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Coronavirus and motoring in Northern Ireland: what you should know

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The Westlink in west Belfast at 8:45am as Belfast goes into its first day of lockdown on March 24th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

The Westlink in west Belfast at 8:45am as Belfast goes into its first day of lockdown on March 24th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The Westlink in west Belfast at 8:45am as Belfast goes into its first day of lockdown on March 24th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

With the global coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of letting up, here’s what you need to know about how it affects motorists in Northern Ireland.

General travel

The official government advice on leaving your house is below. Obviously, this affects everyone apart from those designated as key workers.

You can leave your house, including driving, for the following reasons:

· Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.

· One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle - alone or with members of your household

· Any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person

· Travelling for work purposes, but only where you cannot work from home.

But life is complicated and whilst the rules seem simple, things can get in the way. What’s one person’s important task isn’t another’s.

For instance, the advice is to “minimise travel”. So, you’re grand to drive to the supermarket or the doctor’s – but only when necessary. Daily trips are frowned upon.

It’s not within the spirit of the rules to pack the family into the car and head off to the Mournes or a beach on the north coast. You are only supposed to walk to your nearest park or other very-local place of exercise.

If you, the partner, the kids and the dog are packed into a car five miles from your home, you’re likely to be in breach of the rules.

Repeat or flagrant offenders could end up being fined. The police are on the record as saying they don’t want to do this, and prefer to issue gentle warnings, but that they won’t shirk from their duties when and if the time is right.

If the lockdown continues, or gets tightened, expect the police to begin asking you to show evidence for your travel. Some countries have introduced downloadable forms and it’s an offence to tell fibs on it.

Driving and the law

If you’re in a car travelling somewhere, you should have a good reason to travel. For ordinary folks, that’s the list above.

Then there are people the government has designated as "key workers” including people in the following sectors:

· Health and social care

· Education and childcare

· Key public services: justice system, religious staff, those responsible for managing the deceased and journalists

· Local and national government workers helping in the fight against coronavirus/Covid-19 or delivering essential public services

· Food sector: the production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery of food. Truckers, etc.

· Public safety/national security: police, military, fire and rescue staff, border security, prisons and probation

· Transport: Those who will keep air, water, road and rail passenger and freight transport modes operating

· Utilities, communication and financial services: oil, gas, electricity, water, nuclear, telecoms, post, essential financial services, etc.

These people will be okay to drive to and from work, and to drive around the roads network on officially sanctioned business.

People in your vehicle

· Ideally, when complying with the rules above, the driver will be the only person in the vehicle. If that’s not possible, then it will be only people living in your own household.

· Giving a workmate a lift to a non-essential job would not be within the spirit of the rules. In fact, driving to a non-essential job isn’t within the rules anyway.

· Unless you have a stretch limo, non-members of your household couldn’t be more than two metres/six feet away from you in a car.

So, unless there’s a very good reason, no-one apart from family members on an essential journey will be sitting in your motor.

As I said, life is complicated: is getting a taxi to or from your local Tesco to home essential? Possibly. Especially if you don’t have your own transport.

Clean your car

Everyone should wash their hands or use a hand sanitiser immediately before and after getting into a car.

It is a very good idea to regularly clean down all touchable surfaces inside and outside your car with bleach wipes, particularly ones that eliminate viruses as well bacteria.

Do this before and after any journey. Seek out all touchpoints like door handles inside and out, steering wheel, gearstick, handbrake, seatbelts.

Carpets and cloth upholstery can be cleaned using a soak with a proprietary cleaner, and then vacuuming up the moisture. Leather can be cleaned with a leather cleaner. If you plan on putting any bleach solution on upholstery, do a test patch first to see if it leaves a mark.

It’s okay to wash your car at home; going to a car wash wouldn’t be deemed an essential journey.

General driving

It’s a very good idea to be extra careful and considerate when driving at the moment.

You definitely do not want to be involved in an accident and be required to be taken to an emergency department.

This will be a very scary experience, will expose you to coronavirus and will mean tying up medical staff who may be required to attend to critically ill Covid-19 patients.

At this time please drive slowly, carefully and be considerate of other drivers.

MOT testing in Northern Ireland

The Driver & Vehicle Agency has suspended tests, but it’s very important that people continue to book their tests as they can receive exemption certificates. Also, you may not be covered by insurance if you don’t do this.

The current situation is that the DVA has suspended all MOT tests for three months. This is scheduled to end on June 22, 2020. Refunds are being issued.

All heavy goods vehicles, buses etc with an MOT appointment are being issued with a three-month temporary exemption certificate (TEC).

Four year old cars will, as of yesterday, be given a TEC for six months from the date that their MOT test was due. This will allow the vehicle to be taxed and driven on the road.

The DVA says it may take some time to process and issue all certificates, but they will be back-dated to the correct date.

Taxi drivers are in a bind because there is no legal way to issue TECs to taxi drivers. The DVA is working out how to fix this.

All drivers have been warned they are required they are required by law to make sure that their vehicle is safe to drive.

You still need to tax your car online.

Driving licences and tests

No first-time driving licence applications are being accepted, although a small number of HGVs are (to help with transportation of food, for example).

Renewals are only being accepted online; no postal renewals will be processed.

Practical driving tests have all been suspended until June 22. Theory tests are currently suspended until April 20.

Garages, filling stations and car showrooms

These are duly designated places that are allowed to remain open.

This doesn’t just include petrol stations but appear to also include some businesses that can repair vehicles.

Motorists are being urged to use gloves when filling up or charging electric vehicles. Many retailers are offering disposable plastic gloves at the pumps but bring your own in case these have run out.

Customers must keep two metres/six feet away from each other and staff, and stores must only admit small numbers of people at any one time.

There seems to be little to no chance of fuel shortages – indeed demand for petrol and diesel has dropped significantly.

Car showrooms – whether they be owned by big players like Ford and Vauxhall or small independents - are not duly designated places and are closed. Most employees are furloughed.

Car leasing payments

You may be able to take payment holidays if you are in financial distress.

The Finance and Leasing Association says: “If you are a customer suffering financial difficulties or anticipating payment problems because of coronavirus, please speak to your lender as soon as possible – they are there to help.

“You will find their contact details on your finance agreement, but if you need further assistance, contact us at info@fla.org.uk”.

Belfast Telegraph