Early details of £254m package for buses in England revealed

Buses in England have been awarded a further £254m of funding by the government to support a transition to pre-coronavirus COVID-19 service levels.

A public announcement of the money – which replaces the COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant (CBSSG) with immediate effect – came on Saturday 23 May. Stephen Fidler, Department for Transport (DfT) Director, Local Transport, wrote to operators that claim commercial BSOG ahead of that date, giving early details of the new funding.

Further information will follow shortly. But Mr Fidler says that the money is to “support the increased levels of services that will be needed as and when the government implements the next stages of its coronavirus COVID-19 recovery strategy.”

Mr Fidler adds that the industry should now take steps to expand operations as quickly as possible while working with the relevant local authorities (LAs). Those steps include removing affected staff from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) “with immediate effect.”

Buses must be added quickly as part of £254m funding package

While the new £254m funding scheme for buses supplants CBSSG, its terms and conditions will be much the same. However, there are some changes:

  • Service levels will no longer be limited to 40-50% of scheduled commercial mileage. Instead, the government expects operators to increase provision as far as LAs require as quickly as possible
  • A one-off payment will be made available to cover the cost implications of removing staff from CJRS early. Operators will be required to submit evidence of those costs. The payment will be made as part of a wider reconciliation exercise in June
  • Other costs that can be claimed include those for PPE such as hand sanitiser and cab screens; those involved with bringing buses out of SORN status; and those required to make buses fit for use
  • Operators that did not receive CBSSG funding, but are eligible for BSOG, will be able to claim through the new scheme.

BSOG will continue to be paid at pre-pandemic levels. Other payments that will be made on that basis include those for ENCTS reimbursement, home-to-school services that are not operating and local service contracts.

No specific end date for the new scheme has been given. It will be subject to four-weekly reviews by DfT and the Treasury to examine its performance. Those reviews will also assess for how long it should continue to operate.

The reconciliation exercise in June will cover the 12-week period from 17 March to 8 June. It will identify any overpayments or underpayments. Under those circumstances, DfT “will endeavour to equitably reconcile any difference… from within the available funding.”

Social distancing advice remains inconsistent

Mr Fidler’s letter makes no reference to any condition for operators to enforce social distancing measures on buses. It does note that operators will be required to ensure that they are “not heavily loaded.”

Guidance issued to operators by the government on 12 May noted that while maintaining a 2m distance is desirable, it is not a rule. The guidance adds that “there are situations where this may not be possible, for example… on busier services.” Mr Fidler’s letter advises recipients that the guidance should be followed.

However, when conducting the daily coronavirus COVID-19 press conference on Saturday 23 May, Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps said: “Even a fully-restored service will only be capable of carrying – at best – one fifth of normal capacity, once social distancing is taken into account.”

Mr Shapps’ message also contradicts earlier statements from at least two of the big groups. They have confirmed that passenger numbers will be capped at 25% of the bus’s seating capacity.

DfT has invited operators with questions about the new scheme to contact it via email at CBSSG@dft.gov.uk

Discussions with the Scottish Government and Welsh Government around ongoing financial support for buses in those countries when movement restrictions begin to be lifted are ongoing.