Many local private bus and coach businesses were represented at last weeks protest at Stormont, to highlight their plight to Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon and the Minister for the Economy, Dianne Dodds at Stormont. The protesters are calling for Government support for the industry during the Covid-19 crisis.

Martin Donnelly, proprietor of MD Coaches, based between Poyntzpass and Tandragee was one of the businesses represented.

His business disappeared overnight when the Covid-19 crisis began to bite. MD Coaches went from being constantly busy, getting 80 phone calls a day and bookings all the time to no phone calls and zero coming in.

Donnelly, a member of Bus and Coach NI thinks it could be a long time before recovery happens "I feel that we are forgot about, the coach industry itself. We were one of the first ones out and will be the last ones back. It's going to take us a long long time to recover. We are looking down the line of no work whatsoever until this ends. We could potentially be looking at next March, next April. We need help, there's still bills coming in, trying to keep drivers, paying staff."

Mr Donnelly is concerned that the winding down of the furlough system will make things even worse "It's affecting us hard, It's going to affect us harder when they do away with the furlough system. They are talking about stopping it in August and then we will be expected to pay more towards our employees wages. We have no money to do that. We are not making any money whatsoever We're still expected to pay finance, pay drivers wages. We simply can't do it. It will put a lot of people out of business.

"Those who have invested big money into vehicles. I was about to do it and thank God I didn't. There's men sitting on millions of pounds of finance. What are they going to do?"

The coach industry is a massive part of tourism and without coach parties the economy of many places will suffer.

Ultimately the operators need financial support from Government possibly for a long time to come. Concluding Donnelly adds "We need financial support, the fishermen received money, other industry received money, we have got nothing and we are a big industry too

"Coronavirus has turned things totally upside down with us. Shops, pubs, hairdressers will be opened again, they'll be flat out. If the Government said to us tomorrow, you can open up on Wednesday by all means, we have no work. There's nobody going to book buses. That's the long and short of it."

Recovery Strategy Needed

MLA Cathal Boylan says the Economy Minister needs to establish a recovery strategy for the transport sector to give bus and coach operators support to recover from losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Private bus coaches have been hit hard recently as trade has completely fallen during covid-19. Like others in the transport sector private coaches generally have a lot of overhead costs which are hurting them during this disruption of trade such as insurance costs and leases. The huge downturn in the tourist industry has also impacted many operators as well."

The Newry and Armagh MLA added “The infrastructure committee agreed to reach out to the Infrastructure and Economy ministers on the issue of support for private coach operators during covid-19.

“ Additionally, I have written to the minister of the economy to ask whether she intends to establish a recovery strategy for transport-related sectors, including bus operators to help kick start the sector again."

Key Industry

Newry and Armagh MLA Justin McNulty also expressed disappointment that the Executive has yet to bring forward a package to support the Coach and Bus industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr McNulty said, "Bus and coach operators are a key industry in the north and they employ hundreds of people locally and thousands regionally.  They have been pleading for help and assistance from the Executive for months now but nothing has materialised.

"Their work has fallen off the edge of a cliff and with events, sports, tourism and schools all cancelled the impact of this pandemic could be catastrophic in terms of jobs and people’s livelihoods.  The industry has been forgotten about in the suite of measures announced by the Executive to date.  They were unable to avail of any of the Rates Support grants, many of them have been unable to get access to the hardship funds announced to date, and yet, there seems to be a lack of willingness or indeed understanding of the needs of the sector."

Mr McNulty added "I have written to the Economy Minister on a number of occasions now and have made the case for a bespoke package for the industry, but as of yet, there has been no response, not to mention any progress.  This is not acceptable, people’s livelihoods are hanging on by a thread and the industry needs real help now.  I am calling on the First, Deputy First and Economy Minister to listen to the plight of the industry.  They cannot be forgotten about."

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