Coronavirus: what does it mean for cars and motorists?

Coronavirus: what does it mean for cars and motorists?

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The coronavirus crisis saw the whole UK put into lockdown, with the easing of the Government's emergency measures only just coming into effect. There are still firm restrictions on what people can do and who they can meet with, but how does this impact the motorist?  

Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is impacting virtually every aspect of life in countries around the world. The virus has claimed thousands of lives in this country alone and while this human tragedy must be at the forefront of everyone's minds, there is also a serious effect on the economy both globally and here in the UK.  

In the automotive industry, almost all car brands – including the likes of Groupe PSA, Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and Nissan – paused car production across Europe while dealerships closed their doors. Meanwhile, the UK Government’s advice to avoid any non-essential travel in cars or on public transport stands.

On these pages we look at what the Coronavirus means for the car industry and for individual motorists. Click on to page two for an overview of the repercussions for car makers and scroll down for the ways in which the virus is impacting the way you use, pay for and care for your car. We cover the issues around car finance, fuel supplies, servicing and MoT testing, the suspension of driving tests and the London Congestion Charge plus much more. 

Most importantly though. Visit the NHS website for the latest health advice on keeping you, your family and people around you safe.

Although most non-essential retailers will have to wait until 15 June to reopen, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that car dealerships will be opening early on 1 June, thanks to the fact that they're well-placed for social distancing.

The news follows campaigning from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA) for showrooms to be allowed to reopen their doors on 1 June, which was the earliest date the Prime Minister said non-essential retailers would be allowed to open on.

Sue Robinson, director of the NFDA, commented: “Following our lobbying efforts where we highlighted it was vital to include dealerships in the first wave of non-essential retail reopening, it is positive that the Prime Minister has confirmed the Government intends to reopen car showrooms from 1 June.

“NFDA has worked closely with SMMT to produce guidelines for retailers in line with the Government’s recommendations. Retailers have been working hard to put all necessary measures in place to ensure social distancing can be observed.

“As lockdown measures start to ease, many of us will need cars to get back to work and it is crucial that automotive retailers are open to serve the workforce. The retail automotive sector looks forward to welcoming customers back into showrooms.”

The London Congestion Charge has been suspended since 23 March, but Transport for London brought the £11.50 daily fee for driving into the centre of the capital back into effect on 18 May.

Furthermore, it has been announced that the charge will increase to £15 per day on 22 June, with operating hours extended to between 7am and 10pm, seven days a week. Although these measures – designed to prevent air pollution in London from returning to pre-COVID levels – are temporary, no date has been given for when they will come to an end.

Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “These hikes are taking the charges from a ‘congestion’ charge to a ‘taxation’ charge.” He added that the weekend charges were “difficult to justify at all”.

The number of cars needing new batteries has doubled during the coronavirus lockdown, garage chain Kwik Fit says.

The firm fitted 100 per cent more new batteries to customers' cars in April 2020 than it did in April 2019. The reason for this is drivers are only using their cars for short journeys, during which the engine isn't running long enough to recharge the battery probably.

Kwik Fit advises drivers who aren't using their cars at all to start their engines and let them run for 15 minutes once or twice a week, and check for signs of corrosion on the battery terminals. Trickle chargers might be a good option for stopping batteries from going flat, but motorists should consult their car's handbook before using one.

You’re still allowed to use your car if you’re leaving your home for one of the approved reasons – these include shopping for essentials, going somewhere to take daily exercise, attending a medical appointment, assisting an elderly or vulnerable person, or travelling to or from work.

Although the Government hasn’t announced any plans to shut roads to prevent people travelling during the Coronavirus lockdown, it has instructed people not to leave their homes for any other reason.

This means that driving your car for any reason other than those listed above – including just going for a drive on your own – is inadvisable at the present time. Anyone caught doing so by the police could face a fine. 

An increasing number of new cars have variable servicing agreements based on mileage, rather than age. Owners of cars under this regime need not worry; if you’re not using the car, self-isolation should not risk invalidating your warranty.

If your car is subject to fixed service intervals and needs scheduled maintenance at a specific time, things are slightly less clear-cut. Most manufacturers have a grace period of around one month or 1,000 miles, so there is some scope for those unable to get to a dealer. However, should self-isolation take owners beyond this period, The Motor Ombudsman recommends contacting your car’s manufacturer for more advice.

A spokesman for The Motor Ombudsman said: “If a case were to come to The Motor Ombudsman under section 3.8 of the New Car Code, the business cannot decline claims or rescind the warranty simply because the service was missed, but can only do so if the lack of care by the vehicle owner caused a fault.

New legislation granting a six-month exemption from the requirement for cars to have a valid MoT certificate is effective from 30 March. While cars due for an MoT before that date must still be tested, the Department for Transport is working with police and insurance firms to ensure people who are self-isolating and are unable to get their car tested “aren’t unfairly penalised for things out of their control.”

Announcing the changes, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Given the circumstances I'm granting an MoT temporary exemption so that if your MoT is due from 30 March 2020 you will automatically receive a six-month extension. However, you must still keep your car in a roadworthy condition and garages will remain open if you need repairs.”

After the legislation comes into effect, it will run for 12 months, meaning anyone whose car is due an between MoT 30 March 2020 and 30 March 2021 effectively has an 18-month MoT certificate.

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) previously resisted removing the requirement for cars over three years old to have a valid MoT, but the growing number of UK coronavirus cases and the widespread ban on people leaving their house for anything other than essential reasons has prompted a rethink.

MoT tests for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), trailers and Public Service Vehicles (PSV) have already been suspended for three months, effective from March 21. 

While most businesses, including showrooms, have been forced to close, garages are to remain open, alongside car rentals and petrol stations. The move is part of the government's commitment to ensure “those who will keep the air, water, road and rail passenger and freight transport modes [to continue] operating”. That doesn't mean all workshops will stay open though; Kia, for instance, has said around 40 per cent of its service departments will stay open to run an “essential-only” service, while Toyota and Lexus says it will “meet the needs of key emergency workers”.

However, the government has said that any business open during the pandemic must ensure a distance of two metres between customers and staff, and ensure premises admit small groups to ensure spaces aren't crowded. 

Sue Robinson, Director of the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA) said: “Aftersales workshops and their technicians will play an important role in ensuring that critical vehicles can continue to operate safely and efficiently during these challenging times”.

Car dealers are still closed so anyone with a PCP (personal contract purchase) finance deal that's ending soon may be concerned. PCP customers at the end of a contract would usually put the equity left in the deal towards a deposit for a new deal on a new car but what happens when no dealers are open to make the arrangements?

The Finance and Leasing Association advise that anyone with a PCP deal coming to an end should contact their lender ASAP and tell them what they would like to do. Customers should not feel obliged to pay the balloon payment and take ownership of the car if they don't want to go down that route. It should be possible to arrange an extension on the deal until the crisis is over. 

It's the same story with extensions on leasing deals. Contact your leasing provider as soon as possible and there should be a couple of options available: a formal extension which can lengthen your agreement by three months or more, or an informal extension which can operate on a rolling basis.

If you can't pay your car finance payments due to situations arising from the coronavirus outbreak, you should contact your finance lender as soon as possible. Depending on your circumstances, assistance may be available. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has called for a freeze on all car finance payments and made a series of other recommendations so more measures to help motorists with finance deals could be in the pipeline.

You can find out more on our dedicated coronavirus car finance advice page. 

There's little danger of a fuel shortage but some motorists may have to travel further to get petrol or diesel. According to Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, motorists have nothing to worry about in terms of supply. He said his organisation has been in contact with its equivalent in Italy, where the virus is some weeks ahead. It reports Italian fuel sales are down around 60 per cent due to the travel restrictions. “It is the reverse of panic buying”, he said.

In the UK, Madderson says the picture is “mixed”. Fuel sales in urban areas are remaining steady due to reduced journey numbers being counteracted by the number of travellers switching from public transport to cars. More transient filling stations, such as motorways service stations, have reported a slump in demand as fewer motorists embark on long-distance journeys.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) was warned that the lack of sales is making running some fuel stations in rural areas unviable, with smaller, independent operators most at risk. Some filling stations of this sort have already started closing in rural areas of the west country, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Motorists are being urged to use gloves when filling up with petrol or diesel. The Petrol Retailers Association says all its members are offering gloves for motorists to use at the pumps. Madderson said that while petrol pump nozzles are cleaned every day they can’t be cleaned after every use, so pump handles could pose a real risk of transferring the virus.

Madderson added that hand sanitiser is being offered to customers and staff, where available, but he warned petrol retailers are struggling to deep clean forecourts because cleaning companies are prioritising front-line services such as the NHS and care homes.

He said some fuel retailers are taking further steps, with a small number refusing to accept cash due to concerns over contaminated notes, although he stressed that with comparatively few motorists carrying cash, it’s unlikely too many forecourts will become ‘plastic-only’.

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has said that all driving tests have now been cancelled for three months, apart from tests for those with a “critical need”, such as NHS workers and potential delivery drivers.

Announcing the cancellation, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “since it’s impossible to maintain social distancing over a prolonged period we have suspended driver testing for the next 3 months in a further move to protect the public in our national battle against COVID19.

“It is vital that those who need a test can get one so DVSA is offering tests to those who have a critical need, such as the NHS and drivers delivering goods across the UK.”

This decision follows an earlier one by authorities in Northern Ireland that saw driving tests suspended for the same length of time.

Like houses and commercial buildings that could have seen an infection, it's a good idea to deep-clean your car if someone with the virus may have been in it; and given people can be infected without showing symptoms, it's a sensible precaution to give your car a regular cleaning, regardless of who has travelled in it. 

There aren’t many anti-bacterial/viral products available to the consumer that are dedicated to car care, so you’ll be relying mainly on household cleaners. You'll need to use alcohol-based products for greatest efficacy, and ones with at least a 60 per cent alcohol content specifically. 

Before you use any product, check the instructions to ensure it's suitable for use on plastics, upholstery or leather, and test on an unseen patch to double-check it won’t cause any damage. Given the extreme and unique circumstances coronavirus presents, however, you may find yourself using far harsher products on your car than would normally be advised. 

You should pay attention to any touchpoints, such as the steering wheel, gearstick, handbrake, interior and exterior door handles, and seatbelts – and make sure you clean them after every journey. You, and all your passengers, should use a hand sanitiser before getting into the car.

Carpets and cloth upholstery can be cleaned by soaking with an appropriate cleaner, brushing and vacuuming out the moisture using a suitable wet-and-dry  vac. Leather upholstery can be cleaned with specific cleaner.

Click here for a chance to win a £25 Amazon voucher by answering a few questions on how lockdown has affected your car-buying process…

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