ELDERLY and vulnerable people in Fermanagh could miss out on hospital and GP appointments due to a lack of volunteer drivers.
The Fermanagh Community Transport organisation (FCT) has long provided a service to people in rural areas who do not have the means or the ability to travel long distances to go to the doctor’s, the hospital or even to meet friends at social group meetings.
To do this, the FCT’s own staff is complimented by a number of volunteers who give up their own time to give lifts to the elderly and vulnerable in return for having their petrol expenses covered.
However, due to rising petrol costs, the expenses rates, which are set by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), being at the same level for a number of years, no longer cover the cost of a full tank of fuel – which has left many volunteers out of pocket and leaving their roles.
Jason Donaghy, the manager of FCT, said: “The volunteers very kindly and graciously give up their time to help us bring to folks what are basic and essential services.
“Pre-Covid, we would have had in the region of 20 volunteers. Now we’re operating with seven.
“Some of our volunteers have been saying to us if the price of petrol continues to go the way it’s going, the expenses that they get back wouldn’t cover their out-of-pocket expenses.
“For example, if someone was going from Enniskillen to Belleek to bring someone to a hospital appointment, what they would be getting by way of allowable expenses under the HMRC simply wouldn’t cover the total cost of that journey.
“It’s not just the petrol that needs to be paid for. There’s also the wear and tear on the car, the maintenance and all the other things that go to keep a car running.
“A lot of the volunteers are retired folk who are on fixed incomes. In real terms, a lot of them are seeing their incomes decline. For anyone that’s in retirement and on a pension, it’s a big ask to ask anyone to continue to drive in the current (financial) climate.
“We know that volunteers deliver a third of our trips during the year. Before Covid, we had done 30,000 trips in a year. We take people to GP appointments, out patient appointments, to go to the shops, go to day centres, senior citizens groups and so on.”
Donaghy states the FCT’s service is crucial for people who need it most as other options, such as hiring a taxi, would cost too much.
He added: “If you compare the prices of say getting a taxi from Roslea or Belleek to the (SWAH) hospital, you could travel free or half fare – depending on your circumstances. Taking a private taxi and getting there could consume a person’s weekly benefits.
“We pay a rate of 45p per mile for travelling to pick someone up. When that someone is in your vehicle, the rate goes to 50p per mile.
“That has been in place for the last twelve years and has not been changed for HMRC to reflect inflation and other rising costs.
“We can’t ask volunteers to absorb unreasonable costs. It’s bit like me saying to you ‘can you go and pay your work’s electric bills so that you can go into the office and do your job’.
“We don’t want to take advantage as we really do value and appreciate the work our volunteers do.”
A spokesman for HM Treasury referred to the Department’s position on all fiscal matters stating: ”The Treasury keeps all taxes under review.”
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