The Omicron situation means 2022 opens on an uncertain note for the industry – but it needs to be ready to bounce back quickly

Last week at his press conference, Boris Johnson announced that he bravely or foolishly (delete as appropriate) intends to ride out the Omicron wave and hope that things work out of their own accord in England. Only time will tell how wise this policy is, but for those in our industry, all it does is create more uncertainty and make decision making and forward planning even more difficult.

Planning is difficult

Usually, I take the Christmas break to have a think about our objectives for the year ahead. Nothing revolutionary, but things like:

  • Where we can grow the business
  • What direction we need to take with the fleet – e.g., higher capacity or smaller vehicles
  • How we can improve out social media footprint to attract more customers
  • Staff training.

This year I couldn’t do it, so I watched The Great Escape on Channel 5 instead. The only thing I am planning is what to do when I lose even more staff to self-isolation and positive tests.

This lack of forward thinking isn’t through lack of motivation but that the current situation makes me wary of committing to anything that involves spending money. I know I am not alone in thinking like this. The real risk if lots of businesses or members of the public take the same attitude, and without confidence and money flowing through the system, is that the economy tanks and the reluctance to take risks and invest becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Different approaches

Our customer base is pretty divided. Luckily, some are resilient, willing to risk things like holidays going ahead and determined to live their lives. For every cancellation on our late January holidays, we have people waiting to take those places.

Others, like schools, are understandably more risk averse. I get the impression that the line of least resistance, and government guidelines, make it easier to cancel than to take the plunge. A big proportion of our Christmas period turnover relates to football supporters and that was completely decimated. I have no doubt that the demand to attend games was there, but if teams are not playing, fans cannot go.

Ultimately, we all need people to book trips, play sports fixtures, go on holidays and use their local bus services for our businesses to be sustainable. If they do not, or cannot, and with no government support for our industry, not many can survive on home-to-school contracts and rail replacement alone.

However, if things do bounce back quickly – and nobody really knows if they will – then we can all do our bit by investing in, among other things, coaches, buses and higher wages to get the economy moving.

Don’t stand still

I believe that it boils down to this: Any business that stands still and doesn’t invest is a business that is going backwards. Sooner rather than later, we are going to have to bite the bullet and take the plunge.

Returning to Boris, it seems that he has bet on keeping the economy going through restrictions that are as light as possible. For all our sakes, let’s hope he is right and that we can ‘ride out’ this wave. Boris has gambled, but unlike the Prime Minister, if it all goes wrong then the bus and coach industry must pay for its own wallpaper.