Teenagers are paying out for extra lessons due to pandemic disruption to the driving test, it is claimed.
The concern has been raised by young people as the children’s commissioner Koulla Yiasouma warned that the pandemic has removed teenagers’ sense of independence from their parents.
Lockdown has disrupted that natural rite of passage where they gravitate towards young people of the same age, she added.
Due to the risk of Covid-19 infection, all driving lessons and driving tests were cancelled during Northern Ireland’s lockdown, which began on December 26.
Driving instructors have to sit inside a vehicle with a learner and would be a close contact should the young person be diagnosed with coronavirus.
Natasha, 18, from Killyleagh, said: “It is an absolute nightmare.
“You are spending money then on more lessons to play catch up, because you have obviously forgotten all your manoeuvres or not had time to practise.”
She has had four appointments cancelled.
Originally she was booked for November and now has a date in April.
She added: “If you live in a rural area driving is so important because there are very poor buses unless you are in the city, unless you are in Belfast or Lisburn or Derry/Londonderry.”
She also said there were delays to the system for booking tests.
“Last time it took me an hour and a half to rebook it,” she added.
She said learning to drive was exciting and important when you reach age 17.
She said: “It is access to freedom, to be able to go out without having to ask parents for a lift or wait for a bus.
“It is pretty much a rite of passage.”
Driving instructors have sought clarity on how the test backlog will be tackled once restrictions ends.
Close contact services have been suspended a number of times since the pandemic began.
Customers with theory test pass certificates due to expire will be given priority access to the booking system by the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA) when practical driving tests are able to resume.
The Infrastructure Department said: “Those customers whose tests were cancelled due to Covid restrictions have already been contacted by the DVA and have had the opportunity to reschedule their appointments.
“The DVA has already created additional test slots for February, March and April for those customers.
It said the DVA continues to increase its capacity by recruiting additional examiners and will be offering evening appointments as we move into spring and the brighter nights.
“The DVA will continue to offer driving tests on a Saturday and driving tests for Heavy Goods Vehicles on Sundays where it is suitable to do so without compromising the integrity of the test.
“The DVA will also use overtime to rota off-shift dual role driving examiners to provide further capacity.”
As well as driving, teenagers’ freedoms have been curtailed by the lockdown, Koulla Yiasouma says.
Zoom calls and social media have replaced the regular socialising which is the hallmark of youth.
Koulla Yiasouma said: “As young children and people get older they move away from their parents being their support, although still significant carers and significant adults in their lives.
“They move away from that and move to their peers and social support system.
“That is the promise we make to them – as you grow older you will be more independent and will spend more time with your mates – and we have taken that away from them.”
She said there was no evidence young people were breaking pandemic rules prohibiting gatherings outside the home more than anyone else.
She added: “That is a natural rite of passage and you are hearing that pain because we have taken that away from them; the pandemic has taken it away from them.
“We cannot underestimate it and all we have replaced it with is schoolwork or Zoom calls.”
Thomas, 16, from Banbridge, said he missed the routine of club activities inside and outside school.
He said it would be very strange to return to them once lockdown is over.
“Demotivation is another big issue. I find it very hard to get myself to do my schoolwork.”
He added: “I am finding it hard to stop being as lazy.”
Young people face uncertainty about predicted exam grades and dramatic changes in how lessons are delivered, with remote learning replacing face-to-face teaching.
Schools have been closed since Christmas to most, bar the children of key workers and those with special needs.
Natasha, 18, from Killyleagh, said: “You need people in your own age group to talk to instead of just talking to your parents all day or just family members.
“I get on with my parents but you are surrounded by the same people every day and you are at some stage going to blow up because you are seeing the same faces every day – it can be almost overwhelming.
“Whenever you are not talking to your parents you are facing a screen doing homework all day.”
Madeline, 18 and from Belfast, said they were spending all day online, lessons via laptops then social media using phones.
She said that added up to a lot of screen time, which can be detrimental to mental health.
She recalled she had taken the start of the school year, when restrictions were eased, for granted.
“I really miss seeing my friends.”
Conor, 16, from Saintfield, felt that uncertainty over grades was one of the main challenges.
At times his broadband slowed down or froze, leaving him 15 minutes behind.
Natasha also believed virtual lessons could be awkward, while Madeline said being in front of a camera all day felt like an invasion of her privacy.
Madeline acknowledged that greater independence was helping prepare her for university.
“It has been quite challenging to learn how to think positively in the pandemic for everyone.
“I find I have learned a lot more gratitude.
“We have the privilege of still being able to do our education in some way, able to continue learning, which in itself is still something to be thankful for.”
-- to www.belfastlive.co.uk