But Hastings Councillors Are Not Amused

Lockdown regulations were further relaxed from yesterday (Monday 1st June) throughout England, with up to six people from different households permitted to meet together outdoors. Picnics, barbecues and sporting activities may take place both in public spaces and in private gardens, subject to two-metre distancing. 

For many extended families and close friendship groups that have depended on Zoom, Skype or other digital means to keep in virtual contact, meet-ups will be the first officially sanctioned in two and a half months. Last Thursday Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the anticipated changes as meaning that “friends and family can start to meet their loved ones – perhaps seeing both parents at once or both grandparents at once. For many people I know this will be a long awaited and joyful moment.”

PICTURE: Dave Young

It is obvious, however, that a large number of visitors to Hastings over the past couple of fine weekends, including the spring bank holiday, have not waited. Traffic volume on incoming roads has been high; beaches and promenades have been thronging. Gatherings of young men and women who don’t look like members of single households have sunbathed, picnicked, paddled and queued for fish-and-chip takeaways, some with little apparent regard for proximity limits. Some police forces across the country vowed to enforce the existing regulations. In Hastings they haven’t, or at least there have been very few in evidence to try it.

Hastings Borough Council has looked on without amusement. Leader Cllr Forward issued statements in advance of each weekend – on 21st May and again last Friday – not only insisting that the town remains closed to tourists but urging local residents still to stay at home as much as possible. 

Her message on 21st May was unequivocal: “Our position is clear, it hasn’t changed. This is because our priority remains, and will always be, keeping our residents safe.

“We have one of the lowest infection rates in the whole of England, and
we intend to do our part to keep it that way. So, for now our amenities
will stay closed. We want to keep Hastings safe, and these cannot just
be empty words, they must be backed up by actions. Opening our amenities
will encourage more people to visit and will lead to increased risk of infection.  

“Although the government has changed their message, we have not. Our message to residents is still stay safe and stay home as much as possible to save lives.” 

She promised to continue to monitor the situation, and review “once we see signs of a proper Track, Trace, Isolate and Support System in place and a sustained “R” rate that is below 1…We are aware some people may disagree with our decision and we accept that. But it won’t alter our stance. We are putting residents’ safety first. We are dealing with a virus that kills.” 

PM Johnson was claiming last week that all five tests required to move to the next phase of the lockdown were being met, and that “the changes that we have made are limited and cautious”. Cllr Forward vented further opposition last Friday: 

“Like other councils, we were not consulted about this nor previous easings of the lockdown measures announced by government [that] impact on our town. 

“Our position is driven by putting residents’ safety first. I’ve said this before and I will say it again: at the end of all of this it will be impossible to know if we overreacted, if we were too cautious. But it will be obvious if we weren’t cautious enough.” 

In the meantime, the policy of keeping public toilets closed has been challenged by Cllr Rob Lee, leader of the council’s Conservative opposition. He issued his own press release last Friday calling for their opening “without delay… they are an important amenity in the town and not to open them is damaging to public health.”

But Cllr Forward’s deputy, Cllr Colin Fitzgerald, supports her stance, saying: 

“It has been well documented that Hastings has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country. This will only remain the case if we are careful and responsible. We have had reports over the weekend of people defecating and urinating in the town’s open spaces because the toilets are closed. This isn’t acceptable at any time, but especially not during a global pandemic. Our toilets being closed is not justification for this behaviour. We are all accountable for our actions.  

“The council has made very clear its position and the fact that the toilets are closed. People need to plan accordingly, and we’re clear: we are still not ready to welcome tourists to our town. We know this is not ideal but again we believe this is the right thing to do to safeguard residents. Opening the toilets would also mean drawing away our limited cleansing resource from essential services like the crematorium and street cleansing operation towards cleansing public toilets.” 

For further discussion of the toilet issue, click here

For news of the reopening of retail shops and commentary on the government’s five tests, see page 5.

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