BY RODERICK McMURRAY
A DUNGANNON bus firm has revealed it is facing a daily battle to keep the wheels turning after its business was decimated by the coronavirus lockdown.
S&J Davison Coaches will mark 21 years on the road next month, but the family-run firm arrives at this milestone with the future looking extremely uncertain.
When coronavirus started to emerge back in March, the coach firm - like many businesses across Mid-Ulster - saw its trade ground to a halt.
"We completely came to a standstill," said Karen Davison, daughter of the owners, Stephen and Jean Davison.
Not only did lockdown restrictions see events cancelled with immediate effect, but people were being told to avoid public transport to prevent the virus from spreading.
For bus firms like S&J Davison, the overall impact was devastating.
Overnight, the company saw its bustling diary wiped clean as people phoned in to cancel bookings.
"Trade before lockdown was busy," said Karen.
"You had school outings, sporting events, people going to discos, youth groups, over-60s clubs, cruise ship tourists - a whole range of customers.
"We have nine coaches ranging from 14 to 53-seaters and before lockdown all nine would have been in use throughout the week.
"However, after lockdown hit, only those involved in our Moy Park run were on the road – the rest were left sitting in the yard."
Indeed, as Karen admits, if it wasn't for the Moy Park contact, which sees Davison Coaches transport workers to and from Moy Park sites, the Killyneill Road company might have hit the buffers completely.
"Moy Park and their employees have been fantastic," she said. "They've been a godsend.
"Without them, we wouldn't be on the road right now. As a business, we'd be gone.”
Another major help has been the government furlough scheme.
“Yes, without it, there would have been redundancies by now.”
However, the transport industry desperately needs more financial support from Stormont, said Karen, together with “somebody to wave a magic wand and tell us that Covid has disappeared”.
Unfortunately, there's little sign of a “magic wand” on the horizon, and although some parts of society have opened up again, Karen said the outlook remains “very bleak” for bus firms everywhere.
“In addition to the Moy Park contract, we do have some school runs at the moment, but we don't even have 10 per cent of our business back. So the future is very, very uncertain.
“We've missed out on our busy time of the year – the summer right up until Christmas. We should have been taking bookings for Sunday School trips, Mothers' Union outings, school trips at the end of term, then you would be looking at Christmas staff outings, pantos – and now we're not going to have that this year.
“Looking ahead ever further, we know that 2021 is not going to be like it was in 2018 and 2019 because people don't have the same income.
“A lot of people are going to be laid off due to Covid, and people are going to have less disposable income to spend on luxury items like shopping trips and church outings.”
Despite the difficulties, Davison Coaches are battling on ahead, continuing to offer their customers a professional service, in line with coronavirus guidelines.
Hand sanitiser and plastic gloves are provided at the front of buses, passengers must wear a mask, and the interior is sprayed with disinfectant every day.
The buses also operate at half capacity, where possible, to allow for social distancing onboard.
Davison Coaches received four enquiries last week about prices, “but whether they book or not is a different story,” said Karen.
“In normal circumstances, the phone could have been ringing four times an hour.”
It's certainly a challenging time for bus companies, and with coronavirus infection rates on the rise across the Province, and the potential for more localised lockdowns in the future, the road ahead looks extremely difficult.
“We will be the last trade to get back up and running again – the first to be hit, and the last to recover,” said Karen.