COVID-19 Service Station Updates
All motorway and A-road service areas are open, and have remained open throughout the lockdown period. Service stations are not affected by local lockdowns.
In England and Ireland, most facilities are open. Some menus are reduced and a few food options are still closed.
In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, some food is available for takeaway only.
As HGV drivers are categorised as "essential workers", service stations must continue to provide the bare minimum facilities. Those facilities are free toilets, free short-stay parking, a place to buy a snack, and fuel; all available 24 hours a day on the motorway (reduced opening hours on some A-roads).
Changes Service Areas Are Making
People who use public seating areas are being asked to register their visit with the government's track and trace system. Details are provided in each seating area.
Operators are monitoring crowding levels, and queueing systems are ready to use if necessary. Roadchef's website is providing live updates on how busy each building is.
One way systems have been arranged in amenity buildings.
Customers are being asked to use contactless payment and touchscreen order points, where possible. Very few brands are refusing cash payments (Greggs is one). Online ordering is available from some brands, including the McDonald's app and some Roadchefs.
Hand sanitiser should be widely available.
- Roadchef have raised their free parking limit to 4 hours.
- Moto's amnesty on expired vouchers runs out on 9 July 2020. After this date, new vouchers will be issued again.
- Welcome Break say that food vouchers issued during the 'lockdown' will be accepted until 31 July 2020, regardless of their expiry date, where no food was available at time of issue.
- Roadchef say that food vouchers issued during the 'lockdown' will be accepted until 31 December 2020, regardless of their expiry date.
For HGV drivers:
- Moto are promoting frequent 'free coffee days' for HGV drivers.
- Roadchef are offering a free coffee voucher for HGV drivers.
The following operators have created dedicated COVID-19 update sections of their website. You should check their arrangements with them before visiting:
- Moto website
- Welcome Break website
- Roadchef website
- Extra website
- Westmorland website
- Stop 24 website
- BP website
- Applegreen website
- Circle K website
Timeline of Events
In early March 2020, everybody (including road users) would have been aware of what was happening in the news, and of the importance of practising good hygiene and social distancing. The British government had released its Coronavirus action plan on 3 March, but most people will only remember Boris Johnson's summary of it: "wash your hands and business as usual".
On 10 March, Applegreen were thought to be the first operator to publicly mention COVID-19.
On 12 March, the Irish government announced the closure of all schools and Boris Johnson made a chilling statement about deaths, but from the perspective of the road transport industry, there was still no public indication that major disruption was ahead. Events like Cheltenham were still filling service stations with thousands of customers.
The first it started to become public and clear that major changes were going to happen in every industry was on 16 March 2020, when Ireland's Taoiseach made a speech advising that unprecedented times were ahead. This was also the date that we received reports that service stations in France were closing, although these aren't necessarily comparable to the big British service stations.
On 17 March, McDonald's announced that following "UK and Irish government updates", all of their branches would be takeaway and drive thru only. This meant Roadchef and Circle K had to remove seating areas, while most A-road service station branches locked their doors completely.
On 18 March, Roadchef were the first major British operator to speak about COVID-19, advising that they were open and quieter than usual. Westmorland also advised similarly. Service stations had been stepping up their hygiene procedures, but reported that soap and hand sanitiser was being stolen.
Over the following days Moto and Roadchef announced discounts for health workers.
On 20 March, the British Prime Minister announced that all sit-down restaurants were going to have to close that night. Reports suggest that at least some operators were surprised by this announcement, and had so far been advised that the situation wasn't that serious. Earlier that day, the Prime Minister had advised that he would be travelling to visit his family.
While food stores were still allowed to open as takeaways, many big brands figured that they didn't want to be forcing their staff to work. Of course, whether that was for moral, PR or financial reasons will vary by brand. Most service station restaurants are run as franchises, which might have meant they could still open, but in some cases the brand didn't want to be seen to be open and were quite forceful about it.
Over the next few hours Starbucks, McDonald's, Costa, Greggs and Subway are some of the firms (of interest to us) who announced closures. Service station food offers became takeaway only, and game arcades were closed. Welcome Break initially advised that Starbucks drive thrus would still be open.
Customer reaction was mixed: complaints were received that the offering was too much and put profit before safety, while others (especially lorry drivers) complained that the offering was too small.
Things changed again on 23 March, when the British Prime Minister announced the so-called 'lockdown'. Supermac's, KFC, Wild Bean Cafe and Burger King announced closures. British service stations confirmed that their shops were going to be their main food offering.
There was confusion and concern among HGV drivers. Some had already experienced being refused access to toilets and showers at non-motorway sites, especially delivery addresses. Now Roadchef had been accused of doing the same. They later advised that they were reviewing their cleaning processes, and that there had been an internal misunderstanding. Reduced HGV parking prices were introduced.
Behind the scenes, Highways England and the Department for Transport were communicating with all British service station operators about what facilities were available. There were some reports that they were unhappy with what service stations were doing, but evidently an agreement was reached.
Despite the initial confusion and internal panic, by now things appeared to have settled down. Most service stations were trying to provide petrol stations, toilets and showers, and a shop and/or grocery store. They faced frequent and justified dissatisfaction for not selling more food, but they argued that they were having to contend with health advice, the closure of their brand partners and a phenomenal drop in trade - quoted as being up to 85% less than usual.
Some services were having issues with staff shortages (with Bothwell being frequently named), but most were over-staffed and placed most of their staff on the government's furlough scheme. Internal sources also told us that some staff were unhappy with the amount of abuse they were receiving from the public.
Over the Easter Bank Holiday, Motorway Services Online reported that its page views were around 2/3rds below their usual level. The actual fall in road users would be much more than that, but our figures include enquiries and people who are reading from home.
The settled situation lasted for a few weeks. By mid-April, all three of the large operators were reporting issues. Their premium grocery stores, despite being the main food offering, were receiving very little custom. They all announced that up to 70% of these would be closing, while they investigate other options.
In the last week of April, Moto began a new campaign to win over disgruntled HGV drivers. A small hot food menu to some of their WHSmith stores, free of charge to those who had paid for parking, available under the slogan 'Hot Meals Matter'. The free parking allowance was increased, and HGV drivers were offered free coffee from Costa Express. Roadchef followed with similar offers.
By May, many fast food brands were looking at opening their city centre locations, mainly for delivery. This didn't impact service stations, but Moto did open one Costa drive thru.
On 10 May 2020, the UK government relaxed restrictions on car travel (although there was considerable debate over whether this applied outside England). Motorway Services Online reported an immediate increase in queries; up more than double the previous week. BP announced a plan to reopen their Wild Bean Cafés and hotels were provisionally taking bookings.
In Ireland, McDonald's announced their plan for reopening, although rivals Burger King had kept some of their branches open, and Supermac's had recently reopened some. Subway then announced that they were returning.
On the evening of 13 May, Moto and Welcome Break both made steps towards returning to normal, with Moto announcing a plan to reintroduce Burger King, and Welcome Break announcing the immediate reopening of some Starbucks Drive Thrus and KFCs. Within a week, a number of food brands at both operators had reopened, with Roadchef opening Costa Drive Thrus on 21 May. The highly anticipated opening of a small number of McDonald's Drive Thrus happened on 20 May, including the branches at Sittingbourne services and Chelmsford services.
By the end of May, most service areas in England had some-sort of food brand. McDonald's had opened all their drive thrus in Britain and Ireland by 4 June 2020. Other takeaway restaurants opened throughout June, with most of the big brands open by the end of the month. Roadchef designated Strensham southbound as their trial site for testing reopenings and social distancing measures.
Roadchef were the first operator to add a "current status" icon to their website, and partnered with Goodtill to launch an online ordering service.
On 4 July England removed many of its restrictions. As service areas are already selling food, there is no rush to get restaurants open, but some socially-distanced dining areas will be introduced.
Message From Us
We appreciate that the current environment is difficult for everybody, including both those who's lives have been disrupted and those who are expected to carry on as normal.
Not much has been said about the staff who work at service stations. Many will have their own concerns about their own health risk; many will be worried about their friends or family; and many will find the current working environment stressful.
Yet they are still turning up every day to do their job; to meet their employer's obligation to provide a service and to make sure that the place follows all the current health guidelines. To them, and to those of you who are being kind to them: thank you.