FERMANAGH Community Transport – which provides a vital link to residents right around the county – could collapse as early as next month.
That’s the stark warning from Fermanagh Community Transport (FCT) manager, Jason Donaghy following the news the Department for Infrastructure have so far only guaranteed an extra month’s funding. He has warned if further funding can not be found the service could be gone for good.
FCT provides a valuable service to those who live remotely, do not own their own vehicle or cannot access public transport or taxis due to cost, location or health circumstances.
Many rely on the service to get to GP and hospital appointments and for some, travelling on the buses is their only source of interaction with the public.
Donaghy states the service is at a critical crossroads and if Department funding for the whole of next year is not forthcoming, FCT will be a thing of the past.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said bleakly. “A service like this is a sophisticated one to build up in terms of detailed knowledge and expertise – not to mention the training and development of volunteers and staff.
“Extending the funding month by month is not worth anything to us unless it’s for the rest of the year and the years thereafter, in terms of the essential needs of the service.
“Month by month is no good for us. If we have to go to a winding-up situation, we need as much notice as possible. The longer this goes on, we would be drawing upon our own [financial] reserves as well – of which we only have very little.
“The issue for us is the 1000 plus members that we have here in Fermanagh – 95 per cent of whom are elderly or disabled or both. They are protected under special categories under Section 75 of the Disabilities Discrimination Act.
“They are going to be disproportionately impacted. Given that we in Fermanagh have the highest rurality in the North and that our members face higher costs for everything, we live in the lowest value economy in the North.”
Donaghy says the impact on the health of those who use FCT could be devastating.
He added: “If our service stops, what will be the consequences in terms of the health and wellbeing of the lives of those people?
“In terms of mental health, the only faces that a lot of our members will see is the driver of the vehicle and other users on the bus. The friendships that they make on the bus and the conversations that they have is like a social space.
“We need to acknowledge that isolation, when it’s imposed upon you through no fault of your own, that is the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes a day. That is a fact recognised by the World Health Organisation.
“There is a perception that rural areas are just ‘low-hanging fruit’. There really isn’t an understanding within the Department of what it means to be without transport and to be isolated.
“Fermanagh is not the same as Belfast, Lisburn or Derry. We are uniquely and acutely different.”
The Herald contacted the Department for Infrastructure who insisted that the decision they took was a “difficult” one.
A spokeswoman said: “The Department understands the impact it would have on the workforce and users if funding for this scheme was to stop.
“Although budgets have not been confirmed for 2023-24, the financial outlook is likely to be very challenging and require extremely difficult decisions. Despite this, to minimise uncertainty and operational difficulties, a funding commitment has been given to community transport providers for April 2023.
“No final decisions have been made on funding allocations for 2023-24 and further decisions for the remainder of the year will be subject to the budget outcome.”
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