The policy of free bus travel for under-22s, which aims to encourage young people onto public transport, was announced by the Scottish Government last year and officially opened to applications on Monday.
But a letter was sent out to parents in some council areas on Monday morning asking them to delay applications unless their travel is essential. The Government has said the move is due to high levels of Covid transmission.
Critics have warned the change could confuse parents and leave local councils being “bombarded” by enquiries about what constitutes “essential”.
The letter was issued just hours after the SNP published a statement heralding the launch of a “hugely significant commitment from the Scottish Government that will benefit hundreds of thousands of young people across the country” – without mentioning any delay to the scheme, or restrictions on who should apply.
Parents have taken to social media to complain about difficulties in applying for the scheme, which was due to benefit around 930,000 young people across Scotland – and criticised the Government for the bureaucracy.
Some people have complained their child’s ID has been rejected, whereas others have said the website crashes and times out.
The letter, sent out to families via schools, states: “From 31 January, 5-21 year olds living in Scotland will be eligible for free bus travel across Scotland with a valid National Entitlement card. You can apply from 10 January 2022.
“However, in light of high levels of Covid-19 transmission, the Scottish Government is asking that you only apply for the scheme at this point if it is essential that you, or your child, travel while restrictions are in place. All other eligible applicants will be pro-actively encouraged to apply at a later date.”
The letter says there is “no prescribed list” of what constitutes essential, adding that it will “differ for different children, young people and families”.
Scottish Conservatives shadow transport minister Graham Simpson said: “These mixed messages will only confuse parents and young people. Without proper criteria, applicants are having to decipher what the government means by “essential” and whether their travel needs fit into that category.
“Local councils could be bombarded with enquires with no process to decide which applications should be prioritised – creating a risk that those who need it most, may miss out on free bus travel.”
He added: “This stop-start approach benefits no one and the SNP-Green Government need to provide greater clarity before the scheme officially starts at the end of the month.”
One man asked Transport Scotland on Twitter: “If someone who qualifies goes on a bus on 1st February, are you expecting them to pay because you haven't done your job and issued the correct cards in time? Why should they be penalised for incompetence?”
Another parent, Karen Galloway, said: “Seriously the system for the #freebustravel in Scotland for Under 21's is an absolute and utter joke. It’s a new card that they need – and it needs passport, proof of address, birth cert, your ID, your proof of address! And you can’t save your application and it just times you out! Unbelievable!”
Scottish Labour’s Transport spokesperson Neil Bibby said: “Young people should be able to apply for free bus passes with the minimum of obstacles.
“It has been almost two years since this pass was first promised – and children and young people shouldn't have to wait any longer. Free bus travel can help young people make essential journeys now, such as travelling to school, and it can open up new opportunities when Covid cases come down.”
A statement from Transport Scotland said that due to “current public health guidance to reduce contact and mixing”, the full marketing launch of the scheme would take place at a later date.
Transport minister Graeme Dey said: "The current phase of the pandemic means that we are encouraging people to stay at home as much as possible. But there are many essential reasons for children and young people to travel by bus and I am keen that they benefit from this scheme at the earliest opportunity.
"Therefore we are asking that only those for whom bus travel is essential apply at this time. This will help to minimise pressure on local councils, also impacted by the pandemic, which will be processing applications and responding to queries.
“Public health must always come first. The approach we are taking will enable children, young people and families who will potentially benefit most from free bus travel to access it from the end of January.
"It will also ensure that when we are able to fully publicise the scheme, we can help bus services recover from the impacts of the pandemic and encourage children and young people to travel sustainably.”