A Driving Instructor's Blog

COVID-19

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COVID Lateral Flow Test StripAn email alert from DVSA is encouraging people to take lateral flow tests on a regular basis. I should stress that this is currently only targeted at Wales – and I have no idea why that is.

I have been ordering free test kits from the NHS, and run one twice a week. Each kit contains seven tests, and each test consists of a swab, a small pod of buffer solution, a sample tube, and a test strip/cartridge in a sealed pouch. You break the buffer pod and squeeze it into the sample tube. You open the test strip and lay it on a flat surface. Then you wipe the swab around your tonsils and up your nose. Dip the swab into the buffer for 15 seconds, squeeze it out as you remove it, and then clip the lid of the tube shut. It has a small hole in it, and you place two drops of the liquid on to the test strip. Wait 30 minutes, and your result is indicated in a window on the strip. You also get seven Ziploc disposal bags to bin everything neatly. Full instructions are provided, and there are online videos to show you how to do it.

Test kits can be ordered on the GOV.UK website. I did it on the basis that I am working with young people who might be infected. You can order one kit pack per day, and they typically arrive next day (my last one was ordered Sunday and arrived Monday). You can also collect them at various pharmacies, or get tested at a testing site.

While others can carry on arguing about whether COVID is real or not, whether it’s legal to ask people to wear masks, and threatening to appeal to the Court of Human Rights over the mere suggestion you might not be allowed to go on piss up to Magaluf unless you’ve been vaccinated or can prove a negative test result, I will carry on taking it seriously and trying to stop anyone else catching it.

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Sideshow BobA nice easy start to work today. Began with a new pupil who’d contacted me during the lockdown, and who needs a manual licence having driven automatic in her home country. No real issues other than a bit eager with the indicators for everything, and a tendency to brake for everything. But nothing that can’t be sorted. And she’s block-booked ten hours.

Second lesson was with a pupil who is test ready, and who has been driving with his mum and dad anyway. His test is booked in June, and it is likely he’ll go in his own car for that. No problems with his driving, other than he has a Corsa and has somehow got it into his head he needs to go into 2nd gear at 6mph. I explained that that might be the all right on his petrol Corsa, but in my diesel Focus that rumbling noise is the engine saying it’s not happy with it, and he should be listening to the engine rather than watching the speedometer otherwise he’ll stall it (he did once) – or worse.

The last one was with a pupil who’d only had two lessons back in September before we had to stop again. She was a bit nervous, but she remembered most of it and we got going quite quickly.

I did a Lateral Flow Test yesterday and, unsurprisingly, came up negative. Doing the test reminded me how much I hate anything other than food touching the back of my throat – I nearly threw up.

Last weekend, a pupil who I taught several years ago booked her son in with me. His lesson is provisionally set for this weekend. However, when she called me it became apparent that they hadn’t even applied for his provisional licence, so I told her to get a move on because it might not arrive in time. Fast forward one whole week. She’s transferred a block booking of ten hours to my account, but then told me they still hadn’t applied for his licence because they couldn’t find his NI number, and needed to wait until at least Monday (today) to get it. I don’t think the lesson will happen this week.

I also discovered my local hairdresser has made it through the lockdown, and I’m booked in for a trim later this week. My hair hasn’t been cut for about 18 months, and I look like Sideshow Bob. Mind you, I probably still will look like Sideshow Bob afterwards, since I like the length – just not the split ends.

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An 'outdoor area' at a local pubMy local newspaper published an article about which pubs would be opening on 12 April. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s those with outdoor drinking areas who are allowed to do so.

The photo above is the ‘outdoor’ drinking area of one of those being touted. Precisely how is it ‘outdoors’?

I’m now waiting for someone to convince me that if you stand in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors, you’re still ‘outdoors’ if someone builds four brick walls around you and plonks a roof on top (and, no doubt, installs heating and lighting).

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SpringWell, just over a year since the pandemic hit, and save for a few weeks at the end of last summer when it was relatively safe, on Monday I’ll be starting lessons again.

Unlike some complete prats out there, I realise that COVID a) actually exists, and b) is quite dangerous if you get it, so I will be taking it slowly and safely. Pupils will have to wear masks (unless exempt), they get gelled at the start of the lesson, the car gets wiped down in between (and fogged periodically), and I have a supply of lateral testing kits for myself – which I will use twice per week, and feed results back to the NHS as per the system. It may come as a surprise to the aforementioned prats, but as well as not wanting to catch COVID myself, not wanting to pass it on to anyone else is still pretty high on my list. I don’t want to be adding to the 127,000 who have already died from COVID – because I have morals.

I’ve had my first vaccination (the second is due in May), and I know that at least two of my pupils have either had it or have appointments booked. More importantly, both of my parents have now had both of their jabs – it has always been them I was most concerned about. Also, my pupils who are at school tell me they’re being tested regularly, which is good.

The fun has now started. One pupil has moved house since I last saw her, and instead of a 2 minute drive she’s now 40 minutes away and will be doing her test at a different centre to the one we had originally planned for. She doesn’t know that yet, and I know she’ll argue to use the original – but if people are doing one hour lessons and live in Hucknall, Colwick is a bit off the radar. Especially so at midday. I’ve been there, done that, and the T-shirt says clearly that it can take well over an hour just get to from Hucknall to Colwick and back again depending on the traffic and road closures.

Then there are the ‘can I have a lesson next week?’ texts. Except I vaguely remember (and I was right) that several of them work rotas with You-Know-Who on zero hours contracts, and ‘next week’ roughly translates to a free hour on Thursday at 5pm and one on Sunday at 9am, because they’re working (or at school) the rest of the time. And even that is subject to change if You-Know-Who calls them in.

Several other haven’t responded to my texts yet. Young people have their phone glued permanently to their hands the rest of the time, yet I can never figure out why some of them take a day or more to reply to any text. It’s like I’ll text them on a Monday with ‘are we still on for Saturday?’ By Thursday, no response. So I’ll text again, thinking about filling their slot with someone else who wants a lesson, and that will finally prompt them to tell me they still want it, like the first text never happened.

It’s just like old times already. And I haven’t started yet.

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The COVID penaltyWell, I had my first jab on Thursday. I got myself officially registered as a carer (I don’t understand why I already wasn’t), and booked immediately.

It didn’t hurt, though I have to say it was the most uncomfortable jab I can remember having. Mind you, that might have been just a throw of the dice as to where the needle went in. No side-effects until about 15 hours later, when I ached a bit for about six hours. After that, no signs at all – not even an aching arm.

For any of the nutjobs out there, I don’t send the TV funny when I walk past it, nor do I attempt to phone home when I’m near a Wi-Fi hub. And as far as I can ascertain, my mind is not being controlled remotely by anyone.

The only minor downside (to me, at any rate) is that I had the AstraZeneca vaccine. If allowed to choose, I’d have preferred the Pfizer/BioNTech one. Why? Because of the nutjobs.

You see, no vaccine is ever 100% effective. That means that every time you go out, if you are ‘challenged’ by someone carrying the virus, there’s a 20% chance you’ll catch it. It’s not quite that simple, but it’ll do for this discussion. The problem then is the number of times you are ‘challenged’ – and the more non-vaccinated people there are, the greater the number of challenges. It’s like saving a penalty in football – if you only get called on to try once, you might save it. But if you have to save 100 penalties, the likelihood of letting one in increases. And the nutjobs out there are the penalty-takers, so the more of them there are, the greater your chance of letting one in.

Having said that, there is mounting evidence that having been vaccinated also reduces the chances of you becoming seriously ill if you do catch COVID, so you could say it’s like having two goalkeepers trying to save the penalty.

The AstraZeneca jab is less effective than the Pfizer one according to the clinical trials, hence my preference.

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DVSA LogoA DVSA alert clarifies once and for all that theory test certificates will not be extended for road safety reasons.

The government has further considered the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the validity period of theory test certificates.

After careful consideration and in response to a recent petition the government has decided not to extend theory test certificates for road safety reasons.

This is the government’s decision – not DVSA – so I’d advise a lot of people to think of that before venting on social media.

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Smearing windscreen in rainPlease note that screen wash – even at its most concentrated – has a very low alcohol content and cannot be used as a hand sanitizer.

I’ve mentioned this in the smearing windscreens article, but we’re approaching that time of year where it gets wet and cold, and a lot of crap gets thrown on to your glass and builds up into a nasty film that doesn’t easily wash off.

It amazes me that some people – even driving instructors – only put water in their wash bottles (if they have anything in at all). And hearing them try to justify it just cracks me up.

Water on its own does not have sufficient wetting properties to attack oil, wax, and grease, and even proper washer fluid can have problems – it’s why  you get that mosaic pattern left behind when you wipe in the wet. You need a good detergent to clean off oily deposits, and a small amount of alcohol to assist with wetting. Alcohol also functions as an antifreeze, so whereas using just water means you’re going to get a popsicle with the first frosts, a proper washer fluid will protect you to well below freezing as long as you have it at the right concentration.

You can buy two types in the stores – concentrated, or ready-to-use. In most cases, the ‘concentrated’ stuff will act as an antifreeze when used neat down to about -9°C for the most expensive brands, or -6°C for the routine stuff (some brands claim -20°C). The freezing temperature is dependent on the amount of alcohol in it, and it’s obviously cheaper to make with less alcohol. For most of the year, you might use this concentrated stuff diluted between about 1:5 to 1:10 with water, but the colder it gets the more concentrated liquid you need to avoid freeze ups.

The ready-to-use stuff is used neat, but you need to be aware of what temperature it will go down to before it freezes. Some brands are good to -4°C, and with the weather in early 2021 in the UK that would almost certainly freeze up on you. If you’re somewhere where it gets really cold, it would be no good at all. They also sell ‘summer screen wash’, which contains little or no alcohol.

The price of typical concentrated screen wash varies from about £5 per 5L in summer, to about £8 in winter (when you need it the most). The ready-to-use stuff is similarly priced, even though it is more dilute. In a bad winter, with lots of rain and slush, I can easily get through 5L of washer fluid each week. I use less in summer, but over a year it can mount up. Not to a huge amount, but it’s still an overhead.

If you’re going to buy it, my advice is to stock up in summer when the prices are lower, and only get the concentrate so you’re not paying someone to dilute it for you. You often get BOGOF offers in summer.

However, it can be cheaper to make your own (it definitely was when I first published this). I got the idea when I had a freeze up one time (I was late switching to my winter mix), and solved the immediate problem by nipping into a hardware store and buying a bottle of methylated spirits. Adding that to my wash bottle depressed the freezing point and I was running again within 30 minutes. There was also the fact that my garage was overflowing with the stuff I’d stocked up on.

When I started making my own concentrate I was using bio-ethanol, which is a clean-burning fuel for home heaters. However, most of this comes from the EU (even the UK-branded stuff), and as a result of the insanity of Brexit the price has gone up to cover import duties.  You can still get it for as little as £3.40 per litre, but the number of suppliers has dropped and the price of UK supplies has gone up. Alternatively, denatured ethanol supplied as a cleaning agent can also be used, and you can get it for as little as £3.80 a litre.

Washer fluid needs to do two things:

  • clean
  • not freeze when it gets cold

It’s basically just a mixture of alcohol and water with a bit of detergent.

The alcohol – usually as ethanol – functions as an antifreeze and a wetting agent. The whole subject of freezing point depression in alcohol/water mixtures is a huge topic in physical chemistry, but the bottom line is that pure water freezes at 0°C, whereas adding alcohol lowers (depresses) the freezing point. A 10% ethanol/water mixture freezes at -4°C, a 20% mixture freezes at -9°C, and a 30% mixture freezes at -15°C. A typical commercial concentrate might claim that it freezes at -6°C when used neat, and this means it must contain 15% alcohol.

Alcohol is the most expensive ingredient in screen wash, and 5L of a 15% solution will have 750mls of ethanol in it. The cost of alcohol varies depending on current circumstances, but it’s cheaper the more you buy.

Whatever detergent you use has to be relatively non-foaming – you don’t want bubbles blowing down the street when you use it – and it has to be the kind that is actually going to attack the crud that gets on your windscreen. This is another big chemistry subject, but to cut a long story short, Traffic Film Remover (TFR) is ideal. TFR gets anything off your car – tar, oil, mud, insects, bird crap, dead squirrels, that sort of thing. I get mine from JennyChem, who also supply a range of car products the car washes use. You only need to use it at a concentration of between 1% and 2%, so one 5L container goes a long way, and will make up to 70 batches of screen wash.

Finally, there’s the water. It depends on how anally retentive you are on the subject (for me – very). Tap water is what most people would use, but – and depending on where you live – this can leave mineral deposits on the glass as streaks if you’re in a medium or hard water area. You can buy deionised water, which has the minerals removed, but it costs money – unless you have access to a supply of it, which you might. Alternatively, rain water (boiled and filtered), or – and what I use – the condensate from a dehumidifier, provides soft water which leaves no streaks.

Making your concentrate is easy. Get an empty 5L container (the kind screen wash usually comes in), add 750mls ethanol, 75-100mls TFR, and top up to 5L with water. Mix well by shaking the container. Used neat, this will protect down to about -6°C, but in summer you can dilute it as low as 1 part to 5 parts of water (1:5).

Personally, I make my screen wash fluid ready-to-use as I need it (I make three or four batches at a time and just keep them on hand, making more as required). In summer, I just make it with less alcohol – 100mls or so – and use more water.

For comparison, if I bought a 5L bottle of screen wash concentrate right now (February 2021) which was good down to -6°C when used neat, it would cost somewhere between £8 and £11. A 5L batch of my own stuff good down to the same temperature would cost £3.12.

A 5L bottle of ready-to-use summer mix would cost £6 bought online. My own summer mix costs £1.22 (though it could be as little as £0.27 without any alcohol in it).

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What if the temperature goes below -6°C?

You just need a higher alcohol content. Protection to -6°C requires about 15% alcohol, but 20% will give -9°C, and 25% will give about -12°C. However, bear in mind the flash point of alcohol solutions. My advice is  not to exceed 25% alcohol by volume.

How can I prepare for cold temperatures?

Use common sense. In summer, a high alcohol content of the screen wash in your car is just a waste of money. Dilute the concentrate about 1:5 with water (it would freeze at just below -0°C). When it gets colder, and sub-zero temperatures are likely, a 1:1 dilution will cover you to about -2°C, a 2:1 dilution to about -4°C, and a 3:1 dilution to about -5°C. As we have said, the concentrate used neat would be good as low as -6°C.

Can I make it with more alcohol in it?

Yes, but be careful. Ethanol is flammable, even in water mixtures. On its own it has a flash point of 14°C (that means that at that temperature and above, a combustible vapour exists that can easily be ignited). A 10% solution in water has a flash point of 49°C, which is much safer. A 20% solution has a flash point of 36°C, which is still safe unless you store it in a very hot place. A 30% solution has a flash point of 29°C, and this is quite likely to be encountered in hot weather. My advice is not to exceed about 25% of ethanol.

A concentrate made using 1L (20%) of ethanol instead of 750mls will be good down to  -9°C. A 25% mixture will cover you down to -12°C. Any more than that, and be careful. Don’t store a strong winter mix in your car during the summer. And definitely don’t carry any neat ethanol during the summer months.

Can I use isopropanol instead?

Also known a Propan-2-ol, 2-Propanol, and Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA).

Short answer, yes – but only if the sub-zero temperatures are a few degrees below zero. IPA has a lower flashpoint than ethanol, and  anything above 20% is risky. IPA also has a distinctive smell.

Can I use Methanol?

I’m just going to say no. It’s poisonous, and could be dangerous, so for that reason you should not use it.

Can I use methylated spirits?

Usually, this contains methanol as the denaturant – though sometimes other chemicals are used. It also has a strong smell. Apart from the time I used it in an emergency, I would advise against it. However, if you can find ‘denatured ethanol’ or ‘denatured ethyl alcohol’, and can be sure it doesn’t have methanol in it, that would be fine. It’s usually (not always) the blue stuff that contains methanol.

It seems complicated making your own

That’s why there is a market for ready-to-use screen wash. It’s up to you.

I just use water as a screenwash

Water on its own is no good. If the temperature falls, it will freeze. Even if it doesn’t freeze in your main washer bottle, it will in the pipes and at the nozzles, and freezing water is quite capable of splitting pipes or closed containers. Water alone doesn’t clean many things off the glass – it won’t touch oil, grease, or squashed insects, and it will struggle with tree sap.

If you do get a freeze up, trying to use the pump might cause it to burn out. Although I haven’t come across the problem recently, even if it doesn’t split your feed pipes it can cause them to become detached inside the car (it was a regular occurrence (well, it happened twice) on a Citroen Xantia I used to have many years ago).

Remember that if you are driving without the ability to keep your windscreen clear, you are committing an offence. The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 says:

Every wiper and washer fitted in accordance with this regulation shall at all times while a vehicle is being used on a road be maintained in efficient working order and be properly adjusted.

Arguably, you are not complying with this if you just use water. If it freezes (or the bottle is empty) and you drive, you’re definitely not complying with it. It is shocking that some ADIs are apparently doing this.

Can you dilute ready to use screenwash?

Of course you can. It’s not a magic potion – just a mixture of water, alcohol, and detergent. I wouldn’t dilute the ready-to-use stuff more than about 50:50 with water, though, because the detergent probably wouldn’t do its job properly. And if it has a stated freezing point, just remember that diluting it means it will freeze at a higher temperature, and that could catch you out in winter.

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DVSA LogoAn email alert from DVSA came through today. In it, they outline measures for handling the increased demand for tests.

I wrote recently that only specific key workers can still get tests. This email doesn’t make it clear in regards the time frames based on the key worker situation, but I am assuming that it means once we can all start working again. To that end, they are running a recruitment campaign for driving examiners.

So if the last 12 months has put you off being self-employed, that might be something to consider.

One key point in the email is that DVSA says:

How to reduce waiting times

We also need support from you, your pupils and our examiners to help us reduce driving test waiting times…

It is vital that your pupils are test-ready when rearranging their tests, as tests could be at short notice.

I know it will fall on a lot of deaf ears, but since most pupils – even those who were test ready – haven’t driven since March 2020, there’s just an incey-wincey chance that booking a test for them as soon as you can get one is going to backfire, because they won’t still be test ready.

I guess the upside to that (for some people) will be that if their little darlings fail, they can then blame DVSA about the length of time for the next test, the reason they failed, and so on.

Plus ça change…

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£20 notesPeople keep asking this. I’ve had two emails this week: how much do you earn as an instructor? When it is asked online, almost every time some dipstick somewhere tries to answer it by doing it all wrong, or by making it too complicated.

If you were in a salaried position where the stated wage was £30,000 per year, that would be before tax and National Insurance. Any comparison for being self-employed also has to be before tax and NI. That’s because tax and NI are different for everyone (single, married, disabled, and God knows what other things). You need to keep these out of it in order to compare with self-employed income.

In a salaried position, you get the stated wage no matter what you do. If it says you get £30,000 a year, then you get £30,000 a year – before tax and NI. If you change to another salaried job, if the stated wage of the new job is £32,000, then you will be earning £2,000 more – before tax and NI.

To compare a self-employed job, you need to get an equivalent figure before tax and NI.

Being self-employed is different to being salaried, because you are not guaranteed an income. It depends on how much work you do, and in the case of a driving instructor, that work could be anything from 0 hours up to 50+ hours in any given week. It would be utterly stupid to budget based on doing 50 hours every week, and what you need is the average for an entire year. Since you are trying to predict a career change, you need to assume a sensible average figure and not just a big number you like the sound of – and which you would not be able to achieve reliably, if at all.

If being an ADI is going to be your main source of income, you need to be thinking of around 30 hours as a safe and sensible average figure once you are established. In reality, work will fluctuate, and if you end up averaging 35 or 40 hours, that’s great. But don’t get carried away, because something might happen which brings the average down to 25 hours or even less, and it is much harder to sustain a higher average than it is a lower one. If you underestimate, anything more is a bonus. But if you overestimate, not achieving it could be disastrous if you’ve bet your house (or mortgage repayments) on it.

Then there is your hourly lesson rate. Not everyone can charge £40 an hour. Some ADIs live in areas where £25 might be at the top end of what people will pay. Find out what your area’s average is and use that. In Nottingham, for example, £30 an hour is a sensible and realistic hourly rate right now (elsewhere on the blog I have referred to figures of £25 and £27 from when those were typical rates).

Finally, how many weeks will you work? Let’s assume – sensible assumptions are important when you’re self-employed – that you work 48 weeks of the year.

The maths is now quite simple. 30 hours a week times by £30 an hour times by 48 weeks means you will be taking £43,200 from your pupils each year. That’s your turnover (total income).

But you also have business costs, or expenses. You have to pay for your car, fuel, insurance, and so on, and you use your turnover to pay for these. No matter what you see the feral monkeys on social media claiming, they do not run a car ‘for nothing’. One way or another there is a weekly business cost associated with even the most dilapidated and ancient jalopy you could find. The vast, vast majority of instructors will have weekly vehicle costs of at least £100 (for the whole 52 weeks of the year). Fuel is also around £100 for a 30 hour week (for the 48 weeks you work).

Combining these, your car costs will amount to £100 times by 52 weeks, totalling £5,200. Fuel usage is £100 times by 48 weeks, which totals £4,800. Together, that’s £10,000 of expenses.

Therefore, your actual income – your wage before tax and NI – based on an average of 30 hours per week at £30 per hour is £43,200 minus £10,000, which equals £33,200.

Before you drool all over your keyboard, it’s worth considering a few realistic and quite possible variations in this calculation. Firstly, what if you only average 25 hours a week instead of 30? In that case, your annual wage would drop to around £26,500.

Secondly, what if you do 30 hours, but can only charge £27? In this case, your wage would be around £29,000.

Thirdly, what if you average 25 hours and can only charge £27? Now, your wage would be around £23,000.

And finally, what if you don’t get anywhere near an average of 25 hours in your first year? Will it be enough to pay your bills?

It’s easy to put all this into a simple spreadsheet to compare the different scenarios and variables. But one look at what’s happened in the last year should be enough to hammer it home that there are never any guarantees, and any future-looking calculation is only an estimate. So if you are planning a new career, be almost pessimistic in your assumptions. If you work everything out based on 40 hour weeks and £35 an hour lessons, but end up with 20 hour weeks and £25 an hour lessons, you’re going to end up very disappointed indeed.

As soon as you try and discuss this with people, the first things they’ll say will be along the lines of ‘my car doesn’t cost me anything’ or ‘well I only spend £60 a week on fuel’. Or some other contrarian nonsense. I’ve explained the one about cars ‘not costing anything’ in the main Should I Become An Instructor article, and it is a nonsense claim as far as planning a career change is concerned. The amount of fuel you use is specific to you and the area you teach in. Someone in a big city, with all their pupils closely packed into a small area, might well have lower mileage (and lower fuel costs). Someone in the middle of the countryside will quite possibly have significantly higher fuel costs. In Nottingham, £100 a week is roughly what fuel costs are for me if I work for around 30 hours. And that’s a common ballpark figure for many instructors.

Play around with the calculations by all means, but don’t always look for the most attractive numbers. If you plug in a low fuel bill, low car costs, and top-end lesson prices, the result might seem wonderful, but at the end of the day you’re going to have to go out there and do it – and that’s where the hard work starts.

Just remember not to try and factor in tax, National Insurance, pensions, savings, bills, or anything else when trying to do a like-for-like comparison with salaried jobs. All that comes later when you have to deal with self-assessments and HMRC.

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DVSA LogoAn email alert from DVSA advises that they are introducing a limited theory and practical test service for emergency workers. The key details:

This will be available to:

  • NHS health and social care workers
  • the emergency services
  • local councils

Who need to both:

  • drive as part of their job
  • respond to ‘threats to life’ as part of their job

Because of the current COVID restrictions, we are not able to offer a mobile emergency worker test service in Scotland.

Teaching someone with a confirmed test booking

You can teach mobile emergency workers who have a confirmed test booking even if current local or national restrictions do not allow driving and riding tests.

You must not teach anyone who only has a routine driving test booked – even if they are an NHS health and social care worker, emergency service worker or local council worker.

They seem to have already tried to address the loopholes that certain instructors will immediately have looked for based on the last year. I’m now waiting to see what other complaints they come up with.

Read the full email, as there are a few other things you will need to be aware of – in particular, being able to prove that the pupil has an emergency test booked if you are stopped.

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