversal of year-on-year budget cuts;
– Health authorities making more a contribution to funding since many of the trips involve attending medical appointments;
– Operations outside of office hours and at weekends when people need it.
Community transport providers have adapted their service offering to cater to new demands, such as food and medicine deliveries.
Easilink Community Transport organised deliveries of food boxes to community groups and people living in rural areas.
It was a resounding success and we wouldn’t have been able to deliver it without Easilink as a main delivery partnerSusan Mullan
Susan Mullan from Derry City and Strabane District Council said: “We have local vans but wouldn’t have had the capacity or staff and would have had to look at a different delivery model.
“It was easy to work with Easilink.
“They had the connections in the areas, excellent local knowledge and, due to the clients they already work with through their core services, they already understood the needs of the people we were targeting and helped us to connect them to services.
“It was essential to get the scheme operational as soon as possible, given the pandemic.
“It was a resounding success and we wouldn’t have been able to deliver it without Easilink as a main delivery partner.”