Express FM: Interview with Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson #2

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 6th May, Robbie spoke to Gerald Vernon-Jackson about the government’s plans to ease the lockdown, more cars on the roads and the relationship between local and national government in the pandemic. Transcribing by Angela Cheverton.

RJ: In the last week or so we’ve seen extended road closure down by the seafront once again. Is this a sign that people are starting to become a little bit complacent a little bit too early Gerald?

GV-JNo, I think it’s probably the opposite. I think it is that people are going out; the weather’s better so people will go out for exercise but I think people are becoming very conscious about the need for social distancing, even when they’re out and about.

So, people contact[ed the Council] to say, ‘Look, going down the seafront it’s quite difficult to keep my 2 metres away from somebody else.’ People were asking for the road to be closed so that we didn’t get bottlenecks and people weren’t pushed too close to each other. So I think people are saying that we need to do this properly and can the council help us do that?

So, you think that people are conforming to social distancing. Do you think that’s the same on the roads? I drive in to come and do the show every day [and] the roads are a good ten times busier than they have been since I first started to come here during lockdown. Is that a concern?

Yes. The amount of traffic on the main roads have fallen substantially, on the Eastern Road, on the M275 and on the A27 etc. It is substantially down, but as I understand it in Wuhan, which is ahead of all of us, the use of private cars has doubled now that lockdown’s finished because people are frightened about using public transport.

I went out for a week’s shopping yesterday and I was on Fratton Road and a bus went past [with] nobody in it. Not a single person.

I suppose there’s a double benefit there from people not using public transport [as] plenty of residents in Portsmouth won’t have access to a car, [so] it makes it a little bit easier [to socially distance] on public transport. [With reference] to Wuhan, how much [is] Portsmouth City Council looking at the rest of the world and what other places are doing in terms of local areas [and] councils?

We’re trying to learn but we have to be very conscious that we’re part of the UK and we need to be doing the same as other bits of the UK. [The Council is] very much driven by government policy.

There are things we probably wouldn’t do but the government says that we should do, and we follow that very carefully. For instance, on Monday we’re going to open the tip because government [have] said they want all tips opened. The police have said they don’t think it’s the right thing to do but we need to follow the government line to make sure there’s the same response across the UK. I think we do look abroad a bit, but mainly we’re driven from what the government says.

And how easy is it to find that balance, if the government’s telling you one thing and you’re being told another by maybe the police in Portsmouth?

We will open the tip like all other councils.

Okay, so even if the police came to you. Are they coming to other councils in other parts of the UK?

I don’t know. We are going to open it in a way that allows people to [use] it in a socially distancing way. Instead of there being space for 18 cars at a time at the tip, there’s going to be space for four because we need to allow people to have space between [each other] when they are getting stuff out of the car and putting it into the skip.

But that’s going to mean that many fewer people will be able to use it. So people should really only be using it if absolutely vital. I know lots of people will have spent the last few weeks cleaning out the loft but if you can keep hold of the stuff you want to bin for a while, please do. Otherwise, we are going to have complete traffic chaos in Paulsgrove.

And with the gradual reopening of things [with the easing of lockdown], how are Portsmouth City Council set to make decisions about how much you can open [facilities] and reopen [them]?

Again, we need to look at the advice from government always.

With schools, we’ll be driven by what the government is saying [on] what is safe. I think quite a lot of parents, even if schools are opened again, will say they are not certain that they want to take their kids back yet. And I think we will see a lot more traffic on the roads with schools opening, because the parents will want to take their kids to school by car if they can.

We will try to get things gradually reopened, but in a way that is safe for people.

At the moment it looks as if Britain’s been hit worse than any other country in Europe, and maybe there wasn’t enough testing to begin with. Maybe we didn’t go into lockdown quickly enough, but we’ve got to be very, very careful that we don’t relax things just to have another big outbreak – [and] have to go back down into lockdown really heavily again.

I feel it as much as anybody else, my other half is in the shielding group and hasn’t left the house for 6 and a half weeks.

How are they finding it?

It’s driving [them] up the wall! I only try to leave the house once a week and it’s quite dull [but] I really think we need to do everything we can to make sure we don’t hit a second wave of infections.

It does concern me that Portsmouth might. Every city has its own structure, every place in the UK is structured differently, has different layouts and [so on]. If the government is saying [there’s] one blanket policy, is there some worry that there might be things that might not benefit Portsmouth or might hinder [the city]?

I think if we’re going to go back to some sense of normality then we need to do it together.

It wouldn’t be right for us to say that shops could open in Portsmouth but [in] other places they weren’t going to open, or that we were going to tell shopkeepers they couldn’t open their stores when in the other parts of the country they could. I think we probably need to do this together just because then people know what the situation is. So, I’m sure we will see some changes over the next few weeks announced by government.

[Editor’s note: The Guardian reported on 6th May that the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, ‘said that there could still be localised lockdowns even as restrictions lift nationally, setting out “interventions in smaller, micro-communities where you’re seeing the virus take hold again”.’]

I think Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland seemed pretty sensible with her proposal to reduce lockdown that came out yesterday. Maybe the UK government will learn from her and pick up on what she’s suggesting.

[Easing lockdown] will be a very gradual thing I think, particularly for people who are in the high risk group. I think it looks as if kids are less likely to get this, but people who have underlying health conditions or who are over the age of 70 are at higher risk. So, I expect that for younger people and kids they will be able to be out and about earlier than people who are in the more vulnerable group.

I completely understand and appreciate there are always risks, nothing in life is zero risk. But only opening up to certain parts of the population, there’s surely going to be some potential conflict there and some worry for a lot of people as well?

Yeah, and there is now. Not everybody is keeping their 2 metres distancing from everybody else, but the important bit is the vast majority of us are. That means the chances of the virus being spread to other people is significantly reduced.

I talked to somebody two days ago on the phone who’d lost his partner to this virus and was in tears – you don’t wish that on anybody. So I try to tell youngsters who are wanting to be out and about more that they need to think about their grandparents’ health as well. Because if they pass it on to their grandparents and their grandparents fall ill then that’s a huge responsibility.

I think we just have to work together to make sure that we get through this, but I don’t think we can do it on our own. We can’t have [a situation where] Portsmouth opens up and the rest of the country doesn’t, or Portsmouth keeps closed and the rest of the country doesn’t. We have to do it in step with everybody else.

I’m sure if Portsmouth keeps closed and everyone else opens up that would cause a bit of chaos, knowing the locals as we all are. I just want to [ask again this week about] testing. Of course, we heard Matt Hancock announcing the government had met their target of over 100,000 tests a day and Boris Johnson hinting he would like it to go up to 200,000 [a day]. How much support does Portsmouth get [with] that say, 100,000? How is it monitored and how does it balance across the UK?

There are tests at QA being done and that’s been, I think, quite effective. QA have been very kindly offering some tests to people who are working in care homes and other places that are vulnerable.

We’ve got the testing centre down at Tipner, and they’ve done more than they had expected. They were meant to be doing about 400 a day and I understand at the weekend they were getting through 800 a day, so they really ramped that up. But that has to cover the whole of Hampshire, [including] Portsmouth and Southampton, that’s 1.4 million people, so the proportion of people being tested in the UK is very, very small and significantly lower than other places.

It’s good that they’re now doing testing [for residents] in care homes. For a while they wouldn’t test the staff at the same time as testing residents but now they seem – very sensibly – [to see] that it’s a really simple thing to do. If you’re going to test one group of people in a home test the staff as well.

But there are still some problems. So for instance, we had tests delivered to one care home in the city where there has been no outbreak and another home where there has been a very severe outbreak had no testing. So, we asked if we could move the tests from the place which had no outbreaks and [where] no people seemed to have had any symptoms to the place where lots of people did, and the government said no, we couldn’t do that.

I think there are still some bits of it that aren’t working very well.

OK, how would you like to see it improved?

Oh, I think there needs to be massively more testing. It needs to be available for everybody. It needs to be available for when people want to do it as well.

The testing facility down at Tipner is a good start but it needs to deal with many, many more people than they’re dealing with now and we need places like that all over the country – but not organised as it’s been there. They got the postcode wrong so everybody ended up in the wrong bit of Tipner, we had to put street signs out because [people] were ending up in a dead end.

The government just needs to work a bit better at understanding local circumstances and working with councils. But we have to have more testing. It seems as if that’s the bit that really our government hasn’t got right when other places like Germany got much, much better with many, many more tests and fewer people dying.


This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 6th May 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.

To find out more about Express FM, head over to the website, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And of course, listen live every day on your radio at 93.7FM or via the website.

Image by Sarah Cheverton.

S&C is managed and operated by a small team who work on a voluntary and freelance basis to run our website, social media and engage with local residents and communities. Like all independent news providers in the UK, we’ve been hit hard by the pandemic and are currently seeking funding to survive

If you want to find out more about the challenges facing local independent news: visit the #SaveIndependentNews campaign website, get involved with S&C, donate, and help us spread the word on Facebook and Twitter. And if you want to know more about us, click here.