A Driving Instructor's Blog

COVID-19

The Fusco familyI just saw this article on the BBC website. Coronavirus has killed four members of the same family in New Jersey.

Grace Fusco was 73. She, and six of her adult children, fell ill after a larger family gathering of up to 20 people. One of those children, Rita, was only 55 and had no underlying health conditions. The story doesn’t mention the ages of Carmine and Vincent, who also died.

It’s a tragic story – and one those over here who are vowing to keep working no matter what should bear in mind.

Having said that, I appreciate that many instructors are in terrible positions. I’m fortunate. inasmuch as I have now have an income from a private pension from my previous employer (hack, spit) of around £250 a week, and a lump sum in the bank from that which I wanted to save, but which could keep me going for several years if I needed it (hopefully, I won’t). And I have no mortgage or debts.

Many instructors – especially the younger ones – have nothing. They have mortgages, car loans, and other debts, as well as kids to feed. Driving instruction is not a high-paying job in the first place – even at best it is ‘adequate’, but you have to have been doing it for years and built up a financial buffer for that to matter.

My primary (selfish) concern is not passing COVID-19 to my parents. My secondary concern is  not passing it to my pupils who have Downs children, who are pregnant, or who have vulnerable relatives. Money comes in third.

I can understand the dilemma many find themselves in. I just count myself fortunate right now.

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Virus imageHouston, we have a problem!

I only wrote this a couple of days ago, but I’m having to update it already. The problem I was referring to was that not many driving instructors understand statistics or come from scientific backgrounds. They are concerned about Coronavirus on the one hand, but trying hard to persuade themselves they’re not on the other because there are obvious financial implications if they cannot work.

I noticed that there is a Coronavirus infographic doing the rounds. It’s from China, and it reports that 80.9% of cases are mild, 13.8% are severe, and 4.7% are critical. It also points out that ‘the majority of people’ recover. The latter two percentages require hospitalisation and intensive care, respectively. The originator of this infographic on Facebook – not the original Chinese source, I believe – who goes under the Facebook name of Information Is Beautiful, concludes “the majority of… infections are mild”.

Let’s put this into a more real-world perspective. I’ll start with the bottom line: if the entire population of a care home were infected, the ‘mild’ and ‘severe’/‘critical’ number would flip, and the vast majority of those infected would be at great risk. The same would perhaps be true if, say, a special school with a high population of Down Syndrome pupils were infected, since those with Down’s frequently have breathing issues in the first place. In a hospital, where people may already be ill, it would likely wreak havoc.

Information may well be ‘Beautiful’, but Understanding Information In Context is a hundred times better. And since the original version of this article less than a week ago, the situation has changed dramatically – as anyone with any sense at all would have known would happen.

I have elderly parents, both of whom have COPD. If they were to catch Coronavirus, they would probably die. I have a pupil who has a baby son with Down’s. If he caught it, it would be a serious issue for him and his son. I have another pupil whose partner is pregnant (I quite possibly have several in that position without being aware). If they caught it, there would be an increased risk for them as a family.

People are still trying to liken COVID-19 to seasonal flu as a comparison. Coronavirus/COVID-19 is not flu, you idiots. Trust me, it isn’t. Flu can be prevented if you have an annual vaccination (and they picked the correct strains for it), whereas Coronavirus cannot. Coronavirus appears to be more easily transmitted than flu. But most significantly, the annual mortality rate from flu is about 0.1% of the population, whereas with Coronavirus it is anywhere between over 1% and 6.5% (the latter is the figure in Italy). In the UK, which arguably has the most precise count of infections than anywhere else, we currently have a death rate of about 4.5% based on the number of known infections (it was 1.8% when I first wrote this, and the number of deaths has gone from 10 to 177 in that time). It is far more deadly than flu – and there is no current protection.

As much as 70% of the population could be infected by Easter or during Spring – that would be around 40 million people. The death rate, assuming it stays relatively uniform, would mean that as many as 700,000 could die in the UK alone. And if the infection peaks again next year, this would put the current pandemic right up there with the Bubonic Plague in Mediaeval times when considered across Eurasia as a whole.

This. Is. Not. Flu.

Flu makes you feel lousy, but it only leads to serious complications in some people with underlying health issues, usually (though not exclusively) connected to pneumonia. Coronavirus can send the immune system into overdrive, and the body starts attacking its own cells, leading to multiple organ failure. People with diabetes and heart conditions are vulnerable, as well as those with lung problems (since pneumonia is also an issue). Basically, anyone with a weak immune system in the first place.

I had begun discussing with pupils the possibility of cancellations, and the precautions they should take. I am now stopping lessons completely after one Pass Plus course, which starts tomorrow and finishes Tuesday.

I had a near miss on Thursday. I texted a pupil to remind him of his lesson late Wednesday, and his mum texted back that they had ‘forgotten’ to tell me but they were self-isolating because she had a fever. Shit. I gave him a lesson the week before. Fortunately, having checked again, she just has normal flu and I’m safe. But imagine if it had been Coronavirus.

This pandemic is what you could call ‘serious shit’, and attitudes like ‘there’s nothing to worry about’ and ‘it’s just flu’ are a sure fire way of helping it be so – especially if money is the motivator for feeling that way. This isn’t just about you – it’s about a lot of other people’s lives out there. Literally, their lives.

Any vaccine is at least 12-18 months away from being available, since likely candidates are only now going into trials. The current infection is expected to peak within the next month (though no one can be certain), but it is also expected to peak even higher next winter (also, no one can be sure).

But as I have already said, those with underlying health issues are likely to die from it whenever they get it.

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Bankruptcy stampI originally published this article in 2010 during the last recession, when people had been finding the blog on search terms along the lines of “can I go bankrupt as an ADI”, and “can I become an ADI if I’m bankrupt”.

The present Coronavirus crisis is probably the reason for there being a sudden spike in hits to it right now.

Bankruptcy is a legal process involving a person or business which is unable to repay outstanding debts. So, in short, if you can’t pay your bills then yes, you can easily become bankrupt as an ADI. If you are relying on self-employment to earn money the responsibility for success (and failure) lies entirely with you.

Technically, bankruptcy is intended to help both the debtor and the creditors. It takes away the debtor’s debts, and attempts to recoup at least some of the creditors’ outstanding money. However, by having been declared bankrupt, the debtor may find that life is harder in future. They will find it extremely hard to get any sort of credit, for example, and even opening a bank account might prove troublesome.

Unfortunately, it is usually the debtor who comes off worse. In the case of driving instructors, their business probably has very few assets with which to offset their debts (no buildings, factories, machinery, etc.) apart from their car. However, if they own a house, that is worth much more and might be at risk if things go that far.

There is no barrier to being self-employed (which 99.9% of ADIs are) whilst bankrupt, but you can’t be a director of a limited company. As a sole trader you won’t have any trouble though – but make sure you fulfil your duties to HMRC (the taxman) in accordance with your bankruptcy terms. Read up on this carefully.

For prospective ADIs, I would doubt that previous or current bankruptcy would affect your chances of being accepted on to the register of ADIs. In some cases, if your bankruptcy was a result of unscrupulous or even criminal activities, then it might. It is whether you are a fit and proper person that counts, and only DVSA can decide on that. I can’t tell you, and certainly none of the comedians on social media can, though they’ll have a fine old time trying to.

The short answer is yes, you can be an ADI if you are bankrupt – but it isn’t definite.

Now we come to the present situation. Once again, no one can tell you what is going to happen – there are still idiots claiming that this is ‘just flu’ and saying it will all blow over. To anyone who isn’t still swinging through trees and eating bananas as a career, though, it is clearly very serious, and there is every likelihood it will last for some time.

Most ADIs will be extremely concerned, and worrying how they are going to manage.

The most important thing is not to sit back and do nothing. You need to contact your creditors – whoever they are – and ask for help and advice. Do that as soon as possible. Remember that they are fully aware of the situation, and contrary to what those swinging through the trees will tell you on social media they are not trying to destroy you or your business. Frankly, and I’m thinking well ahead now, if any do refuse to help, just plan for when all this does end so that you can sue them into oblivion (or at least have the satisfaction of telling people what they were like on social media and review sites)!

Every conversation you have will be different. Don’t be confrontational, and work to a mutually acceptable payment plan. If you can do that, you’ll stave off bankruptcy. It’s when you can’t pay anything at all that the likelihood of it happening increases. Propose a suggested payment scheme, and bear in mind that they all know what the situation is right now and will probably surprise you with how accommodating they are. So don’t panic.

Another option is to use a debt management company, who can handle all of this for you. Ignore people on social media who tell you to avoid them – this is bankruptcy we’re talking about, which is never to be taken lightly, and you need all the help you can get. When I lost my previous job all those years ago I had a lot of debts (almost £30,000), and it was such a company who got me through it without declaring bankruptcy (and this is just the one I used, so there are others you could consider). It is also worth nothing that at the time, my credit rating was almost zero, whereas now it is as high as it could possibly be. You can survive, and you can recover. But not if you listen to people on social media. Remember that the clue is the word ‘social’ – you’ll be getting a collective opinion, most of which is wrong in the first place.

A word for the future. Being self-employed is always high-risk when situations like this arise. It’s not just when epidemics, the like of which no one has ever experienced before come along, but personal illness and injury. The cash flow can stop in an instant, putting your home and other assets at risk.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but far too many instructors assume that every penny of their lesson fee is theirs once they take fuel costs off it. It isn’t. For every £25 an ADI takes (assuming a 30 lesson week), probably only around half of that is his once his business overheads are covered. And then, about 20% of what’s left belongs to the tax man. But far too many spend that £25 as if it’s all theirs.

In future – if you can – save. Don’t spend.

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An email when I got in tonight from DVSA. Here’s the full text:

Theory tests cancelled for 4 weeks

Due to the unfolding COVID-19 situation, from Friday 20 March 2020, all theory tests have been postponed until Monday 20 April 2020.

What DVSA is doing

We are emailing anyone with a test booked during this time to let them know their test has been cancelled and that they will be automatically refunded.

Your pupils should not rebook or rearrange their test at this time. Please do not call our customer service centre as they will not be able to help.

We will be monitoring the emerging situation and we will let you know if we need to cancel any more tests.

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This just came through. Driving tests are cancelled across the country for the next two days (19/20 March). Test centres are closing down. They will review the situation after that.

I’m not affected this week, but I have already warned my pupils with tests in the next month to be prepared for them not going ahead. I don’t see how they can do them with the situation developing the way it is.

It isn’t looking good.

Update 19/03/2020, 1.00pm: I have been speaking with many of my pupils who have tests in the next two weeks. I have explained to them that in my opinion there is a strong likelihood that tests are going to be cancelled for the foreseeable future. I pointed out that DVSA only sent out this communication at 9.40pm last night, and it means that ‘after that’ will fall over the weekend – so any further communication is unlikely (based on experience so far) until early next week.

One pupil decided we had better move his test back. I had booked it, and the earliest dates available are mid-June. From what I have heard elsewhere, DVSA is not allowing booking until then, so reading between the lines that is how long the test centres might be closed for. It’s three months.

I’m not saying that will happen. But at the moment it is a distinct possibility.

Update 19/03/2020 5.45pm: All tests have been cancelled in Northern Ireland for three months. Note that this is for Northern Ireland, which is a different agency to DVSA in the rest of the UK.

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Curly KaleLast week, I took the decision to do my weekly shopping online for the time being. I shop in Asda several times a week, and usually spend upwards of £150 there on groceries, and similar on fuel (I have a 2% cashback credit card with them, which is one of the drivers for that).

I placed my order last Wednesday, and the earliest delivery slot was Saturday. No problem. But when I came to do it this week, on Tuesday, the entire delivery calendar was booked out (it went as far as next Friday). Click & Collect goes further out, but that was fully booked out until April.

I went on to Morrisons’ website, and their delivery slots are booked out until mid-April. I since read that their site has crashed several times due to demand.

Then I tried Ocado, and was met with a page that said ‘you are no. 687 in a queue of 687. Approximate wait time is 10 minutes’. That was just to access the site! A family friend tried today, and was eight thousand and something out of eight thousand and something! I have since read that Ocado has stopped taking on new customers.

So our wonderful government has overlooked starvation (because you can’t buy anything online) vs infection (because you’re forced to go out) as an outcome of their poor handling of this situation to date. Should be fun if they impose a lockdown, so you can’t go out.

But I decided to go to Asda last night for some essentials. I shouldn’t have bothered. The shelves were nearly all completely empty – no fresh vegetables, virtually no fruit, no meat, no milk (except the kind that often goes off five minute after you open it), no tinned goods, no noodles or pasta of any kind, no bread of any kind, no frozen food except a few pizzas and Yorkshire puddings.

I did manage to get a few things, and when I arrived at the checkout there was a middle-aged couple there before me. They were that type you just want to shoot (and which I have mentioned before). For a start off, there didn’t need to be two of them there at all, but there was, and they did everything as a couple. Of course, they allowed everything to be checked through before even thinking about bagging it, and they bagged everything as a couple before even thinking about paying. Then he got his wallet out, took out a credit card, gave it to her, and she had to lean over the trolley to push it in the card machine and slowly enter the PIN because he was much closer to it to start with.

But what mostly caught my eye was what they had purchased. About twenty bags – and I mean somewhere around that number – of curly kale. I mean, curly kale? What the f—?

I immediately had my suspicions, so when I got home I did a quick Google and – surprise, surprise – some twat (a ‘wellbeing coach’, which explains perfectly) in Malaysia has claimed kale prevents you from catching Coronavirus! And that’s why they had bought the entire shelf stock of it.

The ironic thing is, too much kale is suspected of being bad for you, and the potential problems it can cause looked as if this couple might be susceptible in the first place. Idiots.

Today, I went into Morrisons and did manage to get a few bits. Only a few, though. It seems like every idiot out there has suddenly discovered Kidney Beans, Borlotti Beans, Chickpeas, and so on. I wanted some kidney beans because I’m making a chilli to freeze into portions – something I do regularly, as I do with homemade pasta sauce (there was none of that in Morrisons, either, I noticed). The shelves were empty. The thing is, no one usually touches these things.

Fortunately, the cash & carry wasn’t quite as bad (though it was still bad), and I managed to pick up a couple of catering cans of kidney beans and chopped tomatoes (though they’re not Napolina, but you can’t have everything, I suppose). Far more than I wanted because of the cans sizes, but it was that or nothing. I’ll just have to make more chilli than I intended.

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DVSA has sent out an email relating to Coronavirus. I suspect this is especially for the idiots still intent on doing lessons and tests, even if they are unwell.

Basically, do not take anyone to test if you or they feel unwell. Test rearrangements will be free of charge, even if at short notice.

You need to call 0300 200 1122 (8am to 4pm, Monday-Friday) if it’s a short notice cancellation.

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