Express FM: Interview with Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson #5

Every week, Express FM runs a live show dedicated to news about the Coronavirus in Portsmouth including interviews with a range of politicians, experts, residents and businesses. On 27th May, Mason Jordan (standing in this week for Robbie James) spoke to Gerald Vernon-Jackson about the reopening of schools in Portsmouth on the 1st June and how that will play out in the city. Transcribed by Peta Sampson.

How are you?

I’m very well, thank you, although ludicrously busy.

Your job is probably busy at the best of times but at the moment I suppose there’s a thousand questions being thrown your way?

Yes, and I live in video-conferencing meetings.

[Are you] still at home for as [much time] as possible?

Yes, I’m trying to. I’m going out maybe once a week to get shopping, my prescriptions. That’s it.

How are you coping doing your job, is it completely stressful and manic trying to do it this way or is it okay?

It’s alright. I think, probably, I’m luckier than some because I’m really busy. Now, my other half is retired and therefore has less to do and I think that’s probably more difficult for him than me.

What [are] the biggest challenges you’ve been facing in the last week or so?

I think there’s been big issues for us with what happens with schools, what happens with parking coming back in, with shops reopening – so a range of different things. I think some things have gone well with no deaths in the care homes that the city runs for a couple of weeks now, so the outbreak that appeared to have happened there has gone. But there’s always something, so we are having to sort out what to do at the seafront at the moment.

There’s some road closures along there allowing people to keep social-distancing measures [while] exercising but now the lockdown restrictions have been lifted slightly – in the sense that people can go out, exercise as much as they want, go out and meet friends in the park, Southsea Common, especially over the Bank Holiday weekend, getting busier than it has for a long time. How are we coping with that?

We’ve not needed to open any of the car parks, so [they] all will reopen on the 1st [June], except the one at Canoe Lake because that’s within the bounded-off area to give more space for people to get round on the prom.

On the whole, things have gone okay, we’ve had some problems, but most people are behaving very sensibly. We’ve had some groups of people down there who haven’t been and then the police try to make sure that they change what they do. We’ve had some problems. We’ve had two gangs who’d had a fight somewhere else, came down to the Common and had a fight again but that’s very, very rare.

So people have been behaving pretty well and it’s been lovely to see small groups of people littered all over the Common enjoying the sunshine

I suppose it’s not looking at it necessarily through a negative lens but you need to be vigilant. How can the police react if they do see something? How do they actually cope with that?

They try to encourage, they try to educate but their enforcement powers are very, very limited. The government gave powers to enforce social distancing in Wales but they didn’t give it to England.

So ultimately, if I was being unruly and I was there with a load of mates I could say ‘No’?

Yes, you can, and the government have been remarkably stupid in not giving the police that power.

What can Portsmouth City Council do about it?

Nothing, because they haven’t given us that power either. The government just haven’t got it right. People think that there’s lots of fines that people can give if they’re not two metres apart but actually, that’s not the case.

Now, during this crisis when there’s a lot of people that are working from home, they’ve been furloughed, there’s less footfall throughout the City, I know that Portsmouth City Council are very keen to do up some roads [and] get them to a healthy maintenance level. I know Albert Road has got a couple of roadworks, margins and stuff –

Oh, it’s nuts, isn’t it?

Now there’s a few people complaining that doesn’t allow enough space for social distancing?

Yes, they’re completely right and I’ve moaned about it as well, because these work people have restricted the pavement a great deal but unfortunately they’re laying cables for broadband. Again the government’s decision is that getting that cabling in for broadband is more important, at the moment, than social distancing. So they said it’s okay for them to work in the way that they are doing. We would like to say ‘No’ to them and that you can’t be doing it during this time but unfortunately we’re trumped by the government.

[Editor’s note: on 27th March, the government issued guidance to all Highways departments in all UK Local Authorities, summarising what is and is not expected during the current crisis. This included the advice that ‘Highway and utility depots and offices remain open and work will continue because it has to in order to keep the country going.’ For a summary of the advice, see ISPReview, here.]

And in terms of other ways to keep people safe, there’s going to be more people going to work as lockdown restrictions are lifted, shops get opened and [so on]. [Are] there plans to revise larger spaces for people to walk, [introducing] temporary barriers so people can walk along, or bus lanes?

It’s encouraging people to both walk and cycle.

One of the most important cycle routes in and out of the city, particularly for people that are commuting, is along the dock wall. People come down the western side of the island, get to the naval base and go along the dock wall and it’s really narrow, as a cycle lane and footpath there. So to make sure there is an alternative we’ve taken the cars out of Charlotte Street, just at the southern end of the Tricorn car park by Cascades. There’s a separate route for people to be able to use on bikes going in and out of the city that way, without having to [get] too close to anybody else if they are going past them or overtaking.

Then [in] the area from the town station, Isambard Kingdom Brunel street, through the Civic Offices and Guildhall Square down to Guildhall Walk, again, we are going to be taking out the cars there. Buses will continue but we’ll take the cars out so people feel there’s a bit more space for them to be able to walk.

We’ll review each of those and then hopefully, the biggest one is on the Eastern Road, taking one lane out coming south from where the M27 is down to Tangiers Rd; to take one lane out so that that becomes the cycle [lane and] there’s more space to cycle.

If we look at the traffic, there’s a lot of drive-throughs starting to get a little bit busy. McDonalds is going to open next week, the tip/recycling centre at Port Solent, that’s been opened. There tend to be quite some long queues there, not so much now as when it first reopened. [Is] the number plate system going to be extended?

The number plate system carries on until we get to an online booking system.

You’re planning that people can book in when they are going to take their rubbish to the tip?

Yes, so it works for them.

Having the number plate system where half the people can come on one day and half on another has significantly reduced the size of the queues there. All the feedback I’ve had is it’s working really well. There have been queues but that’s inevitable. Normally you’d be able to get 18 cars in there and we were originally down to four at a time, now it’s five and we hope for six, so it is significantly less capacity but we are doing it in a way that is safe.

Who should be taking rubbish up to that recycling centre?

You should only be taking stuff if it’s really urgent. If you’ve been clearing the loft and you’ve got a bit of stuff, keep hold of it for a bit longer if you can.

The big thing this week is schools reopening from Monday. I understand some schools have got an inset day on Monday but from the 1st June –

Well, some schools will reopen but not all schools. Actually, to be accurate, schools have been open already because they have been looking after the kids of people who are key workers.

So schools have been operating all the way through this but the number of kids going will increase. In some parts of the country, councils are pushing all schools to reopen on 1st [June]. In other parts of the country councils are pushing none of them to be open on the 1st because they don’t think it’s safe.

Our view has been that it’s very much down to the school to decide. They are the experts, they know their kids, they know their teachers, they know the physical space within the school. And each school is different. People should check the council website or talk to the school to make sure when they are expecting your kids to go back. And if a school says it’s not safe to be open again we won’t push them. They’re the people who are the experts, we will support the school.

Do you have the number of schools that are going to be reopening next week?


A percentage or anything?

No, because governing bodies and head teachers are making the decisions over the next few days and we will just see what they choose to do. But it’s got to be the right thing to trust the teachers and the head teacher to make the right call about the kids they know, and the teachers they know, in the school that they know.

From the parents’ point of view, do they get an option? If their school is opening for year one, they’ve got a year-one [child], do they have to send them into school? Will they get penalised if they keep their child at home?

I think there will be a lot of parents who will say, ‘I don’t want to put my child at risk’. Therefore I think quite a few people, a few parents will say, ‘I don’t want to do this’. As I understand it, the council won’t be prosecuting parents if they don’t feel it’s safe for their kids to go to school.

So it won’t be treated as a normal term when someone is taken out for a holiday for a week, it won’t be treated the same as that?

No, taking your kid out for a holiday is one thing. A parent saying, ‘I don’t feel it’s safe for my child to be there,’ is a very different thing.

So, you support those parents if they decide that?

I think it’s absolutely right people look at what’s happening in each school and make the decision. We know the way to defeat this virus is people socially isolate and stay at home. If that’s their feeling then we won’t be ‘cross’ with them.

Okay, thank you very much for joining us, Is there anything else that –

Yes, I think the other thing that’s important is from the 1st June, all the residents’ car parking zones in the city come back up into operation. All the car parks will reopen and all the places which are ‘Pay and Display parking on roads’ will come back into operation.

It’s a step back to normality but people – for the last two months – have been used to having a free-for-all with this and that is going to change on the 1st and that’s really important.

Okay, so penalty charge notices coming out.

I think we will be generous and we will not be pushing it, but the traffic wardens will be out.

That’s from 1st as well?


Thank you very much, Gerald.


This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 27th 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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