The impact of COVID-19

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Just over a week before this issue went to press, Martin Curtis of Bath Bus Company’s reply said the operator’s airport services were still doing well. Since then, the Government has advised against all travel abroad. RICHARD SHARMAN

The CBW team has contacted operators across the coach and bus industry to find out how coronavirus has affected their business. James Day compiles the responses

With the COVID-19 outbreak now dominating all aspects of modern life, CBW asked a number of operators in the industry how it has been affecting their business. The following questions were asked:

  • What impact has the COVID-19 outbreak had on your business?
  • What health and financial precautions are you taking?
  • How can the government and transport authorities best support your business to mitigate the impact of the outbreak?
  • Do you think the measures announced in the Budget are sufficient?

The questions were initially sent out on Friday, 13 March, with the responses we’ve received listed below. However, since that time the situation has changed so rapidly that many of the responses felt outdated long before this issue went to press and the magazine would arrive with readers. With this in mind, I’ve noted the date each of the responses was received, which provides a quite dramatic snapshot of how rapidly the situation has deteriorated.

If you’re an operator and would like to add your voice to the responses the industry has made, we may continue to publish the industry’s experiences in future magazines. Send in your comments to [email protected].
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Anonymous
(received 17 March)
So far we have had over £120,000 of work cancelled and we have also cancelled a number of our own tours and day excursions on top of this. We are taking sensible precautions with ‘at risk’ staff, and financially we are trying to work on projects in other parts of our diversified business to mitigate the damage.

The measures in the budget don’t even scratch the surface, unless we get a freeze on VAT/PAYE and business rates and assistance from banks and finance houses on monthly outgoings, many people in our industry won’t make it through.

But we will be okay – try Matthew 6 vs 34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Richard Bamber, Anthony’s Travel
(received 16 March)
We have always had a diverse client base with a variety of type of coach work carried out – e.g. school contracts, college contracts, work contracts and services, private hires, sports clubs, UK tours (for tour companies and private clients) and the same with inbound tourism. This generally has served us well as some work is more seasonal than others and ensures when one part of the work we undertake is quiet the other clients keep us going and often pick up the spare capacity. Unlike bad weather which may cancel sports fixtures or similar that may affect just a handful of clients, coronavirus can affect every single client and if lockdown situations do develop, there may not be any part of our client base it doesn’t touch.

At the moment we have had various inbound groups to the UK cancelled, cruise day excursions, senior citizen days out, school residential and school day trips, sports hires all cancelled, so a considerable amount already. If mass events such as Aintree Races and educational residential trips to the likes of London Theatres are cancelled it will also be quite a big hit. It’s quite frightening and I feel for operators that may have specialised in certain areas only such as cruise links, sports and tours as they have been really hit badly in the ‘first wave,‘ with most of their work wiped out through no fault of their own.

Whilst we have a very stringent cleaning regime and drivers with great pride in their vehicles, we have been disinfecting vehicles constantly, sanitising all surfaces, issuing staff with items such as wipes, hand gel, sanitiser for cleaning their own work areas in the coach and purchased a fogging machine, plus enforced washing and sanitising of hands prior, during and after each duty. ‘Tool box’ talks to staff have taken place, and we have set up a text group with latest CPT/Public Health England advice to the transport industry. I have also kept personally up to date with the very latest advice through CPT and Backhouse Jones.

Financially, we have contacted all vehicle financiers to enquire about ‘finance holidays,’ reduced payments or possibly longer term reduced rates with interest rates being at an all-time low. We have reviewed all monthly outgoings, contacted all suppliers to seek best value, contacted our insurance providers, making additional efficiency savings within the workplace and whilst out on the road to reduce expenditure and run as lean as possible. Staff have been informed throughout.

In relation to support, whilst the steps taken are welcome, much more needs to be done and clarification sought of measures recently announced – for example how do you reclaim SSP and business grants up to £3,000?

However, much more is needed to support a vital but under recognised and appreciated industry. Business rates should be abolished for a year (current exemptions do not necessarily include garages/depots) and SSP for any illness should be able to be reclaimed and not an additional employer expense.

The minimum wage increase should be postponed for six months and there should be no increases in 2021.

Employer NI (not employee) should be suspended for six months, and schools (private or public) and colleges should pay a percentage of their daily contract rate if closed.

Hardship grants should be available for businesses that can quantify their trading position would have been solvent/profitable otherwise.

Martin Curtis, Bath Bus Company
(received 13 March)
There are still only limited numbers of cases confirmed in Wales and the West. I am sure that will rapidly change at some point, however.

Tourist numbers on the sightseeing buses are now showing a significant drop – but curiously, passenger numbers on the airport service have not been affected at all. This seems quite extraordinary but as of today, loadings are still very strong on the A4.

We have in place plans to reduce services if we find there are insufficient staff to cover our work. We are preparing ways of communication if office staff remain at home in isolation. Drivers have gloves and hand gel available (although we have found stocks are limited to hand wash) and drivers may wear a mask if they wish – but so far have not taken that option.

We are making water available as constant drinking keeps the mouth moist and this is felt to be a wise course of action when coming into contact with the virus.

It is said public transport will continue, but of course drivers and front line staff will be as affected as any group, and we don’t yet know what the impact will be. Nor do we know what proportion of the total workforce at any given time will be out-of-action. If the government supports sick pay reimbursement from day one – if companies qualify – that will help but there is confusion about how this will actually apply.

Andy Hayball, Beeline Coaches (received 17 March)

Andy Hayball (centre)

Well what can be said about the impact of COVID-19 apart from the fact it is going to hurt many operators which is unfortunately plainly obvious. For many operators the fact the government at this moment in time is keeping schools open helps but not sure how long this will continue.

Operators with high finance reliant on foreign tourists I should think are going to be the ones who suffer the most. As an operator we have upped our cleaning frequency of hand rails etc. and as of today advised the drivers when not on duty to go home rather than congregate in the rest room, hopefully leaving the vehicle spic and span before doing so!

Not sure how the government can mitigate this problem and take the pressure off, apart from reducing end of year tax bills and liabilities. Maybe doing away with the pathetic PSVAR on school routes would add a bit of cheer and be one less problem to worry about going into the future.

Steve Dine, Empress Coaches (received 16 March)
I have been watching the current situation with very close interest from an early stage, as I knew the fallout would inevitably filter into the UK and there would be ramifications that would affect our industry.

Here in East Sussex it was only last week the first case was confirmed, very quickly becoming two cases, so within two days we already had four trips and a tour that would not be going ahead. As we require customers to provide us with non-refundable deposits when booking we have managed to encourage the ones cancelling trips to have the freedom to move the date when they are ready to a future one up until the end of 2021, so that we at least know the bookings will eventually take place rather than being lost now.

As 60% of our business is local school contracts, the question has been asked whether we can secure a retainer from our local Council should schools have to close. Being ever the optimist I hope we can work with them to ensure our costs can be met when this next stage happens.

At a very early stage on hearing of the spread of the virus we added to our cleaning materials, buying stronger disinfectants and anti-bacterial products. We already spend a great deal of time ensuring the fleet is kept clean, but we are stepping up with even more focus on cleaning down the ‘touching’ surfaces and have given staff training in all aspects as per Government guidelines. I think by at least being vigilant we are doing something practical although I know there is no perfect scenario to stopping the potential spread at this stage.

I am a bit of a traditionalist as all of my fleet is owned outright. I have always shied away from finance packages for this exact reason. The virus may impact businesses being able to sustain continuing in business, but if we cannot operate due to unforeseen circumstances we are ready to weather the very low point in trading.

What’s so disappointing is that early indications were showing it would be a strong year of trading this year. I was gearing up to look at further investment in newer vehicles but with the understandable hesitation from customers not knowing whether their trips can take place due to attractions being closed or whether any of their group might be taken ill over the next weeks or months, it has really put the brakes back on.

I really feel for all of the firms across so many different spheres of the industry that are now losing business, and let’s not forget the manufacturers, converters and dealers that have to try and ride this out, which has a longer term impact on the whole industry and marketplace.

I never really believe much that I read about what the Government aims to give to various sectors of our economy when they have a budget. An example is the lack of investment in the roads in this country over the last 10 years. I don’t think we will ever catch up with what’s needed to get our road infrastructure across the UK back into being fit for purpose, especially A and B roads, which East Sussex is mainly made up of.

When I was growing up I used to listen with fascination to the stories my grandparents would tell about the war years and the hardship and heartbreak that it brought with it. I don’t think I could have ever fully understood what they went through, but when you start to see people panic buying, shops struggling to keep supplies coming in, the stock market going into meltdown and no immediate cure for a virus that’s quickly gone global, one wonders where this could all be heading! The saddest part of it is that hardly any of us know what real hardship is, although I think certain characters in the stock markets are going to do very well out of this crisis and certain toilet roll manufacturers… too late to have bought shares in those companies!

Yuliia Mostova, Flixbus
(received 13 March)
The current situation brings operational and economic challenges for all mobility providers. Passenger flows are shifting, and people are generally travelling much less at the moment. FlixBus has already taken the necessary measures to counteract possible economic consequences, due to the accelerated spread of COVID-19.

We advise our employees and travelers to follow the current recommendations of the public authorities. These include careful hand washing, correct behaviour when coughing and sneezing and avoiding touching the face. Our bus partners are currently instructed to provide hand disinfectants for passengers. At the end of each journey our buses are cleaned thoroughly. Moreover, we carry out an intermediate cleaning of the sanitary facilities (on-board toilet, washbasins, surfaces) at larger bus stations.

Generally, we strongly welcome efforts from politicians to support the economy in this situation. We are always looking for a constructive dialogue with politicians.

Lee Jamieson, RG Jamieson
(received 14 March)
It is difficult to know exactly how much impact the COVID-19 Coronavirus will have on the coach industry, but I fear it could be quite major, with more and more being cancelled every day even here in Shetland. All Shetland schools are now shut from Friday 13 March to at least Monday 23 March.

We are cleaning all handles with antibacterial spray and have hand sanitiser in vehicles to help control the spread of the disease and to protect our drivers.

Shetland has a very busy summer with cruise ships, with 2020 looking to be a record year for ship numbers. This forms a major part of our summer work and if these were to all be cancelled it would be devastating, but at the end of the day people’s health is the most important issue here.

David Council, Roadmark Travel
(received 16 March)
The COVID-19 outbreak is having a severe adverse effect on business. The majority of our customers are in the 70+ age group and are therefore the ones most concerned.

While March is never the busiest for day excursions, bookings are about 25% down. Forward bookings have also taken a big hit with bookings down approximately 40%.

The biggest concern is the proposed four-month isolation period for those 70+ as this is right in the middle of the peak season.

From a hygiene point of view we have removed towels from our onboard WCs and replaced them with disposable paper towels and also have hand sanitiser at the entrance to vehicles. Additionally, at a destination on layover drivers are cleaning all hard surfaces with bacterial spray and repeating this as part of the end of day cleaning.

The most important thing required is clear guidance as at the moment hotels, theatres etc are operating as normal – meaning no refunds. Customers are cancelling and expecting us to refund in full as they are hearing mixed messages through the media.

We are fully expecting to have to lay coaches up until the situation improves.

Danny Moutcastle, Sleafordian (received March 13)
We have seen our fair share of cancellations on school trips and tours and I am assuming there will be more to follow. Only up until a few days ago, this was minimal but it has since increased recently. We are due to have four coaches go abroad over the Easter weekend for various tours which I am now unsure as to whether they will go ahead. It is going to affect all operators in this industry one way or another.

We have put steps in place to ensure all of our vehicles are deep cleaned each day, in particular areas that would have seen human contact (handrails/seats/seatbelts etc).

Our drivers are following the correct steps such as using hand sanitiser products and washing hands frequently. We continue to run services and private hire work as scheduled until we hear any further updates from the UK Government. All service drivers and our reception team have been advised to be wearing gloves when handling money and tickets.

I think more could be done, especially to support this industry as if the coronavirus continues to spread how it is anticipated, operators will have a significant loss of income but we’ll still need to be paying staff contracted hours. Although, with this being said, the SSP announcement was positive news.

Chris Chaplin, Three C’s Travel
(received 20 March)
We have basically had all our private hire cancelled until August.

We didn’t know until last night about our school contract. It seems Suffolk county council are going to pay us full rate for three months which I thought was a very good offer and will help our business a lot. We have got to run a normal service Monday and go from there. Our private school contract isn’t quite so helpful – I’ve just had an email to say they finish today but might need us Monday.

We have just been doing our normal good clean and going through vehicles with disinfectant.

This is going to take many years to get over, the trouble is it’s affecting the whole world.

David Squire, Yellow Buses and Yellow Coaches
(received 16 March)
Obviously the speed of this is very concerning and is completely unknown territory going forwards. In terms of our business, we saw a softening of demand particularly with ENCTS travellers as last week went on, with last weekend significantly down (25%). We’ve had some coach work cancelled but so far so good.

Staff-wise, we have one person in self-isolation for a week, and a couple of people stuck abroad awaiting rescue flights who will then need to self-isolate on their return.

We have introduced a robust cleaning regime for fleet and premises as most operators have done, have cancelled many meetings and are reviewing operations in the light of any downturn. Of course a lot is dependent on government announcements and they need to get a grip by showing leadership and not allowing the media to drive the agenda.

The announcement of sick pay from day one to be funded for all. We are above the 250 staff threshold, but would further also push for the following:
BSOG, ENCTS payments, contract payments to be maintained at pre-virus levels to protect cash flow, a 12 month rates holiday for bus depots (last week’s announcement only applied to our travel shop), the ability to make real time decisions on service levels as people voluntarily or mandated to not travel, with no loss of repute or traffic commissioner action, the pushing out of inspection gaps for vehicles that are doing a lot less mileage, the finance industry to work with us for payment holidays or reduced payments for leases on fleet and assistance to deal with licence renewals/DCPC where government employee numbers are reduced to be able to process things.

We are a resilient industry but this is unprecedented and the industry needs protection otherwise there will be a considerably reduced industry when the upturn eventually happens!

Update 18 March: Since I wrote to you, passenger numbers have collapsed and we are running an emergency Saturday timetable from next Monday with some enhancements in morning peak, all events are now cancelled for the next two months and we have postponed the introduction of the summer network. Staff-wise, we’ve around a dozen in self isolation as we speak.
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