Coronavirus: Thousands of learner drivers face long test delays

By Ciara Colhoun
BBC News NI

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High demand meant some learner drivers had to wait for more than an hour online while trying to book a test slot

Thousands of learner drivers across Northern Ireland are struggling to book a driving test following the relaunch of the service.

Tests were suspended on 20 March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Driver and Vehicle Agency's online booking system for driving tests reopened on Sunday.

Thousands joined an online queue to try to secure a 2020 test date, but high demand meant many have been unable to secure a slot.

Demand also meant some applicants had to wait for more than an hour to be admitted to the booking service.

The Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) said it would release additional test slots at all test centres to help meet demand.

On Tuesday, it released further slots for January 2021, and said more tests would be available in November and December once DVA had recruited more examiners to increase testing capacity.

The high demand meant there was "no easy immediate fix" to the backlog, said a Department for Infrastructure spokesperson, adding that by Monday afternoon, thousands of bookings had been made online for October, November and December.

Tests booked included those for key workers and customers whose tests were cancelled due to the lockdown, added the spokesperson.

The department had previously said these applicants would be prioritised.

Online traffic jam

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Evie Telford is among thousands who have booked driving tests since Sunday

Evie Telford said there were more than 2,000 people ahead of her in the queue when she went online to book her test.

The 17-year-old from Downpatrick had originally planned to take her driving test last spring, but her plans were postponed due to the lockdown.

She said she was in an online queue for more than an hour on Sunday evening before she managed to secure a slot.

The earliest test date available to her was at the end of November.

"I had planned to go online at midnight to book a test as soon as the site was live, but a friend texted to say she had managed to book one at around 21:00 BST on Sunday so I tried then," she said.

"I am one of the lucky ones because another friend was trying to book his test on Monday morning but he gave up -he couldn't get a slot before the end of March."

Learner drivers in Northern Ireland have to take two tests - a theory, then a practical.

Theory test certificates are valid for two years from the date you passed. If you do not pass your practical test within this two year period, you will have to take another theory test.

West Tyrone MP Órfhlaith Begley said many learner drivers who had been anxiously waiting for months had been left "extremely frustrated" by the lack of test availability.

"Being able to drive is crucial for many people who live in rural areas such as West Tyrone and it is needed for education and job purposes," she said.

As many as 23,000 people may be waiting to take tests, said Mid Ulster MLA Keith Buchanan, basing his estimation on the number of tests carried out during the equivalent period in previous years.

Some felt it was unfair the booking system had gone live hours earlier than planned (at 08:00 on Monday), he added.

"At points on Sunday evening there were well in excess of 3,000 people queuing on the system," said Mr Buchanan.

"Many of those who waited until Monday morning now feel cheated out of an equal opportunity to secure a driving test appointment."

The DVA was working to minimise disruption but had been obliged to adapt its services to ensure safety, said the DfI spokesperson, asking customers for patience during a challenging time.

"The DVA... wants to be honest with the public, that the challenges of closure due to public health advice and the restrictions... has resulted in many people having to wait.

"There is no easy immediate fix while we continue to bring services back on that are in high demand and while the public health advice remains in place."

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