Covid guidance: Car dealers can offer test drives during lockdown

Showrooms shut until April 12, but Trading Standards has given the green light to pre-purchase test drives

Britain has been under full national lockdown since 5 January 2021, joining much of Europe. So what does this mean for motorists and car buyers?

Up to now, car drivers may have been unsure of the restrictions affecting vehicle usage, while would-be car purchasers had to decide whether or not to put their commitment on hold until restrictions ease. The government took drastic action to prevent social gathering and unnecessary contact, so the rules in place are comparable with those we saw in March 2020 and stricter than those imposed in the second lockdown. 

Now that Covid-19 case numbers are showing signs of decline and the Prime Minister has outlined a plan for the country to exit lockdown restrictions, we now have a possible end date in sight for the number of rules in force that dictate what you an do with your car, how you can maintain it and whether you can buy a new model.

Here is a rundown of the measures affecting motorists across the UK.

Can I still buy a new car?

Some non-essential retailers in England have been allowed to remain open, although only to operate a click-and-collect and delivery service. That is set to change on April 12, when non-essential retail is permitted to reopen its doors.

Until then, car dealers can once again continue to offer a click-and-collect service, while operating a contactless delivery service. Showrooms, however, must close their doors, and tightened travel rules mean test drives won't be allowed. 

However, it has now been confirmed by Car Dealer magazine that English dealerships can offer customers a test drive, provided a deposit has been taken online or over the phone, according to guidance from Trading Standards and the Office of Public Safety.

Cars can be delivered to a prospective customer's home, or to a location near to the showroom (which must remain closed) for the test drive to take place. 

When it comes to collecting a pre-purchased car, the dealer will have to sanitise the entire vehicle - including the keys - and will take measures such as offering walk-through videos rather than in-person demonstrations.

In Scotland, click-and-collect services can only be offered by essential retailers, and even then with strict social-distancing measures in place. Car dealerships can continue to operate according to these terms, meaning purchased cars can be collected from outdoor lots and vehicles can still be dropped off for repairs, servicing or an MOT test. 

Wales has been under a national lockdown since 19 December and is likely to remain in this state until at least the end of February. All non-essential businesses have had to close completely, including car dealerships, but cars can still be ordered and collected. 

Can I buy a used car?

Used car dealers in England are subject to the same rules as their new car counterparts, meaning they can remain open if they trade according to a contact-free, closed-showroom model. The same is true of Wales, where they may not open, and Scotland, where click-and- collect services are being drastically restricted. 

Buying privately isn't advisable during the lockdown, as the rules state you should leave home only for essential purposes or to work if you can't work from home. There's no official guidance with regard to inspecting or collecting a car from another household, but social-distancing rules must be adhered to at all times, meaning you shouldn't share a car with anyone from outside your own household.

One used car buyer has been taken to court for breach of Covid-19 restrictions after travelling 100 miles to purchase a used Volkswagen Golf GTI from a private seller. The Central Motorways Policing Group said "a private car swap deal isn't a good or lawful reason to be out at 10pm", but there remains little official clarification as to the specific legality of private trades. 

It is currently unclear whether private car buying will be permitted from May 17, when two households or groups of up to six people will be allowed to mix indoors, or from June 21, when all remaining restrictions on social contact are planned to be lifted.

Will my car be repossessed if I can't pay for it?

Guidance issued by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) that "firms should not terminate a regulated agreement or repossess goods or vehicles under the agreement that the customer needs, except in exceptional circumstances", expired on 31 January. 

Repossession of goods, homes and vehicles in the event of non-payment had been largely suspended to account for increased economic uncertainty as a result of the lockdown and to avoid putting consumers at risk by forcing them onto public transport or leaving them homeless. The suspension has now expired, but until 1 April 2021, repossession should remain "a last resort" for consumer credit firms, and only used in appropriate circumstances (ie not if the consumer is particularly vulnerable).

Until 31 March, consumers can also apply for a payment holiday from their car finance plan, provided they have not already used up the six-month allowance. Merely cancelling your direct debit does not constitute officially taking a holiday, however, so be sure to get in contact with your lender if you need to take these measures. 

Can I visit a garage?

During the first lockdown, the government granted drivers a six-month MOT extension to avoid unnecessary driving and people coming into close social contact at garages. This measure has not been repeated, not least because there's still a backlog of MOTs from 2020.

As of 31 January, any six-month MOT exemption has now expired, meaning any car being driven on public roads - unless it is age exempt - must have a valid MOT certificate. 

If you have to use your car during lockdown, it must be roadworthy, so book in for an MOT test before the date of expiry, and have your car serviced if it's due. Non-essential repairs are best left until the lockdown is eased, because you should leave home only for essential purposes. 

Similarly, garages remain open in Wales and Scotland, although only for essential repairs and MOTs. 

Can I go for a drive?

As with previous lockdowns, motorists should not go for a drive just to get out of the house. There are a number of key exceptions that allow driving, including to travel to a place of work if you can't work from home. 

Driving is allowed if you need to shop for essentials, while key workers can drive for childcare purposes and to take their kids to school. You can also drive to take care of vulnerable relatives or to attend a medical appointment. Automated car washes (mostly based on petrol station forecourts) remain open, but hand car washes have been closed nationwide. 

As before, there are questions being asked regarding the police's ability to enforce these driving rules. There are currently no plans to close any roads. 

Are driving lessons and tests allowed?

Social-distancing and travel rules mean driving lessons and tests - both theory and practical - are cancelled until further notice. This includes motorcycle (CBT), driving instructor (ADI parts two and three) and standard examinations. However, as of 2 February, the DVSA has introduced "a limited theory test and practical test service for NHS health and social care workers, the emergency services and local councils". 

Only employers can apply for one of the limited test slots, and there are currently no plans to expand the scheme.  

Driving lessons must only be given if the vehicle occupants are from the same household and the journey is of an essential nature. You should not leave home for the sole purpose of practising or teaching. 

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