A “deluge” of health appointments could be missed next year unless community transport organisations are adequately funded, one of Northern Ireland’s main service providers has warned.
Minibuses which carry mainly elderly people door-to-door in rural areas are able to run at only a third of capacity due to social distancing, yet most of the fixed running costs are the same.
There is going to be a deluge of health appointments coming our wayPaddy McEldowney
Paddy McEldowney, chief executive of Easilink Community Transport, is braced for a lot of pent-up demand as health services return to post-pandemic normality.
He said: “There is going to be a deluge of health appointments coming our way.
“We see a big increase in demand for our service coming through in March, April, May and June.
“Even at full capacity we did not have the resources.
“I would be concerned that people are missing out and not accessing the services they could be just because of transport.”
Easilink covers rural areas of Omagh, Strabane and Londonderry.
It is one of 11 partnerships established 20 years ago across Northern Ireland and funded by the Department for Infrastructure and Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Buses which pre-Covid-19 could take 16 are down to five to enable social distancing.
Most of the fares are paid for using the existing Translink free transport pass for the elderly and usually cover costs like fuel.
With far fewer passengers, the financial viability of the service is in question.
Mr McEldowney said the patrons could not afford to see provision cut back and urged Stormont to commit to multi-year funding, to match his commitments like lease of vehicles.
He added: “Health appointments cannot be missed, there has been a long enough delay for some of these.”
Mary Richmond, 84, from Drumahoe in Co Londonderry, uses the bus twice a week to go into Londonderry city centre for shopping.
You have to get on with life, if you do not you just go downMary Richmond
She said: “I have no family of my own so this means a lot to me and I am so grateful.
“It would be very hard if I was not getting out because you would be in all day on your own and you would have to get someone to get the messages.
“It is great to be able to do your own thing.”
Despite bereavement she has managed to go on and has shown resilience during the pandemic.
“I am coping quite well,” she said. “I just get on with it. What do you do? You have to.
“I lost my husband seven years ago and you had to get on with that as well.
“You have to get on with life, if you do not you just go down.”