COVID-19: Backlog of 11,500 driver's licence tests after lockdown could put young Aucklanders' lives on hold for months

There will be an 11,500-person backlog for driver licence tests in Auckland when they're allowed to resume from next week, Newshub can reveal.

And there are fears the delays could leave young Aucklanders in the lurch for months, disrupting plans to travel, attend university and take up jobs after lockdown.

An Auckland mum, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Newshub the ongoing restrictions in the region are causing stress among young people who thought they would have their licence in time for the summer.

She fears her kids will be unable to live their lives as planned and she'll remain their 'taxi driver' for months as they wait for the backlog of thousands of tests in the region to clear.

After the highly infectious Delta variant was detected in Auckland in mid-August, the Super City was plunged into lockdown - and continues to remain under strict restrictions three months later - forcing close-contact businesses including driver testing centres to shut up shop.

Under the current alert level framework, practical testing is only permitted at alert levels 1 and 2, with tests unable to be booked under levels 3 or 4.

Now, young people who thought they would have their licence in time to head to university, to travel, or to work face significant delays as they wait for a backlog of tests booked before and during lockdown to clear.

The mum Newshub spoke to said her two teenagers are on their learner licences, with her eldest initially booked in to sit her restricted test in April or May. However, due to illness, she cancelled her booking and rescheduled. The next available date she was given was in August.

Meanwhile, her youngest attempted to book her restricted licence test in June, but was also given an appointment in August. She says driver licencing agents have been struggling to catch up since last year's lockdown. 

"So both of them had to wait three months," the mum told Newshub. "Some of their friends even resorted to driving down to Hamilton to get bookings, or they'd be searching online every day [hoping] for a cancellation so they could hopefully sit a test [sooner].

"It's like they've never caught up from the alert level 4 lockdown last year. [The queue] has never seemed to move."

When Auckland went into lockdown on August 17, all bookings were automatically suspended due to the restrictions in place. 

"All the bookings were locked out, so they wouldn't accept any bookings for Auckland," the mum said.

"In about the last week, we finally got an update where they had both been rebooked for the end of January - so they just sent you a date and said 'here's your date'."

However, her eldest daughter has paid to attend a festival at the end of January - coinciding with her rescheduled booking. Her daughter is now worried that postponing her test again could result in another three-month wait - or longer - to get her licence.

All she can do now is hope for a cancellation so she can sit the test earlier, she said.

"If she can't sit it on that date, she's thinking she's going to go into the pool with not only those who already have bookings, but every kid that [became eligible] from August through to December will have now joined that queue as well," the mum said.

"So instead of it being a three-month backlog, they could be looking at a six-month backlog... is she going to be looking at the middle of next year potentially before she can even get a booking?"

She said as far as she is aware, her daughters had received no other communication from the AA prior to the rebooking email, which "came out of the blue". They had heard from their driving instructor, who informed them that until Auckland shifted down to alert level 2, there was not much that could be done.

With her eldest now back at home from university and her youngest still at school, the mum said she is stuck being a "taxi driver" for the foreseeable future.

"I'd just like to know they're going to make some effort to catch up… the backlog will be massive. When they open Auckland bookings, it's going to explode, it's going to be huge.

"There's potentially going to be a lot longer [to wait] now, and I really feel for the kids who are trying to start jobs or apprenticeships… this will stop kids moving into [work]. Will they all just drive unlicenced?"

She says her daughters are becoming more frustrated as they live in a part of Auckland where public transport isn't as accessible. 

"It's that ongoing inconvenience… it's like, 'can I be bothered doing that?' or 'should I go?' It's just holding them back from doing the things they should be able to do at that age."

What's being done to clear the backlog?

A spokesperson for Vehicle Testing New Zealand (VTNZ) confirmed to Newshub it has rescheduled 22,000 driving tests nationally since lockdown came into effect on August 18.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency confirmed that as of August 18, there were approximately 11,500 tests booked in the Auckland region that can finally be sat from December. 

"VTNZ and Waka Kotahi are working together to continue to reschedule tests for impacted customers before bookings resume," the VTNZ spokesperson said.

VTNZ is awaiting guidance on when it will be able to safely resume practical testing under the Government's new COVID-19 Protection Framework, a three-step 'traffic light' system that will be implemented nationwide from December 3.

Under the framework, those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are rewarded with a return to relatively normal life. Close-contact businesses are allowed to open their doors with caps on customers still in place - however, they must use the My Vaccine Pass system to certify all visitors or patrons are fully vaccinated.

The spokesperson said VTNZ, Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Health are working together to develop the necessary health and safety procedures and to support the management of wait times as New Zealand moves towards the new framework.

"This is a complex process and it's important we have this in place before testing restarts.

"We anticipate [there will be] a surge in demand and this will impact wait times further. VTNZ is working on solutions to help mitigate delays and relieve pressure on the system and are working closely with NZTA to introduce additional testing locations and testing officers."

'The wait time is hard to quantify'

Waka Kotahi told Newshub the wait time for people hoping to book their tests is "hard to quantify". 

"There are many complexities to standing this service back up under current government guidelines," said Sue Hardiman, senior manager of vehicle and driver licencing.

She said the agency is currently looking at what the new COVID-19 Protection Framework will mean for driver licencing and testing services and more information will be provided as soon as they are able to.

Hardiman confirmed the online booking system was removed from public availability at the beginning of lockdown to support the management of the rescheduling process.

"As the region moves back into a level in which practical driving tests are allowed under Government guidelines, the booking system is made available for bookings again," she said. 

She echoed VTNZ's comments and said the agency is anticipating a "significant backlog that will take time to work through".

She said the agency and VTNZ are working to find solutions, which include increasing resources - but it will take "some time" and people are asked to be patient.

What can people do who urgently need a driver licence? 

Hardiman said people who are in more urgent need of a test are encouraged to keep an eye on the booking system once it becomes available, as tests are likely to be cancelled or rescheduled.

"This will open up time slots," she said. "Waka Kotahi understands it may be frustrating for people who are keen to progress to the next stage of their licences, but the reality of COVID-19 and the health risks it poses means we can't safely carry out practical testing at the moment."

Earlier this week, Waka Kotahi confirmed that unnecessary conditions on learner and restricted licences will disappear from December 1 when the Land Transport (Driver licencing) Amendment Rule (2) 2021 comes into force.

From December 1 the five-year limit, the requirement to sit a theory test at renewal, and the 90-day restriction on renewal will be removed from learner and restricted driver licences, Waka Kotahi's Director of Land Transport, Kane Patena, said on Wednesday.

 "These changes make all stages of licence valid for 10 years and will allow drivers to gain the skills and confidence to progress to the next licence stage at their own pace or stay at their licence stage if they choose to."

The agency hopes these changes will help to alleviate some of the pressure on the driver licencing system and its backlog of licence renewals due to COVID-19 restrictions. It's expecting approximately 3000 to 5000 licence holders a month will apply to have their learner or restricted licence renewed between now and late 2023.