Northern Ireland's Covid-hit coach operators in 'dire straits' Stormont committee told

Karen Magill and Niall McKeever from Bus & Coach NI Ltd addressed MLAs on Wednesday. Picture by Kelvin Boyes
Karen Magill and Niall McKeever from Bus & Coach NI Ltd addressed MLAs on Wednesday. Picture by Kelvin Boyes

THE north’s coach industry is in “dire straits” with around 70 per cent of businesses receiving no income since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Stormont committee has heard.

Leading figures in the industry addressed the Infrastructure Committee yesterday one day after Minister Nichola Mallon asked the executive to approve a second scheme to help coach and bus operators.

A previous £5 million scheme, which closed for applications on December 18, required bus operators to demonstrate a 40 per cent loss in income.

It offered businesses £8,000 for the first vehicle and £4,450 for each additional vehicle in their fleet, with total payments capped at £100,000.

Yesterday’s committee heard that 153 applications were submitted for that scheme, with just 69 payments made as of Tuesday. One-in-four applications were rejected.

Karen Magill, chief executive of Bus & Coach NI Ltd, said 50 per cent of Coach & Bus NI members had not received the full pay-out.

She told MLAs that just 30 per cent of the 209 coach businesses in Northern Ireland had been able to obtain some form of limited income since the Covid-19 outbreak.

“The rest of the industry were completely closed – 70 per cent of this industry were closed – had no income, they had nothing,” said Ms Magill.

“And even those who did get some of the supplier relief were limited in how much they could get.

“Everybody at this point is in dire straits.”

The industry representative told MLAs of her phone calls with family-owned businesses who broke down in tears due to their ongoing financial struggles.

She said while those who had received some support from Stormont were appreciative, it had only helped address some of their outstanding debt.

“It’s not going to do anything really in helping their survival. Which is why we need a second scheme. There is more hope, as long as this financial support scheme is focused and dedicated on the different business models and affords a level of support that is going to help them get through.”

Edwin Henry of from Coach Operators NI, who runs his own Cookstown-based firm JMB, said the costs are mounting for businesses.

“We are paying up to £10,000 a month in finance. These vehicles are being depreciated,” he said.

“A lot of these companies can’t stand and wait.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department for Infrastructure said it was clear that the ongoing restrictions have had a direct and significant impact on the capacity of bus and coach industry to trade.

Addressing the first scheme, the statement said: “In order to ensure value for money assurance around the use of public money applicants had to provide more information to the department about all of their income and expenditure. 

“Each application was considered individually to assess the payment that should be made which made it a more complex scheme to deliver.

“The Minister will be meeting with the sector again to discuss the first scheme and the lessons learnt, with the intention of launching a further scheme in early March, subject to all the necessary approvals and regulations being in place.”