Already under fire for a perceived lack of openness Hastings Borough Council (HBC) looks to have scored a massive own-goal this weekend by not telling anyone it had given permission for a Covid-19 testing station to set up on The Stade.
“…people who think they have Covid are strolling through the busy narrow streets of our lovely town…”
The pop-up testing centre run by the army rolled in to town on Saturday and set up on The Stade open space taping off large areas. Shortly afterwards Stephen Kelleher, manager of eat@thestade announced on social media they were being ‘forced’ to close as a result of the test centre being set up.
His statement said: “We are very sorry to say that eat@thestade is unable to open this weekend due to the presence of a Covid-19 testing station on the open space.
“We had been told that it would be small and tucked away near the beach, but this is not the case. We have no outside space and nobody is allowed to walk on the open space, which is taped off and patrolled by the army.
“We do not feel it is safe to operate inside, dining so close to this area and we 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. And there is a testing station in the middle of the old town – as we stood and despaired this morning, the only people we saw getting tests were walk-ups. That means that people who think they have Covid are strolling through the busy narrow streets of our lovely town right now.
It is our understanding that drive-through testing centres – as this one is supposed to be – are in out-of-town locations to avoid contamination of the local population.
“We have always steered away from serious posts as we believe we are here to help with forgetting the world for a while, but we are going to have to level with you here. The summer holidays will be make or break for most hospitality businesses in ours and other seasonal areas. We have now entered this race with one arm tied behind our back. We are told that the station will be back every three weeks. If we have to close regularly for three days – the length of time we are currently told they will be there – the chances of us surviving until next year decrease significantly.
“The location is just the worst we could think of.”
Of more than 150 replies was this from Steve Wilkins who said: “While I commend your decision to close for the safety of your staff and customers you really shouldn’t have your hand forced by such a ludicrous decision made by the council.”
A spokesman for the council said: “It was the only suitable space we could find,” adding, “It has to go somewhere.”
Old town traders who were just getting their business back up and running were furious with the council and quickly started a petition. Launched by Becky Smith the petition says: “…on behalf of the independent small businesses of Hastings, Old Town who have just begun to welcome visitors back to the area, the decision to put the pop-up Covid-19 testing centre in the open space, at 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.
“We suggest that the pop-up centre is relocated to a less populated site, such as The Oval.”
Maggie Shearin said: “You can dress this up any way you want but this was the biggest mistake that HBC has ever made, there are plenty of places but no, they stick it right in the middle of the busiest part of town forcing businesses to close, shame on you!
“You can come out with all the excuses you want, blame everyone else but yourselves, why not just hold ur hands up and move it, shame shame shame on you all.”
When the council did eventually release a statement it satisfied very few, it said: “HBC was asked some time ago by East Sussex County Council on behalf of Public Health England if we could identify a suitable location for a temporary Covid testing station in the town. A number of sites were looked at, and one was found which was thought to meet the criteria. However, when the military, who are operating the station, looked at the site the layout meant it couldn’t be used.
“The only other site we could identify which met the criteria was The Stade open space, which we agreed could then be used on an occasional basis.
“…there is an invitation for people with Covid symptoms to come right in!”
“Being in the town centre, The Stade is an accessible location for a local testing station for Hastings and its communities. These testing sites are very important in the ongoing management of coronavirus and are for the benefit of us all.
“We understand that some people have concerns about this location and potential risks but this is why the precautions that the council, NHS, government and Public Health England, have been communicating about washing hands, wearing masks if possible and keeping social distance are essential to us all staying safe.
“We are very sorry that eat@thestade felt they had to close while the testing station was open.
“It is not possible for the testing site to be relocated this time and will remain at The Stade for the next few days. After which the use of The Stade as a testing site location will be reviewed.”
Writing on facebook Jim Breeds said: “I have spent the last several weeks defending HBC’s position that the town was closed and people should stay away. Now there is an invitation for people with Covid symptoms to come right in!”
Janet Armour said: “This is unbelievable. At the very least it will affect businesses in the old town that have suffered lockdown and are just re- emerging, how cruel that is, and at the worse you will have deaths on your hands for encouraging infected people to walk through crowded, tourist areas and infect others.
“You, as the council, should have stood up for your town. You should hang your head in shame- and resign.”
Old Hastings councillor James Bacon eventually released a statement on Sunday saying: “I can totally sympathise with your concerns over this location, as I favoured another site due to the same reasons.
“I have also been in discussion with the Lead Member for this area (chair of the Foreshore Trust), Councillor O’Callaghan, to seek assurance and advice on this matter. I can assure you that this is being investigated further by our officers.
“I have also asked for alternative sites to be looked at again and for dialogue between eat@thestade to resume so that we can best manage the situation and look at what support the council can provide. eat@thestade had been consulted but it does sound like the testing station was not set up in the way we had been told it would be by the military and this must be resolved. We want to see this business and all businesses thrive in our town.
“The other location being proposed in the old town, as a potentially suitable place to hold the testing station – according to government criteria of requiring 60 parking spaces, plenty of space, easily accessible to the public and toilets, etc. was Rock-A-Nore car park, the latter being the location I favoured more as it would have been out of the way of local businesses and hopefully sectioned off from passing visitors and residents.
“I have asked for alternative locations to be looked at again, especially with the summer season upon us.”
Kevin Boorman, Marketing and Major Projects Manager for the council, said HBC was approached ‘by the military’ looking for a site: “It had to fit certain criteria – a large open space, with good access and public toilets. And it had to be available.
“It was the only suitable space we could find.”
He said he had been down to see Mr Kelleher, who he described as ‘very cross’: “I’m very disappointed. It’s not what we wanted. We never expected them to close,” Mr Boorman said.
“It is needed, so people don’t have to travel miles to be tested. It has to go somewhere.”
For Rob Lee leader of the opposition Conservative group on HBC it’s the latest demonstration of the council’s inability to communicate: “The weak response from HBC regarding the testing centre will be of little comfort to eat@thestade who had only recently reopened.
“I call upon the leadership of the council to publish the research they undertook to find a site to prove to local people that this was the only possible location for the testing centre.”
Main photograph courtesy of Allyson Breeds.
Share your thoughts on this issue in the comment section below. As things stand today, unless the council changes its mind, the testing centre will return to The Stade on August 8th and 9th.