Coronavirus: NI driving lessons and tests may resume

By Nuala McCann

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image copyrightPress Association
image captionThousands of learner drivers have faced test delays over lockdowns

Driving lessons and tests could resume in Northern Ireland next week, BBC News NI understands.

A proposal has been submitted for the Stormont executive to consider when it meets to review of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions on Thursday.

Lessons in England and Wales resumed on Monday with practical and theory tests due to restart next week.

Stormont ministers have said they are hoping to provide reopening dates to some other services on Thursday.

Those include hairdressers, non-essential shops and some parts of the hospitality sector.

On Wednesday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said hospital numbers and intensive care numbers are falling, and vaccinations are rising.

"I am hopeful that tomorrow the executive will be able to sign off on dates on what it looks like for the next number of months," Ms O'Neill told MLAs.

"It is the hope that people want. It's important that we give people something to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead."

But she added people still needed to be careful.

Teenagers Lewis Burtney and Ewan Waddell are among many young people excited at the prospect of being able to sit their driving tests.

image copyrightLewis Burtney
image captionLewis Burtney spent a year polishing his new car that he cannot drive unsupervised because he has not had his test

Lewis, 18, from Ballynahinch, County Down, is hoping it will be seventh time lucky after having six tests cancelled during the pandemic - he had hoped to be driving a year ago.

Ewan, also 18, from Magheralin, County Down, should have been doing his test on Wednesday but it was cancelled and now he has his fingers crossed that his June date will happen.

"I was more excited about my 17th birthday than my 18th birthday because I would be able to drive," said Lewis.

"I had my birthday last March, passed the theory test and was all set to go for the driving test when all applications were cancelled."

Lewis now has a date for May.

"My uncle gave the car as a gift when I turned 17 - I got insurance to cover me as a learner and full insurance since November, the date I would have done the test.

"It is just so frustrating."

image captionEwan Waddell says he needs to drive to get to college

Ewan said he too has his own first car parked up and "sitting rusting since February 2020".

His driving test appointments have been cancelled four or five times.

"I was supposed to be doing it [on Wednesday] but it was cancelled and I could not get another booking until June."

He needs a car to travel to technical college and to work and he needs to have passed his test to drive it unaccompanied.

"I can clean it and shine it and go for a drive with my dad but that's it and even then you can't go far because of the restrictions.

"When you are young your whole social life is around your car."

image copyrightGavin Sinclair
image captionGavin Sinclair says instructors want more time to prepare people for their tests

The chair of the Northern Ireland Approved Instructor Council (NIAIC), Gavin Sinclair, said the news of a return to driving tests and lessons came after a "very quiet and frustrating time" for 1,200 instructors across Northern Ireland.

He said the sense of frustration among instructors was down to the lack of dates supplied by the executive.

"Many of our clients have not been driving for four months - it's unreasonable to go and sit a driving test when they need that lead-in time," he said.

There were times over the last lockdown when information was patchy and in mid-March, instructors felt "completely ignored", he said.

"In England, Scotland and Wales, dates were set which made it possible to plan in advance.

"There is definitely a feeling of unease that we are going to get given two days to arrange multiple weeks of schedules.

"For us it's going to be a week of chaos with clients not knowing whether tests are going to go ahead."

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