Following the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Senior Traffic Commissioner ("STC") has recognised that there will be challenges ahead for operators in meeting their licence requirements.
The way that this pandemic is developing, the challenges could involve:
- A loss of access to an operating centre following government restrictions.
- Transport Manager(s) becoming ill or being forced to self-isolate after developing COVID-19 symptoms.
- Financial hardship due to an economic downturn across some sectors.
It is because of these uncertain times ahead that the STC has released interim legislative guidance; the full content of which can be found here. Contained within the guidance is an explanation of how traffic commissioners should interpret the law in these unprecedented times.
Below we explain the key sections of the interim guidance and what they mean for operators.
Periods of Grace
Periods of grace are the main solution in times when an operator can no longer meet a key licence requirement and the STC has made the most of the use of "periods of grace" in its interim guidance.
Traffic commissioners are only allowed to consider granting a period of grace where any one of three distinct key licence requirements are not being met; financial standing, an effective and stable establishment and transport managers.
Within the guidance, operators are warned that even during this unusual time, periods of grace must be proactively applied for and not naively expected.
Operators are warned that in applying for a period of grace, they are effectively inviting the traffic commissioner to make an adverse finding against their licence. Therefore, should the period of grace expire and an operator still not be able to demonstrate that it meets that particular licence requirement, its operator licence may be revoked.
However, the main benefit of being granted a period of grace is that it buys the operator valuable time in which to overcome the difficulty at hand and meet that particular licence requirement.
When considering granting a period of grace, all traffic commissioners must be satisfied that there are "reasonable prospects for a good outcome". Where the reasons for is related to the outbreak of COVID-19, the STC makes it clear that traffic commissioners are allowed to infer that the situation will be time-limited and the test that there will be ""reasonable prospects for a good outcome" is therefore met.
Financial standing is an integral part of the operator licencing regime. Whilst it has many purposes, it predominantly allows a traffic commissioner to trust that effective maintenance of vehicles and trailers will be carried out.
It is therefore a condition of holding an operator licence that where material changes in financial standing occur, the traffic commissioner is notified accordingly.
Given the COVID-19 outbreak and the crisis that the economy is facing, it is natural to expect that a large number of operators will have to notify their traffic commissioner of a material change in financial standing. Should this be the case, operators are encouraged to notify the traffic commissioner accordingly and to simultaneously apply for a period of grace.
In order for a period of grace to be granted in relation to financial standing, firstly a traffic commissioner will wish to be satisfied that:
- The operator is not insolvent;
- There are no outstanding maintenance or other issues which might impact on road safety; and
- That this is not an attempted device to avoid responsibility for alleged failures in compliance.
Once the traffic commissioner is satisfied of the above, they would normally wish to be reassured with tangible evidence that the financial standing will be met in the future. However, given the exceptional circumstances at present, the STC has indicated that a traffic commissioner may rely upon a previously satisfactory financial check, within the last 12 months, which meets the prescribed financial standing level in support of the period of grace application.
The starting point for a length of period of grace has been set at 4 months, with an extension up to 6 months to be considered should circumstances require that.
Should a standard licence operator temporarily lose access to an Operating Centre as a result of the governmental restrictions placed upon the UK during the COVID-19 outbreak, the STC has asked that the traffic commissioners give serious consideration to granting a period of grace in which an operator can temporarily keep their vehicles at an alternative yet effective and stable establishment.
The STC has recognised that it may not be conceivable for operators to apply for a new operating centre which may only be required for temporary use. Instead, a traffic commissioner may wish to be satisfied of exactly where the vehicles are being kept in the alternative in order to grant the period of grace.
As with financial standing, the period of grace will have a starting point of 4 months with the option to extend this to 6 months should the circumstances require that.
At present, governmental advice is that those who experience any COVID-19 symptoms should self-isolate for 14 days. Vulnerable individuals are also being identified and specifically contacted by the health service to be told that they must isolate for 12 weeks. As this outbreak inevitably progresses, it is likely that employees, such as Transport Managers, will either be identified as a vulnerable individual, contract COVID-19 or come into close contact with somebody with COVID-19 and this will require them to either self-isolate or require medical attention.
The STC recognises this and encourages traffic commissioners to take a view on what is practicable in all the circumstance to meet the statutory duties of a transport manager.
Operators have an obligation to notify their traffic commissioner of matters which might impact on the ability to demonstrate professional competence within the business. The STC recognises that in ordinary circumstances, operators are not normally expected to notify their traffic commissioner of periods of short illness such as the symptoms of COVID-19, however in such exceptional circumstances, it appears that where a Transport Manager displays symptoms of COVID-19, it may be necessary to grant a period of grace in which to find a replacement Transport Manager.
As with financial standing and operating centres, the starting point is 4 months grace which can be extended to 6 months should circumstances dictate. The STC recognises that recruitment of a Transport Manager during this pandemic will be difficult and so an extension may well be required.
The STC has encouraged all traffic commissioners to recognise the exceptional nature of the operating environment during this period of uncertainty and asked that they give serious consideration to the grant of a period of grace to those who require it. Therefore, it can be expected that should your operation be affected by the outbreak, there is a solution to be found.
There are challenging times ahead for all involved in the transport sector. What is clear though is that Senior Traffic Commissioner possesses a very good grasp on the implications for the industry and has acted quickly in face of changing demands to meet the needs of operators.
If you wish to discuss any of the issues outlined above or any other operator licensing matter, please contact Vikki Woodfine or Joanne Witheford.