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 10th June, Robbie spoke to Gerald Vernon-Jackson about the shops reopening on Monday 15th June and the Government u-turn on fully reopening schools a month before the summer. Transcribed by Peta Sampson.
Robbie James: We kicked off the show with some positive numbers about no new deaths in Portsmouth over the last four days, [as of Wednesday 10th June] is that a positive sign that the second wave [might be prevented or delayed]?
Gerald Vernon-Jackson: It is really, really good news and if we are able to keep the R number down below 1, so that the infection rate doesn’t grow, that will be excellent. Every time there is a relaxation we can do a little bit more. It’s just trying to wait for those few weeks to see if it does make a difference to the R [number], if that’s just a little bit too far – but so far, it looks as if things are going in the right direction.
With 322 cases in the Portsmouth City Council area and 3,058 in Hampshire [as of 6pm, 10th June 2020], it shows how ‘well’ Portsmouth has done.
And the comparison with Southampton, I think Southampton’s figure [for confirmed cases] is 596, so we are almost half of the number of cases there are in Southampton. So, people have done really well in Portsmouth, to stick by the rules, keep social distance and make sure that the virus wasn’t able to spread.
[Editor’s note: Southampton’s number of confirmed cases was 604, as of 4pm, 11th June 2020, as reported in the Guardian‘s daily update. We were unable to confirm the number of confirmed cases on 10th June as most local authority reporting counts update daily.]
In the last hour, the Prime Minister announced the introduction of Support Bubbles, as of Saturday, people in England, single adult households in England can mix with one other household. Do you welcome this? Is this something that you were expecting?
No, I didn’t expect it but I think it’s not a bad idea. I think we have to be realistic that for people that have been on their own for 10 weeks, it’s tough; and people who don’t have a companion, a partner, a family member living in the house with them, that sense of loneliness and being cut off has been very profound. So, if they are able to have that one family, that one other person that they are able to go and visit, I think that’s going to be really good.
I know [it applies only to] single adult households, but I’ve seen headlines [that don’t make that clear]. Do you think it’s clear enough and do you agree that only people living alone [should] be involved in that?
All of this is about people making decisions about what’s right for them. I know people who are shielded, who are being very clear that they are not going out because if they do catch the virus, it’s likely to have a very, very bad effect on their health. We know lots and lots of parents with kids who could go to school are choosing not to send their kids to school because they want to make sure their kids’ health is protected. So, I think people are being very cautious, on the whole, and that’s probably exactly the right thing to do.
The announcement a couple of days ago from the Government to drop plans for all of England’s primary children to return for a month before the summer break, to me this felt like something that needed to happen. Do you agree?
Yes, the Government clearly couldn’t do its maths. You can’t get all kids in a school into a school building and keep social distancing. They just hadn’t done the simple maths to work out that that was completely unrealistic, which head teachers have been telling them for weeks and weeks. I’m glad, finally, they’ve got there but it just shows the level of unreality that they work with that they ever thought [it] was possible.
I know last week we were only a few days into the schools starting to reopen. In the last week I sense you’ve been getting more feedback that they’re not ready for more pupils?
There’s room for some more pupils, it’s just you can’t get everybody in, and in the primary sector, the Government has said you can’t do rotas. In the secondary sector you can, and rotas are probably going to be the way you go, because it’s the only way…
If you’ve got to have half the number of kids in school, you either have a rota or some kids do the morning and some kids do the afternoon. You just can’t physically get those numbers of kids into a classroom or a school and keep social distancing – and the advice is really clear, we’ve got to keep the social distancing.
I remember [Chief Medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty] saying that social distancing will probably have to be in place for the rest of this year. We are saying [schools] won’t be going back before the summer break but they’ll go back in September. That’s still not a year. Is it realistic that we’ll see everyone back in September, do you think?
I don’t know. We don’t know what progress is going to be [made] with a vaccine. We don’t know what we are going to be able to learn from other countries that are further advanced than we are in this epidemic. It may be with kids in school that we do [it] on a rota basis – that some do the morning and some do afternoon school. Maybe there’s different ways of doing things, but life won’t be the same. We can all be pretty certain of that.
I’d like to think that at least there would be some fresh start. Could you see delaying the start of the year?
I don’t know. In some ways I hope they don’t because I think we need to see if we can get back to some level of normality, as much as we are able to do.
So, one of the things that the Council will be announcing over the next couple of days is work that we are going to be doing to make sure that when the shops open again on Monday – most shops haven’t been open but will be able to be open from Monday – that we put in place – on all the different shopping streets in the city – measures so that people can queue to get into the shops, but they can also get past while keeping the two metre social distance.
Now, that’s going to be big, big changes on all the shopping streets, that effectively means we’re going to have to take out all the car parking because while people queue on the pavement, [other] people need somewhere to be able to get past them, and that will be on the roads where the parking has been in the past.
It’s these big, big changes to how we live our lives that are going to affect us for a long time to come.
So non-essential shops can reopen on Monday, from what you know in Portsmouth, how are local business owners and shop staff feeling, from what you know in Portsmouth?
They’re desperate to get some money in their tills…
Are they desperate to work, to go into that environment?
…I think people who own shops need those shops to survive. I know shopkeepers who are looking forward to opening again. I don’t know if everybody will, but if you don’t have money coming through the tills, businesses fail.
So, I think a lot of shops will reopen and they will find ways of operating in a socially distanced way that means that customers can come and go. There will be less use of cash, contactless payments through cards is much, much easier. Getting the shops open again will be a really important [part of] people feeling we are getting back to normal.
I suppose essentially what we can go on is what we’ve seen from the supermarkets. I’ve been to the supermarket in the last few weeks and I’ve felt fairly safe, however, the thought of suddenly working in a shop that is non-essential, suddenly being around so many people that are from different households, I feel a little bit anxious about that. There will be a lot of people [who] might have to go back [for] financial [reasons], but people’s health has to come first.
There are levels of risk in all of this. I’ve been to do the weekly shop at Tesco’s today and there are people stacking the shelves and at the tills. Without those people I wouldn’t have been able to go and buy our week’s shopping, we wouldn’t have food in the fridge. So, shop workers have been key workers throughout this epidemic and I think people in the shops around the city will want to open again. I’m sure they’ll put in an enormous amount of thought in trying to make sure that people who work in their shops are protected.
Shop owners and small business people really are dedicated to making sure that the people who work for them are looked after properly. I’m sure they’ll do it right. The longer we’ve been doing this the more we’ve learned how to do it right: so making sure there is hand gel as soon as people come into a shop, making sure everybody has got a mask on, making sure that you always keep that social distance two metres away from each other, that we don’t use cash anymore, [and] when people come in to buy things there is a plastic screen between them and the person at the till.
All these things are possible, all these things have been done by lots and lots of shops and I expect that lots of others that will be open from Monday will be the same.
This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 10th June 2020, and has been edited for clarity and length.
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Image by Sarah Cheverton.