Need to get to a medical appointment but can't get there and don't qualify for free national travel assistance?

Help is now at hand with Taupō's very own new St John Health Shuttle.

The service is a VW Krafter van owned by Taupō's St John area committee. It can take up to 10 people - although under level 2 social distancing the maximum is four passengers - to any type of health appointment in Rotorua.

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On the days the van is not needed in Rotorua it could take people to medical appointments in Taupō.

Volunteers Malcolm Laycock and John Howell are two of the 11 shuttle drivers. All are all police checked, have had driver training with a St John driving instructor and hold a first aid certificate.

Each rostered driver for the day has an assistant with them. Laycock and Howell would like more to volunteer, to lighten the load on everybody. Volunteers can do as much or as little as they would like.

The original purpose of the shuttle was to transport people to medical appointments at the Rotorua hospital, to specialists, optometrists, dentists and orthodontists, to TRG Imaging and other medical providers.

But the committee realised some people needed to get to medical appointments in Taupō, which can be arranged if the shuttle is not needed in Rotorua. Long term, if there is sufficient demand, the committee may consider buying a second shuttle and possibly extend the service to Hamilton if there is demand. Before the level 4 lockdown, the shuttle was going to Rotorua most weekdays as well as local trips.

Lakes District Health Board pays National Travel Assistance for patients to get from Taupō or Turangi to Rotorua or Waikato Hospitals, however it is only available to those who qualify. Laycock says the St John shuttle will take anybody who needs transport to a medical appointment and people who are disabled or need help can bring a minder or carer with them. The service is free but a donation is requested.

A person needing transport rings 0800 824 3258 at least 24 hours in advance. An arrangement is made for the shuttle to pick them up, take them to their appointment. Once the person's appointment is finished, they ring for a pickup and are taken home again.

The drivers work around patients' appointments and generally pick them up from their home in Taupō 90 minutes before their appointment in Rotorua, or half an hour before local medical appointments. If appointments are spaced widely apart, the shuttle may make two trips to Rotorua in a day or one patient may have to wait for another patient to finish their appointment. The drivers says they try to be as flexible as they can and will go to the St John station in Rotorua for a cup of tea while they wait.

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"It's a nice easy ride between here and Rotorua and sometimes people go to sleep on the way back."

Laycock and Howell say those using the service ranged from people who were unable to those who were unwilling to drive themselves. Or they might simply use the shuttle for their own reasons and that is also fine.

"We don't judge in any way why they are using the service. If they've got a Mercedes parked in the garage we don't care, we're providing a service and that what it's all about and if they want to come for a ride with us and put up with us, then we'll put up with them."

The service started properly on January 13 but only ran for two months before being taken off the road because of Covid-19.

There is no restriction on who can use the shuttle, Laycock and Howell say - well, almost: "We take everyone from newborn to 105 - but we don't take anyone over 105."

• To book an appointment on the St John Health Shuttle phone 0800 824 3258.

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