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ReadiBus is judged to have been one of the top three community transport services in the UK for its service provision during the pandemic
The CT Awards on 18 November 2021 named ReadiBus as one of the top three community transport services in the UK for its outstanding service provision during the pandemic. In an awards ceremony that highlighted the service provided by community transport organisations throughout the length and breadth of the country in 2020/21, the ReadiBus service was judged as one of the three top services in the headline category of ‘Community Transport Provider of the Year’.
Throughout the pandemic, the ReadiBus service has provided a safe means for elderly, disabled and clinically extremely vulnerable people to make essential journeys, whether this is for food shopping, medical appointments, respite or any other reason; and ReadiBus worked side by side with the over-stretched South Central Ambulance Service to enable local people to safely get to non-Covid-related hospital appointments, such as for cancer treatment and dialysis, helping people when they were most in need.
Bill Freeman, Chief Executive of the Community Transport Association, which held the CT Awards, offered his ‘huge congratulations for the incredible work over the last year and a half’, adding, ‘our judges were impressed’.
‘I am delighted that our team have received this recognition at the CT Awards’, commented ReadiBus General Manager, Peter Absolon. ‘There are hundreds and hundreds of community transport service providers in the 4 nations of the UK, all doing wonderful work, and to be named amongst the top 3 for service provided during such a challenging time as this pandemic is quite something. ReadiBus staff showed great commitment to keep the service available and to ensure that it was safe, especially during the first lockdown. People needed a safe means of getting out, whether that was to get food, to attend a medical or hospital appointment, for respite, whatever the reason. I am so proud of what we did and what we achieved together’.
Those who relied upon the ReadiBus during the lockdowns were also very grateful. For example, Mrs Janet Bull from Newbury commented, ‘The service ReadiBus provided is second to none. The drivers are really good and provide the utmost care’.
The Chief Executive of the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, Steve McManus, wrote in a letter to ReadiBus at the end of the first lockdown (in June 2020) that ReadiBus’ support ‘has been truly outstanding’ and that the service ‘has been a life-line for many’.
2,770 safe essential journeys were made on ReadiBus in West Berkshire in 2020/21, including over 150 journeys during those weeks of the first lockdown from late March 2020.
ReadiBus General Manager, Peter Absolon, added: ‘In the first lockdown, journeys had to be provided one at a time, for maximum social distancing, with a deep clean after every journey in order to keep the travelling environment safe. It was difficult to source enough PPE at the outset but the ambulance service were great and helped us with that and we always had just enough for what we needed each day. We were very strict in our procedures – our team were determined to keep the virus out and to keep safe both ourselves and everyone who needed to travel. Some staff teams rotated to get breathers but the service itself remained available every day. It was exhausting – but it was what was needed’.
Across the whole ReadiBus service, over 25,000 journeys were made during the first 12 months of the pandemic in 2020/21.
As well as giving people the means and the confidence to make the essential journeys that they needed to make, the ReadiBus team also made hundreds of calls to people who were on their own who were not making journeys, to check they were OK. The comments that the team received from those contacted included for example, “It’s so nice to talk to someone rather than myself”. Mrs Willis from Newbury for example commented, ‘ReadiBus is a godsend’.
What is ReadiBus?
The ReadiBus service is an alternative type of bus for people with restricted mobility who cannot use ordinary public transport. The ReadiBus comes to your door and the driver provides whatever assistance you need to make independent journeys safely.
Users of the ReadiBus span all age groups, while most are over 80 or even into their 90s. ReadiBus enables people to independently make every-day journeys such as for shopping, attending medical appointments, seeing friends and generally being able to do things for oneself. In this way, the ReadiBus service has a positive impact on physical and mental well-being and improves quality of life. The service enables people with restricted mobility to get out and about and to continue living in their own homes for as long as possible.
Background: ReadiBus service provision in West Berkshire
When it was first established 40 years ago in Reading on 19th October 1981, from the outset ReadiBus served the parts of West Berkshire (or Newbury District as it was called then) that were part of the conurbation of Reading such as the West Berkshire parts of Tilehurst and Calcot. The service was extended further into West Berkshire in 1984 with the inclusion of Purley and Theale; and further again in the 1990s, including an operating base in Newbury.
However, West Berkshire Council reduced its funding to ReadiBus by 68% for 2019/20 (without any public consultation) and further reduced its funding again for 2020/21 – and then withheld this grant funding for the second half of the 2020/21 year when it made it a condition of its release that the Council must have the right of censorship over any public statements made by ReadiBus, which ReadiBus’ Trustees have declined to agree to.
ReadiBus showed the goodwill to maintain service provision throughout the rest of the 2020/21 year as local residents needed it in the circumstances of the pandemic – there was nothing else that was operational that could meet their needs, particularly during the lockdown from January 2021. However, the Council not only declined to release the budgeted grant funding for the second half of 2020/21 but also informed Trustees in March 2021 that it would withhold more than half of the budgeted grant funding for 2021/22 as well.
This undermined the viability of the ReadiBus operation based in Newbury, which trustees had to terminate in April 2021 but service provision has continued on a temporary basis since then on two days per week, funded by a mixture of alternative sources including donations from the public in response to the public outcry about West Berkshire Council’s actions.
‘People needed our help to get out safely’ stated ReadiBus Chair of Trustees, Prof Sophia Bowlby. ‘There was nothing else available. If we’d stopped service provision in West Berkshire half way through 2020/21 in response to the Council’s actions in withholding the budgeted grant for the second half of the year, vulnerable local people would not have had the support of the ReadiBus service during the lockdown in January to March 2021. We had been supportive partners to the Council for nearly 40 years and had previously had such a positive relationship, we really thought that the goodwill we showed in continuing to meet residents’ needs during such a challenging time would have softened the Council’s stance and that there would have been a resolution to the obstacle of the Council requiring a right of censorship of anything that we said in public. But that didn’t happen. The Council’s continued insistence on a right of censorship as a condition for the release of budgeted grant funding undermined the viability of our operation based in Newbury. That was such a shame after so much effort throughout 2020/21 from ReadiBus staff in the most challenging of circumstances.’
ReadiBus has several times requested to meet with West Berkshire Council with a view to finding a resolution to the impasse caused by the Council requiring a clause in a proposed ‘grant agreement’ to be signed which gives the Council right of censorship over any public statements made by the charity before it releases withheld budgeted grant funding for 2020/21 and the budgeted grant funding for 2021/22.
A meeting over Zoom on 22nd June 2021 didn’t produce an agreed outcome, further to which ReadiBus requested a follow-up meeting, as the Council’s public statements differed from their written proposal regarding the clause. The Council’s response to that however has been to refuse to meet or to talk any further with ReadiBus’ Trustees. The current situation therefore remains.
ReadiBus during the pandemic
The ReadiBus service was available throughout the pandemic, including during the first lockdown and during each of the subsequent lockdowns too. The service enabled elderly, disabled and clinically extremely vulnerable people to make essential journeys safely in the circumstances of the pandemic, such as for attending GP and hospital appointments, food shopping and respite.