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Coronavirus: The people behind our frontline fleets

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This article originally appeared in the May issue of Fleet News available as a digital edition.

As the UK Government eases the lockdown, Fleet News pays tribute to the fleets and key workers who stepped up during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to help save lives and keep the country running.

These progressive essential services companies have implemented new processes at very short notice and are keen to share their learnings with other business. Over the next five days, we bring their stories to life and speak to some of the drivers on the frontline about their experiences and how they are embracing a new way of working.

The Government’s list of essential workers in the Covid-19 pandemic reads like a Who’s Who in fleet. Police, fire and ambulance services? Tick. Postal services? Tick. Delivery companies? Tick. Telecommunications? Tick. Utilities? Tick. Local authorities? Tick.  

These organisations (and many more) have played a vital part in the fight against Covid-19. While the doctors, nurses and paramedics have been risking their lives, treating patients, fleet decision-makers have been quietly working away in the background.  

They and their teams have been keeping the vehicles on the road that we rely on – the ambulances, the fire engines, the police vehicles, the vans delivering food, parcels, medication and more to our doors, the refuse trucks, the vehicles that go out when there is a power cut or a flood or a gas leak. They have been helping to keep the country running. 

They deserve a ‘thank you’. A (virtual) pat on the back. A round of applause, even. 

So, in this special feature (and ones in future issues), we aim to do that. We highlight what life has been like for those fleet managers, their drivers and emergency services staff. These were all, understandably, busy, but took the time to share their experiences and give other fleet managers some ideas about how to operate safely in the strange times we find ourselves in.  

In a world where, as John Gorton, head of transport at Kent and Essex Police, puts it, “the vehicle is a transmitter”; where: 

*Simply handing over a set of car keys presents a risk

*Initiatives that have brought efficiencies to fleets, like van sharing, have had to be dropped and new ways of working found

*Communication and staff morale has, arguably, never been more important

Test of resilience

Covid-19 has been a true test of resilience, even for public sector organisations who plan for emergency situations like pandemics.  

When Covid-19 hit, the police service put its contingency plans into action (essentially a command structure whereby a chief officer oversees every aspect) but plans have to be continually adjusted as the situation evolves. 

As Gorton points out: “No matter how good your planning is, it never survives contact with the ‘enemy’. You always end up having to adapt.”  

Frontline fleets have had to: 

*Create protocols for cleaning vehicles, offices and workshops  

*Introduce social distancing measures

*Source personal protective equipment (PPE)

*Review MOT, maintenance and servicing schedules

*Engage with unions

*Recruit staff or partner with other organisations

*Stock up on bunkered fuel and introduce contactless fuel cards

*Respond to the latest Government and industry developments

*Liaise with suppliers

*Delay tenders

*Put projects on hold and accelerate others

*Provide equipment and test new technologies for those working from home

*Monitor staff absences and have strategies to cover them, and support those who are ill

*Find ways to boost staff morale and support their mental health

The latter has been particularly challenging for one fleet operator who had to recover from the virus himself, deal with the difficulty of losing colleagues to it and keep the fleet running. That is the stark reality of this pandemic.  

Another fleet operator described how they were facing a “perfect storm” at the start of lockdown. Auction houses had closed so they couldn’t dispose of vehicles; independent garages and dealerships had closed so they couldn’t maintain or repair vehicles; and staff absences were high. Yet they were providing an essential service and had to keep going.  

They, together with industry trade associations, lobbied the Government to get dealerships to re-open for key worker vehicles requiring  
essential maintenance. 

These are unprecedented times. But all the fleet operators we spoke to were effusive in their praise of suppliers and were getting regular updates from them and industry organisations. 

Frontline fleets with non-operational vehicles, such as company cars, have faced the same challenges as fleets in lockdown – handling queries about benefit-in-kind tax, drivers wanting to hand keys back, pre-lease rental vehicles being returned, deliveries and collections of new cars being suspended, and ensuring that vehicles parked up don’t have maintenance problems.  

All this has had to be managed alongside ‘normal’ fleet operator tasks such as driving licence checks and reviewing the fleet budget. 

Quick thinking

Many fleet operators acted quickly at the start of lockdown to minimise impact.  

South Yorkshire Police and South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, for instance, did vehicle servicing at weekends to ‘get ahead’. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Group Fleet Services cancelled all new car deliveries as it was not able to dispose of old ones.  

National Grid was due to take delivery of a number of new vans and its fleet team made the decision to move 25 of them to its head office where it could access them in emergencies.  

“It was a wise choice – within 24 hours of that discussion our converter was then on lockdown itself,” says fleet manager Lorna McAtear.  

For some fleets on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic, work has increased considerably. Take the London Ambulance Service, which has been at the epicentre of the virus outbreak. Its teams had to work 72-hour shifts to get vehicles ready for the opening of the emergency Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Conference Centre.  

Royal Mail, meanwhile, has experienced a drop in letters, but a huge uplift in parcels since lockdown began. 

The Government may be gradually easing restrictions (at the time of writing) but with many retailers set to be closed until June, at the earliest, online shopping will remain ‘the norm’ for some time to come. 

Medical vulnerabilities

Well Pharmacy, the UK’s third largest pharmacy chain, has experienced a different workload challenge. When the lockdown started, many drivers needed to self-isolate due to age or medical vulnerabilities. Initially, it started a volunteering scheme internally to try to fill the gap but then embarked on a recruitment drive. It received more than 7,000 applications – compared with its normal 20-35 applications for driver roles.  

It has taken on 45 drivers, with another 20 in process, and fleet manager David Sharples says it has been challenging getting them into the business and fully trained, within days.  

However, internal departments and Well’s fleet suppliers “made this process easier”. DriveTech, for instance, carried out driving licence checks instantly with the DVLA as part of the screening process.  

Well’s lease provider, Lex Autolease, has set-up a critical workers helpline. This “ensures our essential workers have the ways and means to maintain their vehicle, so it is fit for purpose”, Sharples says.  

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, which make up the majority of Well’s fleet, and TrustFord also offered their demonstrator fleets should it need to boost vehicles numbers, and Wilko offered staff and vehicles to help with pharmacy deliveries.  

“It’s great to see everyone working together for the greater good,” Sharples says.  

For British Gas, the lockdown has actually caused its engineers’ workloads to reduce considerably as it is only attending priority, vulnerable customers and emergency work where customers are without heating or hot water or where domestic equipment, such as cookers and fridges, are not working.  

This has meant each engineer is now attending two to three jobs a day compared with six to eight prior to the coronavirus crisis.  

“We call customers prior to attending to let them know what we will be doing and what we expect from them – they should always be in a different room to where we are working,” says head of fleet Steve Winter.  

“We are following the Government guidelines for working in customers’ homes and the required PPE so gloves, face masks and coveralls. Use of this depends on whether the customer is self-isolating or vulnerable.” 

Engineers already had this type of PPE, but Winter acknowledges that the supply chain has had to “work hard” to continue to keep engineers well-equipped.  

“This has been a struggle, as I am sure we are all finding,” he says. “But we must give priority to the brilliant NHS at this time.” 

Supporting charities and communities

The reduced workload – as well as a huge drop in pump prices – has meant the fleet’s fuel spend has fallen, and there has been a significant reduction in breakdown rates.  

However, all vehicles are still being used to some extent as British Gas is one of five businesses (alongside Sainsbury’s, The Entertainer, Palletforce and XPO Logistics) supporting the Trussell Trust and its network of food banks across the UK.  

“We have more than 3,000 staff volunteering to help in their local communities and we are now delivering food parcels to the more needy,” Winter says.  

“We must thank our suppliers, Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, Volkswagen, Vauxhall and Engineius vehicle movements. These companies have supported us with 50 large vans – some demo vans and some that were waiting to go to auction. These are now working, collecting food from the 20 distribution hubs around the UK and delivering to the food banks.  

“The food is then sorted and our smaller vans and an army of our engineers then deliver out to the homes around the UK.” 

To date, 1,000 tonnes of food has been delivered, meaning approximately two million meals. 

This is just one example of fleet operators, drivers and suppliers supporting their local communities and charities during the crisis. 

At the London Borough of Hackney, buildings maintenance has had to stop due to the difficulties of tradespeople entering domestic homes and trouble obtaining parts and materials “but rather than furlough these employees we have used the resource to support community programmes such as collecting and delivering food to vulnerable residents”, says corporate fleet manager Norman Harding.  

It’s a similar story at Gateshead Council where staff are delivering PPE and supporting schools (see pages 48-49).  

Defra has also been helping local authorities to deliver medicines or food.  

Many more examples of the fleet industry providing support can be found on our dedicated page, fleetnews.co.uk/tag/coronavirus-covid-19.

Maintaining core services

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, both Defra and the Environment Agency have a full incident management structure in place, and fleet has established its own incident management team to maintain its core services.  

Dale Eynon, director at Defra Group Fleet Services, says: “This cell deals with keeping the assets on the road, managing supply chains, and working with the end users to ensure continuity of service.” 

Around 75% of the fleet is operational, namely vehicles and plant that are part of Defra’s critical incident response or are related to protecting the health and safety of the workforce or others. 

Some vehicles are on standby and will be used as required. Responding to an incident or maintaining critical infrastructure (such as trash screens, which collect debris on rivers) often now requires two vehicles so employees don’t travel together. 

Vehicles that are not in use are started up at least once a week to make sure they have full batteries etc. Drivers are also undertaking risk assessments/inspections to ensure they are safe to use. Where they require maintenance, this is booked in with Defra’s service provider, Rivus.  

Like many fleet operators, Defra has moved MOT and servicing for non-critical assets and increased service intervals for its O-licence heavy goods vehicles.  

Keeping workshops safe and operational

Frontline fleets who carry out maintenance in-house have introduced methods for cleaning vehicles, tools and the workshop itself and installed sanitisation stations, reminding staff of the importance of keeping their hands clean.  

They have introduced social distancing measures, such as markings on the floor to stay two metres apart, flexible start times and staggered breaks, and are limiting how many technicians work on vehicles. In circumstances where that isn’t possible, they use PPE. Other measures limit how many people enter a workshop. 

Gorton says: “We’ve almost quarantined our own workshops because I’ve got 35 technicians and if some of them were to fall ill that would have a direct impact on frontline policing.  

“We don’t let police officers in. We don’t let the parts delivery people enter the workshop – they leave parts at a certain location, we come out and if we think there is a need we’ll spray those parts and sanitise them before bringing them in.” 

Gorton has also split his biggest workshop team into two, which don’t mix to “restrict opportunity of cross contamination”.  

As chair-elect of the National Association of Police Fleet Managers (NAPFM) he has been in touch with other forces and says that some have opted to put their staff on a four-days on, four-days off rota, including weekends. 

Some forces have been fortunate enough to have had some additional stock holding as part of contingency planning for Brexit.  

“We’ve been able to use that; that’s a fortunate double-up,” Gorton says.  

However, the national vehicle tender, which the NAPFM manages on behalf of the majority of the UK forces, has been put on hold as manufacturers have been unable to respond. 

“I’ve suspended the tender for three months to make sure it’s a fair and open process. I’ll be reviewing it on a monthly basis,” Gorton says.  

Police forces, and other fleet operators, also have the challenge of vehicles being stuck at converters or body repair shops.  

“It’s going to be interesting when lockdown ends because there are a fair few of us with vehicles in part-build that have just been suspended because our external contractors are on lockdown,” Gorton says. 

“We’ve got vehicles that are out at vehicle body repair shops following serious accident damage and they’ve been locked down so there is a lot of catching up to do.” 

National Grid has about 250 vehicles stuck at its build centre that cannot be worked on.  

Similarly, British Gas has vehicles in build at its commissioning centre. However, it has been able to issue some vans that were built prior to lockdown to its engineers.  

It has plans in place to catch up with maintenance and van replacements when providers can return to ‘normal’.  

“We are pre-booking work, combining MOT and service much more to minimise downtime. As we have extended MOT and service intervals, we are able to combine much more easily and this will help to reduce SMR overspend,” Winter says. “We will not be using collection and delivery as much as we will be placing some surplus vans around the repair network, allowing drivers to drop their van at the repairer and collect the spare and carry on with work. This keeps engineers mobile.” 

Long-term impact of Covid-19

In the long-term, fleet operators expect there to be less need to travel for face-to-face meetings as video conferencing has worked well for staff meetings and keeping in touch with suppliers.  

Staff currently working from home may wish this to continue beyond lockdown and expect flexible hours. Fewer miles could mean fewer cars or different ways of funding them with potentially more interest in flexible contracts.  

Telematics will play a greater role in determining vehicle utilisation and will be increasingly important in helping organisations find savings in the wake of the financial pressures many will be facing.  

But businesses will still be grappling with the big issue of the environmental impact of their fleet and the move to electric vehicles (EVs).  

Winter says: “We are still working on our plans for a large EV fleet and we have surveyed our engineers and found more than 1,000 that want an EV and have off-street parking so we are also using this time (lockdown) to carry out virtual surveys on their houses to confirm their suitability for an EV.” 

And a note of positivity from Eynon: “As well as all the terrible sadness about the loss of life that has occurred in this pandemic, I always like to reflect on the positive challenges and opportunities that have come from this experience, and believe the fleet industry will emerge a stronger, more vibrant service that can make better use of technology to deliver its services.”

‘The vehicle is a ready transmitter of the virus’ 

Making vehicles safe is a priority for fleets, particularly when they have multiple users, such as pool cars, or police cars.  

“The challenge is to recognise that the vehicle is effectively a fomite – a ready transmitter of viruses and pathogens,” says John Gorton, head of transport at Kent and Essex Police, and chair-elect of the National Association of Police Fleet Managers.  

“Covid-19 is believed to last up to 72 hours on plastic and vehicles are full of plastic – the steering wheel, handbrake etc. so one of the things we’ve been very careful to do is make sure we’ve got standard operating practices between the change of driver. So, there are processes in place where the entire interior of the vehicle can be wiped down and sanitised as far as possible, making sure that when you’re doing that, you’re wearing gloves. Remember that when logbooks, car keys and fobs are handed from one individual to another there is an opportunity to transfer the virus.” 

Gorton has avoided fitting seat covers as “we don’t want to restrict the deployment of any safety devices like car seat airbags” and there are similar concerns from fleets about fitting Perspex screens in vehicles.  

Addison Lee has highlighted concerns about taxi drivers installing home-made partitions. It is implementing a single, tested model in each of its vehicles which adheres to International Safety Standards.  

It is also providing drivers with protective equipment such as masks, gloves and hand sanitiser and disinfectant to wipe down vehicles after each journey, cleaning vehicles with an electrostatic spray for a deep antimicrobial clean, facilitating social distancing by using the rear seats of its seven-seater vehicles and asking people to only travel with members of their household and  
to avoid using front seats.  

Fleet operators could also consider using third party suppliers to clean their vehicles, particularly in the event of a driver being found to have Covid-19. The London Ambulance Service, for instance, is using Interserve. 

Staff wellbeing  

Fleet operators are conscious that their drivers, workshop staff and other fleet team members may be feeling anxious, suffering from fatigue or feeling lonely and missing ‘office chat’ if they are working remotely.  

At South Yorkshire Police, staff have access to an app which includes hints and tips for wellbeing and mindfulness techniques (see article on Monday).  

Royal Mail fleet has been keeping track of how staff feel by asking them to give scores for tiredness and morale during team meetings so they know who may require extra support (see article on Tuesday).  

Meanwhile, the fleet team at National Grid has a daily Webex call, with work discussion banned, to “help lift spirits” and “have a bit of banter and humour to help relieve the impact of lockdown”, says fleet manager Lorna McAtear. 

Praise from the Government   

The Government has echoed praise from Fleet News in recognising frontline fleets for their hard work. Business Secretary Alok Sharma says: “We want to pay tribute to all those who are working to keep our economy going. Across the UK, fleets of vehicles are delivering essential goods, boosting the resilience of the nation during these challenging times. We recognise those efforts and say thank you.” 

You can read the article in the May issue of Fleet News by clicking here

In tomorrow's frontline fleets, Sarah Gilding, head of joint vehicle fleet management at South Yorkshire Police and South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, takes us through a typical day keeping the emergency services at operational level, while police inspector Jason Booth and firefighter Ben Dalton explain the impact Covid-19 is having on their working lives.

Keep up to date with Covid-19 news and guidance

For the latest fleet guidance on Covid-19, click here

For answers to questions from our Covid-19 webinar, click here

For the latest fleet-specific Covid-19 news, click here

The BVRLA has produced a guide to operating during the pandemic, access it here

Driving for Better Business and Fleet Check have produced a series of video guides and other resources, access them here


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