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Is it too late to save our post office network?

November 26th, 2020 7:05 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Skibbereen post master, Adrian Healy, said he doesn't hold out much hope of the Government providing a €17m subvention to the postal service. (Photo: Emma Jervis).

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With the pandemic accelerating the move to online services, postmasters whose contracts are linked to the volume of transactions are fearful for the future of the service, reports Jackie Keogh

SKIBBEREEN postmaster Adrian Healy said he doesn’t hold out much hope of the government providing a €17m annual subvention to save the country’s postal service.

His remark followed the recent annual general meeting of the Irish Postmasters’ Union, at which a call for government support was made.

Adrian told The Southern Star that a proposed ‘universal service obligation’ of €17m would be required to support the 899 post offices in the country that are run by postmasters – people under contract to the semi-State organisation – plus 45 other offices that are run directly by An Post.

Although the Skibbereen postmaster and former Fine Gael (FG) county councillor believes support is needed, he thinks the government is unlikely to cough up any financial support for a semi-State organisation.

He said the perception is that post offices have never been busier, and this is definitely true of parcel post.

‘Skibbereen Post Office handled 1,025 parcels in the month of October, and the corresponding figure for 2019 was 300,’ said Adrian.

‘The problem arises when you consider that the postmasters are contractors whose payment is based on the volume of transactions. Parcel post may be up, but the volume of many other transactions has hit the floor.’

Adrian estimated that parcel post could account for between 25-30% of the total business conducted in a post office. But he said the payment of utilities is, for example, down by as much as 50%.

‘A lot of people have moved to paying their bills online and by direct debit, especially since the start of the pandemic.’

Another example, the renewal of passports, is down by 25% because people no longer need to leave home to do it. Since the start of the pandemic, the passport office is open for online applications only.

At the recent AGM the president of the Irish Postmasters’ Union, Sean Martin called on the government ‘not to abandon the postal network.’

During Covid-19, he said, the 899 remaining local post offices have played a vital part in ensuring all citizens – particularly the most vulnerable, the financially excluded and the elderly – have continued to receive payments and services.

He highlighted the fact that 1.3m people use the post office every week, distributing €4.6bn annually in social welfare, and that this activity contributes to local business because money handed out locally is spent locally.

A report commissioned by business advisors Grant Thornton, which was published in September, warned of the need for action to be taken within months or the post office network would face ‘unrestrained closures’ in 2021.

It was this report that recommended the annual public service obligation of €17m be introduced on an annual basis.The story is the same all over.

‘When I became Postmaster here in Castletownbere in 1993, there were about 2,200 post offices nationwide,’ says postmaster and former FG TD Noel Harrington. ‘Today, 899 remain and this is predicted to reduce significantly by the end of 2021. Most of these offices are becoming increasingly unviable. Postmasters have seen their transaction base decimated by Social Protection customers opting for bank payments  and other customers migrating online, often incurring additional costs to do so.’

He added: ‘This shift in our customer base has been facilitated by enthusiastic govternment departments and State agencies. The much-promised introduction of State services at the post offices to help offset these losses, like motor tax etc, never materialised and now the predicted raft of closures over the next 12 months is inevitable.’

In 2018, Bridie Roycroft diversified her post office business in Ballydehob to include a craft shop in a bid to counteract the downturn in transactions. With characteristic good humour, Bridie told The Southern Star, that since the pandemic she has been ‘a busy fool.’

Although social welfare payments are down because of Covid-19 concerns, Bridie said she is very busy with postage.

At the post office in Leap, the manager Kathleen Woumans confirmed that the first lockdown was busy but the second has been ‘exceptionally busy, and now we have Christmas on top of it.’

‘I was asked to assist so many people in so many ways. Some people didn’t know how to use a smartphone or access the internet. Everything went online and a lot of older people were unable to access services.’

She confirmed that transactions are down but postage and parcels are up ‘a lot’.

On a community level, Kathleen said: ‘The post office has become more important than ever. For a long time, I was the only person people saw because a lot of the normal services weren’t open.’

Vast majority want to keep their Post office

A RED C poll that was carried out earlier this year showed that 91% of people believe their post office provides ‘a valuable service to the local community.’

The survey also showed that 86% of those interviewed supported calls for the government to provide financial support aimed at keeping post offices open.

And a similar number supported a suggestion that more State services should be made available at their local post offices.

A spokesperson for the Irish Postmasters’ Union said the survey showed strong support for the 899 postmasters, who are independent providers of the postal network under contract to An Post, as well as the service provided by the 45 post offices that are operated directly by An Post.

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