Express FM: Interview with Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson #3

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 13th May, Robbie spoke to Gerald Vernon-Jackson about the easing of lockdown and what that means for the residents of Portsmouth, including an update on care homes. Transcribed by Peta Sampson on 14th May 2020.

RJ: It feels like we’ve maybe turned a little bit of a corner with the virus, do you feel that way?

Absolutely, and the two care homes in the city that have caused us the most concern, where there have been most deaths, are now looking as if they either have nobody who’s exhibiting symptoms of having Coronavirus or they’ve only got one. So, it’s likely that they are both going to be declared free of the outbreak of Covid-19 that they’ve had for some time and where there have been quite a few deaths.

I think you’re right, it feels as if we are beginning to crack this.

Do you think there is a pandemic in Portsmouth?

Interestingly, I think [the] number of people confirmed with the virus [in Portsmouth] is around half that of Southampton.

[Editor’s note: on 14th May, Coronavirus cases in Portsmouth were 144 per 100,000, in Southampton, 217 per 100,000 population.]

Southampton is a bit bigger than Portsmouth but not that much bigger, so the number of cases is lower. But the trouble is we know  – because there hasn’t been nearly enough testing – that there [are] lots of people who have had Covid who haven’t been tested [and] who don’t appear in the figures. The proportion is probably similar in Southampton to Portsmouth, so I just think we’ve managed to do things better here than in some places because I think most people have been so good about following the rules about social isolation and social distancing.

That’s what I want to talk about this evening. There are people now who are not staying at home [and] are well within their rights to be going outside. If you’re a Portsmouth resident at the moment that is about to go outside, what should you expect?

The basic is: remember social distancing at all times.

There are things you can do in a socially distanced way and there are things you can’t. You will be able to go and play golf if there are two of you and you keep two metres apart. You will be able to go and play tennis but you can only play singles, you can’t play doubles. You can probably do the pitch and putt, you can go sailing, you can go swimming at the beach, you can go canoeing but with all of these things, it’s about making sure that you keep two metres apart, unless it is with somebody that you are living with all the time anyway.

There are things that won’t be possible for people to do because it’s not possible for people to do it in a way that keeps them two metres apart. We can’t have games of football, cricket, rugby, whatever, because people get close to each other while they are playing games. We can’t reopen children’s playgrounds or the outside gyms because people will be handling those bits of equipment and we know the virus can live on surfaces for some time. So, those are the reasons people won’t be able to go and do those.

We’ve heard that in places like Birmingham the council are cutting grass two metres apart to find ways to help people along [with social distancing]. They said they are not making it a law they are just finding ways to assist people. Are we going to see anything like that in Portsmouth?

I don’t know, I think that’s probably a good idea. We probably mow the grass in a different way on the Common, because it is behind a tractor and it’s probably not possible to do that without getting a different sort of lawn mower. But I think it’s a sensible thing to look at.

It’s the first I heard of it but it might be a really good idea.

The worry for me, straightaway, we are hoping that people won’t use public transport as much, so I imagine we will see more people walking about. We are quite lucky that we have a lot of green space in Portsmouth?

Yes. The reason we shut the roads at the seafront was to make sure that there was enough space for people to be able to go down the seafront and keep two metres apart, and because there might be more people it seems like a sensible thing to keep doing until this is over.

We can’t do it everywhere just because there are some places that are a pinch point, like South Parade Pier, where the pier is really close to the road, which is really close to buildings so we can’t shut it there. But we are trying to make sure that there is space for people to be able to exercise, go out for a walk and keep two metres apart and not be pushed together.

The initial road closure just down by the seafront, that was also to stop people travelling to exercise so are we going to see that reopened?

No, we are going to keep the road shut for the moment. It was shut for two reasons, one was to discourage people coming from a long way away and the other was to give people space to be able to exercise in a social[ly] distance[d] way.

One of those reasons has changed, people are now allowed to travel, to go out, but the other one hasn’t, so we are going to keep the road closed because it means that people can exercise and still keep two metres away from each other and therefore, not be a risk to other people.

Plenty of us are [now] encouraged not to use public transport. Do you think this will change Portsmouth’s transport policy, I know that there will be plenty of people that will be in favour of that happening?

So, we’ve been looking at what we can do to encourage people to ride bikes, etc. We’ve been looking at some areas where we can maybe take some road space while traffic volumes are low to allow more cycling, more walking.

We are looking at taking out one lane of the Eastern Road coming South for traffic, because it is two lanes and [to] just use that for bikes, because there are more people on bikes and traffic levels are very low. If traffic levels go back up again then we’ll have to look at that again and [it] will probably have to come out.

One of the interesting things, as I understand it, is that in Wuhan, where this all started the amount of people using their own private cars has doubled since the outbreak because people no longer trust being on public transport. Now, I hope we don’t go the same here but I think there will be a lot of people who will be very frightened about going on the bus or the train who therefore, might take a car instead.

There are plenty of people who can’t necessarily walk to work or cycle because it would take forever.

And they probably, in the past, did go by car, but we’ll just have to see what happens. We are also a city with a fairly low ownership level of cars, in terms of our population, but it just doesn’t feel like that because we’ve got so little space.

I do worry about the amount of cars that we might see but residents of Portsmouth will be reassured to know that it’s being monitored. Different things could change, day-by-day or week-by-week.

We are looking at other areas where we can have routes down to the seafront [for example], where we can try to take cars out for a bit, so we can see if that creates a place that is safe so people can get down to the seafront, walking down or cycling down – again keeping two metres apart from each other.

What advice would you give to people that are anxious about being back outside and maybe have vulnerable people back at home?

Well, I think that the country needs to be staying at home a bit more probably than the Government does.

So for people that are in the vulnerable group, anybody over 70, people who are in the high-risk shielded group because of medical conditions, the advice is that you should remain at home and you shouldn’t go out at all. And, the people living with them, their families shouldn’t go out unless they absolutely have to.

I think people are learning about doing things in a socially distanced way so that they do keep two metres apart. I think people need to do what they feel safe with. So actually, if you are worried about going out in the middle of the day when there are lots of people, go out maybe, at seven o’clock at night when it is much quieter and go for a walk when you are more likely to be on your own.

Do the thing that you think is safe for you, but I think the basic [point] of this is if you can stay in and stay at home that is the safest place for you to be.


This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 13th 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.

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Image by Sarah Cheverton.

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