Express FM: Interview with Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson #4

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 20th May, Robbie spoke to Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson about the extension of schools’ opening (they never closed) on 1st June, care homes and Covid-19 testing. Transcribed by Angela Cheverton.

Robbie James: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the government are targeting June 1st for year R1 and 6 to return to classrooms, followed by the remaining primary school children by the end of the month. However, a statement recently from Portsmouth City Council’s website from Cabinet [Member] for [Children,] Education [and Families] Suzy Horton stressed that parents should not send their children to school unless you have heard from your child’s school that this will be possible and that arrangements are in place. She also reiterated the pupils will only return if the conditions are right for them to do so.

We know there’s nothing definite about classrooms returning on 1st June, but is there a growing concern that we’ve not heard a lot more since last Sunday and June is now only 10 days away?

Gerald Vernon-Jackson: Well, I think there are lots of questions.

One of the big ones is that the government says they’re going to announce their final decision on the 29th of May, a Friday evening, expecting [schools] to be up and running on Monday morning. You’ve just got to give people more notice than that.

Where we’re at at the moment is just to say we will support schools in the decisions they make. And different schools will make different decisions because different schools are built differently. If you’re an infant school and you’ve got to have all the kids back in year R1, you probably haven’t got room to spread people out very far. If you’re a pre-primary then maybe you’ve got quite a lot more space that you can spread people out [in], so I think different schools are going to come up with different answers, about what’s safe in their school, and our view is that we will support the schools in making that decision.

So, I suppose this is quite different to a lot of the other issues that have come up because a lot of the time it’s been a sense of everyone taking a sort of pretty standard approach, everyone going with government guidelines. Do you think that this is going to be individual to each school?

Yes, because schools are built differently. So, trying to do social distancing in one school might be possible and in another school it might not be possible. And we’ve got to rely on the professional nature of teachers and head teachers to make those decisions about what’s safe in their schools.

So, if there’s parents listening, one child goes to one school and one child goes to another school, they shouldn’t assume that all schools will start at the same time?

And each school will be in touch with parents of kids who are pupils in their school to tell them what their decision is and when they think is going to happen. The feedback I’m getting from parents is they won’t be sending their kids back and they are very uncertain about how safe things are, therefore they want to make sure they keep their kids at home and keep them safe.

And is that a concern that has been expressed by Portsmouth City Council directly to the government because I know lots of councils in the UK openly oppose the reopening?

We’ve not taken that line. We’re not taking the ideological line. We will back teachers. We will back the schools in the decisions they make because they know their school better. And I think it’s about trusting those teachers to make the right decision.

So, you think the schools can say no?

Yeah, if the school says we cannot do this safely, that does not work in this school, then we’ve got to back that school and what they decide. They’re the better people who know their school, [and] know their kids better than anybody else.

Do you think there’s going to be some disparity though as different students progress at different rates? If schools are going back at different times, I can’t even imagine how muddly that must get for things like higher education?

It is confusing and we just don’t know how it’s going to pan out.

So, what would you like from the government? [Would you] like an announcement sooner than May 29th?

Well, yes. Personally I think they’re going at this too fast, and I think it is probably better that we should be still staying at home more, as opposed to the Staying Alert slogan they’re currently using. So I’m fairly cautious with this stuff. But I think the absolutely important bit is that we should trust the head teachers of [our] schools.

We get a lot of messages about [following] the government’s advice – which of course we’re all being told to do. But a lot of people seem concerned the council isn’t necessarily making it clear enough what concerns we have with the current government. It’s hard for things to change, surely, if we don’t communicate our opinions?

We communicate them with ministers absolutely loud and clear and we talk to ministers on a regular basis. They are left in absolutely no doubt how we think they’re running this. People needn’t be worried about that at all.

But I think we’re not keen to make COVID-19 a political football. I’m not going to be grandstanding [with] statements of this, that and the other – we just want to make sure we support families across the city as much as we can. This isn’t the time to be doing party political punchbags.

And what else are we going to see in the coming weeks?

The bit that most people will be interested in is that on 1st June we’re looking to bring back residents’ car parking zones and [to] open the car parks and the [paid-for] on the street car parking.

We’ll also be looking at closing some roads to give people more space to either get on their bikes or to walk in a more social distanced way. We’re going to be shutting the roads between Isambard Kingdom Brunel Road, which is near the town station, so that people can walk down through Guildhall Walk, with Guildhall walk closed [to cars] as well and [the] Guildhall Square is already pedestrianised.

Also, Charlotte Street, near Cascades, between each of the cycle lanes. At the moment the cycle lanes in and out of the city go along the dock[yard] wall which is really narrow. Therefore we want a second one so that people can cycle in and out of the city in a safe way but be socially distanced.

We’re also looking to take one lane out southbound [on the] Eastern Road, all the way from the roundabout where the motorway goes over down to Tangier Road, taking advantage of the reduced traffic to have one lane just for cyclists, so that we leave more space on the pavement for pedestrians.

I’m sure those will all be welcomed changes to residents of Portsmouth but of course they’re all short-term fixes. Do you think that we’re likely to see in the future, more long term or permanent cycle [routes]?

Yes, I think we’ll look at how, in residential areas, [we can] make sure roads aren’t used as through roads, [that] they’re not used as cut-throughs. You can quieten most roads so cyclists are safer and get people to drive on the bigger distributor roads more, so if cyclists choose to cycle through a quiet residential area, it’s a quiet residential area and they’re not feeling at risk of traffic. Things like that enable people to leave the car at home more and cycle more.

Can you bring us up to date with the situation with both testing and also care homes, [both] in general, but also the testing going on in care homes. Am I right in saying results have been delayed at the testing site at  Tipner?

Yeah, we’ve had some people saying it’s taking a long time to get the testing results. I hope that’s getting better.

They seem to be making some progress on testing and that is one of the things I think everybody’s agreed on that we didn’t get right at the beginning. So I’m pleased we’ve got the testing centre down at Tipner because it makes life easier for some people.

The bit I think is really good is that the government have agreed to do whole care home tests. So, in a care home you test everybody at once, all the staff, and all the residents. We’re trialling that in two council-run homes and I think that will mean it’s much easier for people to know how to treat individuals who are resident – whether they have been in isolation or not – and [also] to know staff are well and work or they need to go home and not infect other people. I think that’s the biggest step forward we’ve had this week.

And we’ll see more of that in the coming weeks?

Yeah. So, we’ve got 39 care homes in the city. In some [it] is easier than others as some of them are new, modern [and] purpose built. Lots of them are just converted Victorian houses.


This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 20th 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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