UK coach operators have warned that the rate of business failures is accelerating following the closure of schools during the latest coronavirus lockdown and the government’s refusal to provide any tailored support to the sector.
Owners were told last week by Charlotte de Vere, the roads minister, not to expect any special treatment despite the loss of the school run. During normal times this regular work can account for up to a fifth of revenues but during the pandemic it has been almost the sole source of income as other business has dried up.
Lady de Vere acknowledged to delegates at a conference last week that the home-to-school services provided by coach operators were “essential” and something “the country cannot function without” but that she could not promise a sector-specific deal “at this stage”.
She added: “It is also the case that other services provided by the coach sector are non-essential and it is simply not possible for the government to protect every single job.”
The Confederation of Passenger Transport, the industry lobby group, hit out at the refusal to intervene as it warned more businesses would collapse. It estimated that 120 operators had filed for administration in the final quarter of last year, more than double the 100 recorded in September since the pandemic began.
Many owners are struggling to meet payments on loans taken out to purchase vehicles that meet government-mandated environmental and accessibility standards, it added.
Alison Edwards, the CPT’s head of policy, said the government’s failure to provide bespoke support was “deeply concerning” given the range of “essential services provided by coach operators — including getting 600,000 children a day to school — as well as its importance to UK tourism.”
It warned in September that up to 24,000 jobs could be lost by April, the traditional end of the low season for coach operators, without state aid. Since then the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Scotland have pledged funding.
The CPT said there were about 3,000 operators in England and Wales, 80 per cent of which are family-run, that were struggling to stay afloat. Many of them have had applications for government loans and grants rejected.
Candice Mason, owner of Masons Coaches based in Tring, Hertfordshire, said the schools business had helped many companies survive but the recent lockdown had put them “back to square one”.
Ms Mason, who has helped lobby on behalf of the industry during the pandemic, questioned the government’s understanding of the industry. She pointed out that ministers in recent months have “mistakenly” suggested that operators were benefiting from VAT cuts and deferrals. Coach businesses are not required to charge VAT for their services.
Tim Southby, owner of Heathside Travel in Dorset, said he was “grateful” for the £2,000 he received via the government’s additional restrictions grant for businesses affected by coronavirus, but that his monthly bills had recently increased to £13,000 for the four coaches he bought last year.
“We’re a small company and it’s difficult to put into words how let down we’re feeling,” said Mr Southby. “Come April, if we don’t get going, I lose my business and my home.”
In a statement, the government said coach operators were able to access the job retention scheme as well as the business interruption loan scheme and that it continued “to work closely with representatives from the coach sector to understand the ongoing risks and issues the sector faces”.
It added that it had provided local authorities with about £100m since the autumn to provide additional capacity for home-to-school services to keep pupils off public transport, which included coach operators.
But Ms Mason said information she had collated showed that just 1,000 coaches out of a fleet of 30,000 ended up being used for these services.