Private coach sector furious over government reopening advice

The UK’s struggling coach sector has criticised the government over what it sees as a “perverse” decision to ban private trips for people from multiple households until next month, even as other areas of the economy have been allowed to reopen.

Representatives of the industry told the FT that the Department for Transport had led them to believe they were cleared to offer coach trips to groups made up of different households from last Monday, as part of a broader easing of coronavirus restrictions in England.

But clarifying earlier guidance published by the government on April 8, the Cabinet Office advised the sector last Thursday that private coaches were only permitted for a single household or bubble, thereby vastly reducing the number of passengers able to travel together.

In response Graham Vidler, chief executive of coach industry body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, wrote to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove on Friday to vent his members’ confusion and outrage that a full return had been pushed back to May 17, the next staging post in the unwinding of restrictions.

“I am at a loss to understand how this decision has been reached,” he wrote in the letter, seen by the FT. “At a time when we are opening the rest of the economy it is perverse that this decision moves coach travel in the opposite direction.”

A government spokesperson said no change had been made to the guidance for coach operators since the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport updated its guidance on April 8. DfT officials insisted they had not given the coach sector the go-ahead to start offering trips to people from more than one household bubble.

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The government confirmed “private hire coaches must not accommodate groups containing multiple households until 17 May at the earliest”.

From last Monday non-essential shops and outdoor attractions were permitted to reopen in England following a four-month lockdown. Pubs and restaurants were also allowed to start serving customers outside again.

The latest dispute is viewed by the industry as a further example of the government’s neglect of coach providers that are battling to survive after falling between the cracks of sector-specific support schemes. They were excluded from restart grants for retail, hospitality and leisure and left out of subsidies for transport services that serve commuters.

Small, family-owned businesses said it was unfair that scheduled coach services run by big companies such as National Express and Megabus operated by Stagecoach Group were allowed to operate. National Express reported a doubling of bookings for this weekend compared with a week earlier, albeit from a low base.

“We had a glimmer of hope. It’s now extinguished again,” said John Dewberry, owner of Allenby Coach Hire, a Surrey-based operator, referring to what they thought was a green light to restart operating from April 12. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the coach industry is on its knees.”

The decision is forcing operators to cancel scheduled trips, dashing hopes of customers, particularly the elderly, who were desperate to venture out. Jamie Thacker, director of Hearn’s Coaches, said his group based in north-west London would have to cancel about 100 trips booked up to May 17.

“We’re in turmoil about whether to cancel or not,” said Candice Mason, owner of Masons Coaches in the Hertfordshire town of Tring.

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