Express FM: An Interview with Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson

Every week, Express FM runs a live show dedicated to news about the Coronavirus in Portsmouth, as Robbie James interviews a range of local people, including politicians, experts, residents and businesses. On 22nd April, Robbie spoke to Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of the City Council about PPE, government funding, local schools and more, and Express FM have given us permission to reproduce parts of that interview here.

RJ: I read an article this evening about Portsmouth Council calling for more PPE equipment and some stricter government guidelines. Can you explain more? 

[Editor’s Note: On 23rd April, Cllr Matthew Winnington wrote a letter to the government, raising concerns about PPE, testing For Covid-19 & government messaging, you can read the letter here].

GVJ: We’ve got a strategic store of PPE, so that we [can] look after anybody not in the hospital, where their normal supply is running out, i.e. care homes, GPs, people going to do home visits to residents across the city and people working for the city council, and the police. Where their normal stores are running out, we supply them and that’s worked pretty well.

We had real trouble getting hold of [PPE] from the government to begin with. They kept promising it and it didn’t turn up but we’ve now had two deliveries so we’re reasonably ok. But there are problems getting hold of more of it and lots of care homes are running pretty short. So there needs to be more action by the government, I think, to be able to get [PPE] out to people who are working really, really hard. I think we’re beginning to understand the pressures in care homes because it’s on our televisions every night now.

After we had the second delivery we were told that was it, but I think there’s pressure on government to make sure that there is more available because every time a care home runs out we have to [provide it], and the stock goes down – and we didn’t have huge amounts of it to begin with.  And if a carer is having to change their apron, their mask, their gloves every time they go from one client to another, a single carer can get through 20 sets in just one shift. So, you have to have quite a lot of this stuff to make sure a care home works properly. 

When [councillors] send these letters, where do you expect [supplies] to come from? In the last few days we’ve learnt about the RAF plane going to Turkey to pick up supplies over there [so] surely there will be a time lag with it being made?

Absolutely, but there are different things happening. Sometimes there are local UK firms: making masks, making the hand gels to disinfect things, there are people making gowns. But to be able to get volume, we are having to get it from abroad. For instance, Albert Choi, one of the Chinese community, has got access to supplies from China and has been trying to talk with ministers to get them purchased. We’ve bought some for the council but the government hasn’t been interested in purchasing. The government are meant to lead on this. This is what we pay them for. 

Does this tie into the stricter guidelines that you’ve requested more clarity on, or is that something separate? 

Yes, because particularly in care homes there’s a concern that because there isn’t enough PPE, people are being told to reuse PPE in a way they were not told to do beforehand. There’s real worry that the government changed the rules because they haven’t got enough [equipment] to stick to the more stringent rules.

And we’ve seen across Europe that the places that get hit worst are the care homes and it’s happening in the UK as well as in France and Spain, in Italy and now the US, so we really have to make sure we are looking after the care homes.

What advice would you give to people at the moment, then: to the workers that are working as you say, so fantastically well on the frontline in the care homes, and also to the people, the loved ones of residents that might be in the care homes? There’s been a lot of people saying: why should these carers go to work if they’re not in an environment which is safe for them?

There are different numbers of people who are off work. In some of the care homes in the city the number of people off work is up to fifty percent of the staff group, because if somebody becomes symptomatic they need to isolate, and people are rightly trying to make sure they look after their families and don’t bring the virus out of the care home and into their family.

So I think we need to be incredibly grateful to people who are doing that and to the people who are stepping into their shoes who don’t normally work in care homes, who have been prepared to go and help make sure the care homes keep running. The worst thing we could have now is care homes saying that we can’t cope and we have to send all our residents to hospital. The last thing we want to do is send anybody to hospital if we can possibly help it.

I’ve heard from people in the NHS in the last couple of weeks that have said they have been waiting to be redeployed and haven’t heard anything, so I suppose there is a gap in the market, so to speak, in care?

I think the government have been quite rightly very worried that the peak would be much worse than it seems to have been.

Portsmouth people have been really, really good at sticking to the rules about social distancing and not going out and that’s clearly had an enormous effect. The number of people in hospital is falling and that’s really good news, but it’s not what was expected. So, I think the government hopefully will change track a little bit but they were probably right to presume that we were going to have a much, much nastier spike of number of people in hospital and the number of people dying in hospital. 

Can I ask about the announcement made by Robert Jenrick, the local government secretary…[of] an extra £1.6 billion for local councils in England. Firstly how quick is this transfer of money and secondly what’s it likely to be spent on? 

So, this is the second lump of money. The first lump Portsmouth got just over £6 million and we expect to get about the same. Sometimes when the government announces money the cash doesn’t appear for a bit but on the whole, we think that they’re good for their money so that’s not, for us, too much of a worry. We’ve got cash in the bank so the cash flow is not so important.

Overall that means just over £12 million coming to Portsmouth Council. We think our costs are around £12 million so the government will cover that, but the concern we have is that the income coming into the council will be about £12 million down as well and the government look as if they are not going to cover that. So that’s Council Tax not coming in, that’s business rates not coming in, that’s rents from properties not coming in, and we made all the car parks and the pay and display on the roads all free.

So the government look as though they’re going to recompense us for direct costs but not for the loss of income and that’s going to mean we will be £12 million worse off. 

One of my first questions was going to be what can that money be spent on? Maybe they’re giving you the money to spend on PPE?

Well we are anyway. We’re doing it anyway. Lack of money is not going to stop us buying PPE, not going to stop us buying food for people who are homeless. We will just go and do those things because they’re the right things to do and we’ll sort the money out afterwards. 

That will reassure people because I know there are a lot that are worried that it’s just going to be [a case of put[ting] money first. 

No, no, no! For those absolutely vital bits then the money is an irrelevance, we just have to go and get the stuff. 

[I want to turn to] schools, the free school meals and of course, schools looking like they’re not going to be open for a little while now – what’s the update there? 

So, schools are open. We’ve got fewer kids in school than we thought we were going to haveSo only about 2% of kids are going to school, and we thought it would be a much higher number where key workers would feel the need to send their kids to school so that they could continue to work.

We’re not unusual in that, across the country it’s pretty similar. Also, not very many of the kids who are thought of as vulnerable are turning up to school and that is a concern because if they’re vulnerable there’s a worry about what’s happening to them if they’re not in school. Are they ok or are they at risk? So, we had a scheme in terms of free school meals that our contractor was providing but that’s now been overtaken by the government scheme. As I understand it, the families get vouchers for £15 per kid per week, so it is now out of our hands.

I see. So, they’ve taken the majority of that [over].

The bit that I think is really important at the moment for us is the testing in Portsmouth. The government have established the Hampshire Testing Site at Tipner, it doesn’t just serve us, it serves the whole of Hampshire.

I’m worried as they are offering just 400 tests a day for a population of nearly 1.5 million people and it’s meant to be for care workers, but the way they’ve set it up means people [have to] turn up in cars. And for care workers who are working on minimum wages, most people don’t have a car [because] they can’t afford it. They’re refusing to take people coming in taxis [also on public transport or on foot], so I’m really worried that this scheme that is meant to work to test care workers is not designed for the reality of care workers lives. 

I think that the council will set up our own testing system with a private supplier, where the testers would go from care home to care home and test people at [their] places of work. And I think that the Government system should have sorted this but they’ve managed to not do it in a very userfriendly way, and I think we’re going to have to set up our own system because their’s is just not working. 

Other councils have done it around the country just because the government scheme’s not working very well. 

So carers can expect to see something like that come up? 

Yes, we’re working on it. 

This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 22nd April 2020, and has been edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the full interview over at Express FM’s website, and subscribe to the weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, or listen live every Wednesday, 6pm-7pm.

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Image by Marius Mangevicius from Pixabay.

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