Plans to change the rules around minibus driving licensing will not come into effect until next year, Stormont officials have confirmed.
Thousands of schoolchildren as well as elderly and disabled people were left facing massive disruption after the Department of Infrastructure decided it would update its interpretation of the current legislation regarding driver licensing – specifically dealing with drivers of minibuses.
Previously, community transport drivers and school teachers who held a licence which qualified them to drive a car would also have been able to drive a minibus.
The Driver and Vehicle Agency in the last several days declared that it intended to reinterpret the rules, so that paid minibus drivers would instead have to have a full D1 category licence – which can cost up to £1,000 and take months to obtain (voluntary drivers were largely unaffected).
As a result, dozens of drivers who were not suitably licensed were taken off the road, causing chaos for elderly and disabled people who depend on them for hospital visits, doctor appointments or shopping trips.
Schools across the Province have also been impacted, with some having to hire buses and taxis to fulfil sports fixtures or take field trips.
But those affected by the change have been now been granted a reprieve, with the department stating the new rules will not come into affect until next year.
A statement from the Stormont department said: “Given recent concerns as to the impact of these changes on a number of sectors, the department can confirm that the draft guidance will only come into effect on approval by an incoming minister.
“Subject to ministerial approval, the department aims to consult formally on the guidance with a view to it coming into effect from January 1, 2018.
“Therefore, at present, those who drive a minibus for an organisation under the small bus permit scheme do not need a full D1 entitlement.”
According to the department, the guidance is likely to confirm that all paid minibus drivers will need a full D1 licence, and that some volunteer drivers undertaking commercial passenger transport activities may also require a full D1 licence.
Paddy McEldowney, manager of Easilink Strabane, said he had taken five of his 15 drivers off the road temporarily as a precaution.
He added: “I am delighted with this outcome, as it will allow us to get our drivers back on the road and serve those isolated and vulnerable people who depend on us.
“The fact that these changes to the licensing will not come into effect until next year gives us a chance to get our drivers through these tests and ensure they meet the criteria.”