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Car dealers left with questions after Prime Minister's COVID-19 address

UK prime minster Boris Johnson

Car dealers across the UK are hoping that Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers clarification on the easing of certain COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown measures in an address to Parliament today (May 11).

Many had prepared their showrooms for a possible return to trading today (May 11) – with vehicles removed and floor spaces marked out with tape to ensure social distancing – but with little detail to go on in yesterday’s televised speech, further clarification is now required.

National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA) director, Sue Robinson, said: “NFDA has been working closely with SMMT and relevant Government departments to prepare guidance for dealers reopening.

"Following the Prime Minister’s statement, it remains unclear when automotive retailers will be allowed to reopen. We are expecting Government guidance to be published shortly which will set out the conditions under which car showrooms will be able to open safely to customers. Businesses and consumers need clarity.”

ASE chairman, Mike Jones, said that the Prime Minister’s statement “announcement didn’t bring the clarity automotive dealers were looking for” but added that scrutiny of a 50-page document outlining the measures may hold some answers.

He said: “Patience is tough at the moment when everyone is champing at the bit to get back to work and help everyone who wants personal mobility to avoid public transport.”

In his address yesterday, the Prime Minister said that a conditional schedule for the easing of lockdown restrictions could see retail businesses re-open for business on June 1 on the condition that the UK infection rate does not rise in the meantime.

However, his suggestion that “anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work” and that people can now exercise more than once a day - potentially using their vehicles to travel to locations to take that exercise - has raised questions.

In making these suggestions, Johnson suggested that individuals should avoid public transport to reach their place of work, stating: “When you do go to work, if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle.”

The suggestion that an increased number of people will now be taking to their cars may lead car retailers and aftersales operations to argue that greater capacity and wider opening is now required in order to maintain and sell cars which provide people with personal mobility.

Adding to the confusion, however, is a divergence of opinion on the easing of lockdown rules across the UK's devolved nations. Leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have chosen not to ease their stance at all and continue to impose a strict "stay at home" policy.

Commenting on the new message coming from Government last night, Independent Motor Dealers Association (IMDA) chairman, Umesh Samani, said: “I genuinely believe we forget the speech Boris Johnson made last night and continue to do what we have been doing for the last few weeks.

“This is so much confusing for everyone and if not careful, we are going to be back in a worse situation.”

Car retailers initially shut their doors to customers following a public address from the Prime Minister on March 23, however many had already planned to cease trading after identifying the risks to customers and employees posed by the COVID-19 virus.

In recent weeks retailers including Vertu Motors chief executive Robert Forrester and Clive Brook Ltd managing director, Clive Brook, have shared their experiences of preparing their showrooms and staff for a possible return to work.

Both suggested that balancing consumer demand to the number of staff returning from a period of furlough on the Government Coronvirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) would be key to their success.

Within his response to last night's address by the Prime Minister, Jones said: “Potentially more vital for the industry will be the Chancellor’s statement on Tuesday about the end of the furlough scheme.

“It’s vital for the industry (and its furloughed colleagues) that this is done in a gradual way."

Cambria Automobiles chief executive, Mark Lavery, conceded last week that “over 100 redundancies” are possible within his car retail group when the Government's coronavirus job retention scheme’s (CJRS) furlough period ends.

Speaking to AM following publication of an interim results statement for the six-month period to February 29, he said: “We don’t yet know whether what we are facing is a recession or a depression.”

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