Catching the bus to school probably seems like an everyday experience for many children and their families. You jump on at the bus stop, hop off again at school and the whole process is relatively routine and detached, perhaps not even exchanging a word of greeting with the driver.
But for Dorset Community Transport (DCT) – and the person running it, General Manager Tim Christian – there are some really important differences.
“As a community transport organisation, our school service is a lot more personal than a group of anonymous children going on an anonymous bus,” says Tim. “With us, in rural Dorset, we come to know the children, we get to know their families; there are siblings who’ve gone through the school and now their younger sibling is on the bus several years later.”
He continues: “Picking up children at a main road bus stop is very different from our service – where we might drive down a farm track and pick up three siblings, drive to the next farm and pick up two more and before you know it you’ve got half a bus-full!”
So when Covid-19 hit and the first lockdown was put in place earlier this year, there was a powerful sense of connection for all those working at DCT with those local rural communities and the families and individuals living in them.
“When lockdown came, getting that child to school because mum’s a doctor or dad works at the chemist – they were all personal stories,” says Tim. “That level of knowledge that the drivers have of their local families, particularly when there were fewer people travelling – it really shone through.
“Our service is part of the rural community. So for all the team at DCT, we really felt strongly that sense of community and service in that period of anxiety and uncertainty for everyone. It really brought home that personalised approach and the relationship we have with our communities.”
Despite an initial feeling of having “the rug pulled from under our feet” back in March, Tim says the well-drilled DCT team quickly assessed the challenges of the situation to ensure that staff and passengers were protected and safe but could also continue with the services that were needed.
Several services carried on as before, albeit with fewer numbers. For example, children with special needs and the children of key workers still needed to travel to school; while the door-to-door PlusBus and rural community bus services continued uninterrupted, helping elderly and isolated residents visit their GP or get to the shops for essential supplies.
The team also found new ways in which they could provide support, such as calling their regular passengers who were ‘shielding’ from the coronavirus to say hello and check they were ok.
While DCT’s parent organisation in London, Ealing Community Transport, was busy pivoting its operation to make tens of thousands of food deliveries in partnership with other charities and Ealing Borough Council , in Dorset the local authorities already had the bulk of food deliveries covered.
“Whilst I extended our charity’s offer of “Here to Help” across Dorset’s community sector, Dorset as a rural county was very different – the combined efforts of the local councils and the overwhelming volunteer response throughout communities saw all those needs met,” explains Tim.
Nevertheless, DCT was still able to lend a helping hand to a local food bank. “Their service had reached a whole new way of operating under the circumstances – food banks don’t deliver and yet because people were shielding, their vulnerable clients found themselves unable to pick up the food supplies. So it was good to be able to offer that service free of charge to them, they were hugely appreciative of it.”
In terms of team logistics, DCT’s drivers were already home-based, but the demands on them during lockdown were extremely varied depending on local circumstances. “We had some drivers who were shielding and some who were willing to work but their route didn’t run,” explains Tim. “But we’ve also got drivers who worked every single school day, all through school holidays and for some even on bank holidays.”
From 24th March staff at the Blandford Forum office also worked from home bar two people who lived locally, and they provided operational support from the office throughout. “Holiday, term time, right through to September. We worked solid but they covered the office,” says Tim.
Meanwhile, for Tim himself, there was both professional and personal pressure to contend with. “Working from home, my goodness!” he reflects. “I am used to having a printer within arm’s reach and everyone in earshot in the office, and suddenly I’d gone to a very minimised set-up at home.
“But also what that did show was our resilience as an organisation: our IT system, our phone system, the team spirit of the operations team – we adjusted and settled in and we cracked on with it!”
In a strange turn of fortunes, while Tim now found himself working at home rather than the office, his wife Caroline’s home-based hair salon business had “stopped instantly” under the lockdown restrictions, so she was now focused on home-schooling, supporting the special educational needs of their son Luke.
“In fact my son Luke actually welcomed the continued school day routine – and that was a blessing because I could work from home uninterrupted and shut myself away,” says Tim. “It was quite nice to join him and my wife for lunch and we often went out for our 3 o’clock afternoon permitted walk together,” he adds.
While family life was different, Tim was also adapting to changes in how he had to deliver his responsibilities as General Manager.
“I was very conscious that there was the need to go out to exchange paperwork with the drivers, replenish PPE and cleaning materials but I wanted to do that myself,” he says.
“I wanted to meet drivers face to face to see how they were – and I wanted them to see me so that they didn’t feel that we were all sat at home, while they were all out on the front line. It was important to let them know I appreciated what they were doing and to make sure they remained genuinely willing and able to do it.”
Overall, concedes Tim, the Covid-19 situation has certainly been a challenge. “After so many months of continuous change it’s been tough going,” he says. “Everybody talks about the ‘new normal’ but I say it is the ‘new normal for this week’ and then the ‘new normal for next week’ – it’s a new normal that’s forever evolving!”
Despite the challenges, however, he says the team has remained overwhelmingly positive. He reflects that this is partly to do with team spirit and partly about the professionalism of the charity itself: “It was a case of, ‘Come on guys we’ve got a job to do – we’ve got to get these kids to school, we’ve got services to run, we’ve got PlusBus passengers that need to get their shopping.’ We overcame those initial challenges and made it happen, albeit with a whole new different way of working.
“At HQ there was a robust approach to everything, whether it was interpreting the next piece of new guidance from the government or the need for risk assessments, or more supplies of hand sanitiser,” he adds. “We knew that everything had been thought through and our position on every point had been through a rigorous process. This meant that I could share it with confidence and we could instil confidence within the operation.”
Tim says that this confidence and positivity is also hugely important for the organisation as it deals with however the next few months happen to unfold.
“We have shown that the operation can stand firm during testing times and that our whole way of operating has stood the test of the past months,” he says.
“Whatever gets thrown at us, we’ve proven we can get through this – and we stand ready for whatever the future can throw at us!”