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Coronavirus: what does it mean for cars and motorists?

The global Covid-19 pandemic shows no signs of slowing. Here’s everything you need to know about how it affects cars, motorists and the car industry in the UK

In an effort to combat Coronavirus, the Government has enacted emergency measures which include the closure of shops selling non-essential goods, banning public gatherings of more than two people and advice to stay at home other than for essential journeys 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 globally 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.  

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

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.

PCP deals: uncertain customers should contact lenders

With car dealerships across the country forced to close, drivers whose PCP (personal contract purchase) deals are due to come to an end may be worried about what they should do. Typically, PCP customers at the end of a contract would put any 'equity' built up during a PCP deal towards the deposit for a new car and a new deal, but with retailers shut this is obviously difficult, if not impossible.

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So what should drivers whose PCP deals are about to come to an end do? Auto Express put this question to the Finance and Leasing Association, and the organisation came back to us with the following answers:

My PCP agreement is due to end in April, but the dealership is closed. Does that mean I have to pay the balloon and keep the car?

No, you should only pay the balloon if that’s what you would have chosen do before the Coronavirus circumstances.  Get in touch with your lender ASAP to tell them what you would like to do, then see how they can help make that happen. 

 If a motor finance agreement is due to end quite soon, can buyers ask for extensions on their deals or leases until the crisis is over? 

Yes, they can. They should get in touch with their lender as soon as possible.

My car lease deal is about to end. What are my options?

According to Leasing.com, many providers are open to arranging lease extensions. If your lease is about to come to an end, you should contact your leasing provider as soon as possible. Two options are generally open to consumers: a formal extension which can lengthen your agreement by three months or more, or an informal extension which can operate on a rolling basis.

Coronavirus impact on the car finance and leasing industry

The government has announced the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme will provide loans of up to £1.2m to small and medium-sized businesses, which includes some non-bank finance lenders. 

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However, there’s not a blanket view from industry body the Finance and Leasing Association, who advise any consumer in financial difficulty as a result of coronavirus should contact their finance lender as soon as possible. Depending on your circumstances, assistance may be available.

MoT tests: six-month exemption granted

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.”

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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.

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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. 

Can I still drive my car?

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.

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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. 

Garages to remain open

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".

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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”.

TfL suspends Congestion Charge and ULEZ

Motorists driving into London will be spared paying the £11.50 Congestion Charge or £12.50 ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) charge from Monday 23 March "until further notice", after the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, asked Transport for London (TfL) to suspend the tolls in order to "ensure London's critical workers, particularly those in the NHS, are able to travel round London as easily as possible during this national emergency."

The Congestion Charge was previously operational between the hours of 7am and 6pm, Monday to Friday, while the ULEZ operated on a 24/7 basis. The changes are also aimed at making it easier for supermarkets to restock in the wake of panic buying that has seen many shelves stripped bare.

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Announcing the changes, Khan said: "People should not be travelling, by any means, unless they really have to. London's roads should now only be used for essential journeys. To help our critical workers get to work and for essential deliveries to take place, I have instructed TfL to temporarily suspend the Congestion Charge, ULEZ and Low Emission Zone from Monday.  

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"This is not an invitation to take to your cars. To save lives we need the roads clear for ambulances, doctors, nurses and other critical workers. This is an unprecedented time and I know Londoners are doing everything they can to look after each other. I continue to urge all Londoners to follow the advice of public health authorities and not leave their homes unless it is absolutely essential."

Coronavirus sees driving tests cancelled

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) previously indicated driving tests would carry on as normal in the wake of coronavirus, but the fast-changing nature of the illness has seen that situation change.

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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.”

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

I’m self-isolating so I can't get my car serviced. Will that invalidate my warranty?

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.

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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.

Will coronavirus cause fuel shortages?

There's little danger of a fuel shortage but some motorists may have to travel further to get it. 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.

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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.

Hygiene at petrol stations

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.

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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.

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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’.

Coronavirus: how to clean your car

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.

How has coronavirus impacted your automotive life? Let us know in the comments below...

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