Driving instructors in Wales have said they are struggling to make a living and that they have been “totally overlooked” in Wales’ plan to move out of lockdown.
Under the current tier four restrictions in Wales, driving lessons and tests are not allowed except for limited emergency tests for people who need to drive as part of their job.
The rules have meant thousands of people across the country have been unable to take lessons, or had tests delayed or cancelled in the past few months.
And some have claimed they have been left behind by the government’s plans to ease restrictions, which include dates for the reopening of tourism and non-essential retail. Read all the key dates here.
But there has been no date for when driving lessons can restart, and most drivers have been unable to teach for three months.
Andy Stoneley, 35, is a qualified driving instructor at M4 Motoring Driving School in Newport.
He said drivers across Wales had been left in the dark without even an approximate date to start work again.
“We’ve essentially been completely unable to work at all since Wales went into lockdown in December,” he explained.
“Normally I would be working five or six days a week, teaching three or four people a day. I haven’t taught a single person since December.”
Although Andy is self-employed he has not been working for long enough to qualify for government support schemes.
“I wasn’t able to [qualify], but luckily I was able to get onto universal credit.
“But what I’m getting is less than half my monthly salary.
“It’s been very tough. I have a wife and three kids and we’ve had to scrape, scrimp and really cut down on pretty much anything that isn’t a necessity. We’ve also had to rely on money from both our parents.”
Andy added: “What I find bewildering is that you can go and get a haircut, get your hair dyed, everything. If you want to go to the hairdresser it also means you can get on a bus or hop in a taxi to get there.
“I can’t see how getting a haircut is more important than learning to drive, and I can’t understand how it hasn’t been classed as an essential service.
“It’s very annoying and just baffling that you could be a doctor, or someone training to be a paramedic, or joining the police, who needs to learn how to drive but you can’t.
“It’s absolute madness.”
When asked about driving at last week’s press briefing, First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “The advice we have at this point is that it is not safe to resume.
“It is a confined space over a lengthy period of time and things are not good enough yet for us to say they can resume.”
Andy said he felt the industry was being treated differently to other close contact services.
“We are professionals ourselves and have been putting in safety measures since the very start of the pandemic such as additional cleaning of vehicles,” he said.
“We feel we are not being treated the same as other industries.”
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Andy said the fact there has been no indication of when driving schools can start teaching again was his main frustration.
In England, the UK government has said lessons could resume on April 12 and tests may restart from April 22.
“It’s not as if I am asking for an exact date for when we can go back. But in England they have a road map so they have an idea of when it might happen.
“If our government said something similar and gave an approximate date for when they might look at it – but we have not even been told that,” Andy added.
“We’ve had no maybes, no definites. Nothing. Just that they will look at it in the next review.”
Andy said they had been disappointed that driving lessons were not mentioned at all during the government’s review of the lockdown restrictions last week.
“We took the presumption that we’d be able to reopen on March 15, but then at the announcement we were completely overlooked.
“The first minister has been asked about it and he hasn’t even bothered to address the question directly.
“I am at a point where we’re eating into our savings, and we can’t go on for much longer without me being on the road.”
It hasn’t only been the drivers who have been affected. Many people who had been relying heavily on cars have been left stranded and out of pocket as a result of the lockdown.
Suzanne Phillips-Newman, 38, lives in Newport. She suffers from limited mobility issues and is part of the UK Motability Scheme which allows her to receive a car and funding to learn to drive.
Despite being unable to get lessons during lockdown Suzanne is still having the car deducted from her benefits, meaning she is losing nearly £250 each month.
“To qualify for lessons you have to already have a car, so I got that but obviously haven’t been able to get lessons or a test,” she said.
“I could’ve held off but had to order a car to get the lessons, but now I can’t get them. The car is just sat there, unless I can find someone who will sit in the passenger seat for me to drive it, but there isn’t always someone available.”
Suzanne said she has had her theory test cancelled “five or six times” and has had to pay for a taxi from Newport to Cardiff for hospital appointments on several occasions because nobody was available to take her.
“It’s £25 either way,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, because there is obviously a huge risk factor being sat in a taxi with two different drivers on the way there and back again.
“I have underlying issues which mean if I get Covid, I am dead. I’m playing with my life getting into taxis and I’m paying for a car I can’t use at the same time.”
Suzanne said she also has to rely on others to to everyday tasks like getting groceries, and added that not being able to drive was also affecting her mental health.
“For me, the idea of having a car is for independence. Part of what I struggle with is mental health, and not having that has had a really negative effect on me mentally.
“It’s a vicious circle – it’s a bit of an insult as I personally can’t see the harm in a driving lesson.
“I recently had to go to an appointment in hospital and while the taxi was stopped at the lights I could see a hairdressers, and most of the people in there weren’t wearing any masks.
“I thought ‘hang on a minute – they can cut people’s hair like that but I can’t sit in the car with my driving instructor?
“Something needs to be done about it.”
Zieda Mohsen, 21, works as a care worker in Newport. She was supposed to sit her driving test this week but had it cancelled due to the pandemic and hasn’t had it rescheduled.
“I work nights and have to pay up to £350 a month on taxis back and forth to work,” she said. “It takes a huge amount of my wages.”
“I was learning to drive before lockdown and my test should have been today but it was cancelled. I haven’t heard anything since.”
Zieda said she often has to go into work to get a Covid test even on days off which meant spending even more.
“I want driving instructors to go back to work. You see hairdressers opening – I just don’t understand it. It’d make you go mad.”
A protest by driving instructors will take place this Friday in Newport, Swansea and Llanelli calling for clarity on when lessons and tests can start again in Wales.
The demonstration in Newport will begin at Newport Stadium in Newport Sports Village between 9.30 and 10am and will go by Tredegar Park, the SDR and through the city centre before looping back to finish at the stadium.
Luke Thompson, 37, from Newport, is a driving instructor and managing director of M4 Motoring Driving School which has 42 franchised driving instructors on its books.
Luke is helping to organise Friday’s protest and said he was urging the government to give clarity for the industry, as well as emphasising that waiting lists in many areas were totally full for the next few months.
He said: “We would like a date when we can return.
“It’s disappointing that the First Minister and other ministers don’t see driving as essential when I can’t think of an industry that doesn’t rely on driving to operate.”
“We thought we’d be back on March 15, and if we’d followed the guidance from December we should be in tier two or three.
“We might teach the same 15 people a year, but you have hairdressers back open who might see 15 people a day.
“There are so many people who can’t get licences who need them. I have got a few nurses and carers who are spending a fortune on taxi fares and as it currently stands most test centres, including in Newport, you can’t even book a driving test because the waiting lists are full.”
Andy Stoneley added: “Newport used to be quite lucky in that before lockdown, you might only be waiting five or six weeks for a test, so it was less than the national average.
“There is one girl I know who lives in a rural area and does need to be able to drive. She was supposed to have her test in December, then it was delayed to February. Now she is looking at July.
“I don’t know how they’re going to clear the backlog. I don’t see it happening within a year.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We realise this continues to be an incredibly difficult time for people throughout Wales and appreciate the frustration of those who are affected by paused services.
“If the public health situation continues to improve we will be able to further ease restrictions in the coming weeks, and as part of this we will consider the best time to resume driving lessons and tests.”