Coaches respond to Covid-19
As gardens, museums, restaurants and other places of interest open again across Britain, it has become possible for coach operators to start up their day trips and holidays once more. Fiona Horan looks at the post-Covid landscape.
The reduction of the two-metre rule to one-metre-plus, and the re-opening of attractions, hotels and restaurants, means that coach operators are finally back in business.
Inter-city carriers like National Express and Oxford Tube are resuming services in early July. Many smaller coach operators – often local, family-run firms who specialise in holiday packages – are planning day trips from mid-July to August, with longer holidays in the autumn. They have made numerous adaptations to keep their passengers safe.
Johnsons Coaches in Warwickshire, family-run for over a hundred years, has just been awarded the Good To Go accolade by Visit England. This new industry standard means the company has followed the government and industry COVID-19 guidelines, has a risk assessment in place and has processes to maintain cleanliness and aid social distancing.
The guide provided to passengers by Johnsons promises enhanced cleaning procedures, drivers wearing face masks and gloves, and temperature checks of passengers before embarkation. Passengers will also be asked to wear masks, and seating capacity will be reduced to allow social distancing. The on-board toilets will be closed, but there will be comfort breaks on any journey lasting over two hours. Anti-baterial gel will be provided for passengers to use, and the coach will drive with the roof vents open, to allow a plentiful supply of fresh air. The coach air-conditioning system will also help to provide clean, filtered air. The guide points out that
‘the biggest risk of infection is people in close ‘face to face’ positions. We can provide assurance and mitigation of these concerns; our normal front facing seating arrangements avoids ‘face to face’ proximity and the physical barrier of the high backed seats, plus the use of face coverings or masks will all help to ensure maximum mitigation of the dangers and maximum safety.’
Johnsons Coaches will be running day excursions from 1st August, and as many of their September and October holidays as possible.
Dunwood Travel in the West Midlands is also heading back on the road, with their first tour since lockdown starting on 8th of July for five days, and the rest of their holiday schedule resuming thereafter. Their website states that they:-
‘are installing eco3 air purifiers on all of our coaches. The air purifier will destroy bacteria, viruses, moulds, allergens and germs whilst increasing oxygen concentration. Dunwood are currently the only operator in the UK investing in this technology.’
Dunwood’s other safety measures are similar to Johnsons Coaches. Passengers must wear masks, sanitising gel is available, the coach will be well ventilated, and passengers must board and exit in order from back to front (and front to back). They point out that:-
‘With the above protective and safety measures in place Dunwood Directors, Phil Westwood and Colin Duncan, are both satisfied and confident these procedures will be far safer and controlled than travelling on any form of public transport.’
Day trips from July
Many other operators are now restarting their tours and day trips, with similar measures. Bakers Dolphin in Somerset hope to begin day trips again from mid-July, and holidays from August. IOW Tours on the Isle of Wight have received Good To Go accreditation and will soon be announcing the resumption of their holiday and outings schedule. Hampshire-based Lucketts are also re-starting their scheduled holidays from August, with some day trips this month. All companies will be operating with reduced capacity, with standard and large coaches carrying less than half their usual passenger numbers.
According to John Wales, Chair of the Coach Tourism Association, it’s the Government’s removal of the “two metre rule” that has breathed life back into the coaching industry.
‘The fact that this standard also applies to hotels means that coach operators can start to look at running overnight UK holidays later this year. Indeed, many of our members have been working closely with the hospitality industry to see how they might best be able to provide much needed holidays for customers whilst keeping them safe and adhering to the rules.
All being well, I am sure we will be seeing more tours becoming available in the coming weeks and months. The main point being that one metre+ does at least give coach operators the opportunity of opening up their businesses once more as we all look forward to a gradual return to whatever ‘normal’ will mean next Spring.’
Of course, having to run coaches half-empty is not something that coach operators can continue indefinitely. Our local, much-loved family-run coach companies may have proved that they’re a ‘resilient and determined bunch’, to quote Shirley Winn of IOW Tours, but major redundancies at all firms are almost inevitable without some further strategic assistance from the Government.
Meanwhile, GTOs are finding that their groups remain cautious for the time being. As Pauline Johnson, GTO of Hinckley Social Theatre & Travel Club tells me,
‘they say that group travel is all about socialising with friends and if they can’t do that then what is the point. Meal times will be just yourselves, you can’t sit with your group of friends. Many are telling me that without a vaccine, or a test to say they are immune, it is going to be later rather than sooner before they will feel confident to go away.’
It seems clear that profitability will remain elusive for coach operators for several more seasons – perhaps until social distancing is a thing of the past. With this in mind, John Johnson, Commercial Director of Johnsons Coaches, has written to several MPs with some suggestions. He is thankful for the furlough scheme which has so far protected many jobs, but is most concerned that the scheme is due to end in October, just as the lean winter season arrives. His suggestions include an extension to this scheme; reductions in employers and employees NI contributions; a possible fuel duty rebate; clarification on mass gatherings; and classification of coach operators as being in the Leisure and Hospitality sector.
He knows precisely what is needed to save this industry. Let’s hope the Government are listening.
What to read next:-
GTO’s recent interview with Jason Edwards, Managing Director of Edwards Coaches, as he discusses the impact of Covid-19 on his company.