Protest causes a rethink over location of  ‘pop-up’ Covid-19 test centre

Alternative sites for the ‘occasional’ mobile testing unit, which appeared in the heart of Hastings Old Town, are now being investigated after it caused a nearby café to close and provoked a wave of opposition from residents and traders in the area.

The army-operated unit arrived at The Stade Open Space on the busy Saturday of 18th July to test keyworkers and other members of the public with pre-booked appointments only. 

The view from [email protected] 
PICTURE: Stephen Kelleher

Those with symptoms had been instructed to visit in cars while asymptomatic patients were able to walk in. 

The unit was originally intended to remain for three days, but did not return on the Monday, and had been organised by the Sussex Resilience Forum (SRF), a group involving Hastings Borough Council, Public Health at East Sussex County Council, NHS and emergency services, formed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mixed messages

Stephen and Louise Kelleher, who rent their café [email protected] from the council, say that while they’d been informed about the unit a few weeks previously, they’d not known when it would appear.

“We were told there would be some testing, of some kind, at some point but that it would be small and discreet and tucked away near the lifeboats,” said Louise Kelleher. “The implication was that it would not affect business. We were given no dates, no details and no consultation.”

The couple, who are directors of [email protected] Ltd, had arrived that morning to find the space taped off and were told by military personnel they could not open their doors or put out chairs and tables because the area was ‘a no footfall zone’.

Posting on their Facebook page they announced: “We do not feel it is safe to operate inside dining so close to this area and are pretty convinced that the view of soldiers in face masks in a hazard-taped no-go zone would put off all but those with the most dystopian appetites.

“We cannot tell you how sad, angry and scared we are about this. Our staff, some of whom are already anxious due to health conditions, have gone home, one in tears. 

 “The Old Town is filling up with the first visitors of the school holidays and we are shut, with no opportunity to make back some of our losses from the last quarter.” 

The unit was moved further away on the Sunday, but their
staff members, one of whom has asthma, were reluctant to return to work while it was there.

“The public perception of a Covid testing site is anxiety-inducing, not just for my staff and my customers but also for me and my family,” Louise Kelleher told HIP.

Public opposition

By Monday 20th July a petition, started by resident Becky Smith on behalf of local businesses, had gained over 1,600 signatures; this had increased to over 1900 a week later. It demanded that the unit be relocated “to a less populated site” arguing that placing the testing station on The Stade  “could completely jeopardise the area’s recovery, in all senses, as well as increasing the risk to the local population”.  

“Our attention has been drawn to the fact that this is on a ‘walk-in’ basis, meaning that individuals (potentially with COVID) are drawn to our very small, narrow and BUSY streets,” it declared. 

Meanwhile, a joint statement was hastily issued by Hastings Borough Council, Sussex Resilience Forum and the Director of Public Health for East Sussex County Council explaining that The Stade had been chosen above other sites which had been ‘looked at with military advisers’ because it ‘met the strict criteria and faced with the alternative of not having a testing station at all, we agreed it could then be used on an occasional basis.’

“I want to reassure the local community that they were not exposed to greater risk by the temporary Covid-19 testing centre,” said Darrell Gale, Director of Public Health for ESCC.

“These mobile testing units are a vital component of our effort to manage the pandemic in East Sussex. They provide quick and easy access for the local community to a testing facility, reducing the need for people to travel long distances to a testing station. 

“Symptomatic people will only be accepted if they are in a car. Those on foot are likely to be asymptomatic essential workers, who pose no more risk there than if they went shopping or anywhere else.” 

But the Chair of Sussex Resilience Forum, Superintendent Marc Clothier of Sussex Police said: 

“The council, with partners, will continue to look for alternative suitable sites for the pop-up testing unit to be hosted in the town. However, in the interest of public health, paramount importance will be that the town can host mobile testing sites when they are needed.”

Alternative sites

In the joint statement, Leader of HBC Kim Forward said The Stade had not been the council’s preferred choice, but that it was an ‘accessible location’, while HBC’s Marketing and Major Projects Manager, Kevin Boorman, later told HIP that Summerfields Leisure Centre and The Oval had both been considered as sites but were rejected because they didn’t fulfil criteria laid down which were ‘access, layout and provision of toilets’. 

 “Verging on cruel”

But this was not enough to assuage opposition to the site being selected in the first place and re-used in the future.

A furious letter to MP Sally-Ann Hart written by Bianca Eichler on behalf of residents and Old Town traders demanded to know why residents and business owners had not been told that the testing unit would be appearing “in an area where it is virtually impossible to enforce social distancing”.

“As a resident and a trader this is simply mind boggling,” she wrote. 

The implication was that it would not affect business

“Hastings Old Town is a unique community that has weathered many many storms. This year we have lost the following events: Jack in the Green, Pirate Day, Hastings Old Town Week and possibly more later this year. The damage to our local independent traders has been massive.

“To then place a Covid testing station in the middle of this area on a day when traders are desperate to make up for lost income is verging on cruel. 

“We understand the need for testing centres, we understand that these testing centres have very specific parameters that they have to meet in order to be used. However, this may be the worst possible placement the council, government and powers that be could have made. 

“We would like a clear explanation as to why this cannot be somewhere else in the town (this is not nimbyism it is common sense) and why we as traders and residents were not informed.” 

Ms. Hart had yet to respond to the letter at the time of going to press. However, HBC has since revealed that over the two days the testing unit was there, 124 people were tested with 2 testing positive for Covid-19.

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