Driving instructors across Kent have spoken of the uncertain future of their industry post-lockdown.
Chris Bensted, co-owner of West Kent-based Better Driver Training, said around 40% of instructors were not receiving any financial support amid the crisis.
There are also fears that this industry could be the last to return to normal due to the safety implications of sitting in a car with a student, clearly flouting two-metre social distancing rules.
While the nation is on lockdown, instructors still have costs to pay.
They can range from £200 to £500, Mr Bensted said, as they have to pay a range of expenses, including fuel and franchise fees.
People in Kent risk losing their livelihoods to coronavirus
Despite Alison Davis, a trainee instructor, rightly saying that people “couldn’t be less socially distant in a car”, a very small minority remain on the road.
Indeed, key workers can request emergency tests, if they need them urgently.
Whether they work in a company or independently, all instructors are individual and must wait until the financial assistance for self-employment is paid to them in June.
Those starting out have seen their future shrouded in uncertainty, with qualifying exams currently on hold.
We spoke to some of the county instructors who all have their own fears of the unknown.
“I feel like my legs have been cut off”
Chris Bensted, a driving instructor of 12 years, gave insight into the process of training driving instructors and how the lockdown has left them in a difficult position.
He said: “The training process can take between six and 24 months, there are three stages in that process before they become instructors.
“They must first pass a theory test, then a practical driving test before taking their educational test.
“The last part can take a while because it’s not as simple as telling people how to use the pedals.
“Now, due to the lockdown, all exams have been canceled and no extensions are available for legal reasons.
“Because of this, a lot of interns fall through the loopholes of the Self-Employed Scholarship and Universal Credit because they haven’t been self-employed long enough.”
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In the case of Better Driver Training intern Alison Davis, the coronavirus outbreak brought her progress to a screeching halt.
This made her wonder if it was the right decision to quit her full-time job as a financial crime consultant.
It was a choice motivated by the desire to be closer to home.
She said: “I think I made the wrong decision at the wrong time, I was previously in a full time job but wanted more independence for a better work-life balance.
“My previous job had me traveling all over the place and I wanted to be there for my son’s GCSEs, but now I feel like I have my legs cut off from under me.
“Now I wonder if I made the right choice, there are even questions about whether our industry will be as strong as it once was.”
“I don’t see it being safe to return to work in 2020”
The problems driving instructors will face post-lockdown were also addressed by Better Driver Training co-owner Chris Bensted.
He said: “The end of lockdown really means nothing, we have to consider the point at which sitting in a metal box with someone is an acceptable risk.
“We will probably be one of the last groups of people able to return to work, and I don’t see how to return safely in 2020.
“We are a very day-to-day business, fortunately people will always want to learn to drive, but then it depends on their financial situation, are they able to fit the lessons into their budget.”
Peter Brace, who has been a driving instructor for four years, added: “There were a lot of people in the group discussions wondering if coming back was the right thing to do.
“And we’re not just talking about people who are new to the business, some of these people have been in the game for 10 years, so that’s concerning.
“We’d like the DVSA to come out and say we’re going back to work on a certain date, but that’s just not realistic right now.”
Live Well Kent provides mental health support services on behalf of the NHS and Kent County Council.
Support is always available for those who need it over the phone and online instead of face-to-face meetings.
Those in need of support are asked to contact Live Well Kent at 0800 567 7699 or use this online referral form
There’s also more information on how you can take care of yourself and maintain your mental well-being through a number of resources and apps. available on their website.
Kent County Council also offers a service called Release the pressure, for expert advice from qualified advisors. Contact, text KENT to 85258 or call 0800 107 0160.
Information on local mental health charities is also available on their website, which can be found here.
So where does that leave these instructors financially?
While a series of financial support systems have been put in place by the government, it seems that a large number of instructors do not meet the qualification requirements.
For some, this means they are counting on their savings to get them through this difficult time, while others have fortunately qualified for the self-employed grant.
Chris explained the overall situation to KentLive: “The interesting thing about driving instructors, even in large companies, is that everyone is an individual instructor.
“That means it’s a group of individual instructors who are self-employed.
“About 40% of instructors don’t get help and don’t qualify for Universal Credit.”
He also went into detail about his own situation: “I am currently eligible for universal credit but am awaiting the government self-employment grant.
“Obviously it’s supposed to be 80% of our income, but it’s taxable income so it will end up being around 58% after tax, so I had to plan ahead.
“There are limited options such as loans and they have to be repaid, they are interest free over 12 months, but then there is a big question whether we are going to work at this stage. So that leaves potentially finding a new source of income.
“For now, I resign myself to the fact that I will have to make do with what we have.”
Peter Brace, from East Malling, said he was in a safe situation in the short term, but without knowing exactly when he will be able to return to work, it could become a difficult situation.
He said: “I’m eligible for the self-employed grant, and that certainly helps a bit, but at the moment I’m financially secure.
“I’m fine until probably the end of June, if I can’t get back to work before Christmas it will probably hurt me and maybe I should start looking for other jobs.
“Nobody knows, we can always try to plan ahead but who knows.”
Alison from Sidcup used some of her savings to begin her training process and does not qualify for Universal Credit or the self-employment grant due.
This is due to her rapid transition from full employment to self-employment, which means she does not have tax returns to submit to the government.
She said: “Luckily I haven’t rented a car so I’m not paying for a car that’s not going anywhere.
“I consider myself lucky in that I don’t have the whole arrangement of renting a dual drive car, but also a bit of a fool because I left a good paying full time job.
“I’m sitting in a loophole regarding government assistance, I can’t get the self-employed grant as I can’t prove that I had previous income from this job. Due to my previous job in a field different.
“I also can’t get Universal Credit because I left my previous job by choice, so from a personal perspective I’m wondering if it’s worth getting a full-time job.”