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The pop-up mobile testing unit run by the Army on the Stade open space (photo: Stephen Kelleher).

Knotty problem of a mobile testing site for Hastings

While Hastings Borough Council and its partners review options for an alternative site for the mobile testing unit, the original choice of the Stade open space appears to run counter to one of the key criteria. Nick Terdre reports.

Among the criteria for choosing a site for a mobile testing station, as communicated to HOT by the Department for Health and Social Care, is the understandable recommendation to keep away from the public: “A suitable distance from buildings in active use by the public.”

The criteria are not all set in stone – some flexibility is allowed where circumstances mean one or other cannot be met in its entirety. The version published by Waltham Forest Council in London as part of their local outbreak control plan (see appendix 2) uses a different wording: “Away from buildings in use by other occupants (no dual access).”

In either case the recommendation would appear to argue strongly against siting the testing station next to a well frequented cafe like Eat@ The Stade.

In another respect HBC appears to have a different version from that supplied by the DHSC. The council have suggested that the criteria include 60 parking spaces, while the DHSC criterion refers to “parking for at least 30 cars.”

When asked about the divergence in criteria, and whether the decision not to site the testing station in a car park was taken with the aim of not losing any parking revenue, HBC marketing and major projects manager Kevin Boorman told HOT:

“The criteria continue to evolve, it was over two months ago when we first looked at sites, and a lot has changed in Covid terms since then, and of course is continuing to change almost daily now again!

“We were concerned that the loss of a considerable number of parking spaces at Pelham car park in the middle of summer might impact on seafront traders.”

Site under review

The authorities’ undertaking to review the location of the testing station, and the fact that on the third day it was supposed to be in place on the Stade open space it failed to show up, having been moved elsewhere at short notice according to Boorman, suggest an alternative site will be found for its next visit.

The need to site mobile test units away from well-frequented areas suggests the sea front car parks are not suitable locations (photo: Russell Jacobs).

The availability of local testing is clearly important for a large urban centre like Hastings. What is perhaps surprising is that it took so long for one to be arranged in town, although a permanent testing station has long been in place in Bexhill. This is tucked away in the small car park in Wainwright Road a few streets away from London Road where, when HOT dropped by at the weekend, the only people to be seen were the test centre staff and those arriving to be tested.

Anywhere along the sea front in Hastings in the middle of summer would seem to pose difficulties in view of the large numbers of residents and visitors enjoying release from weeks of lockdown. It may well be difficult to find a suitable place, especially as it needs to include or be near to toilet facilities for use by the test station personnel.

But according to the Waltham Forest document, schools may also be considered, even if it means closing them for a day. During holiday periods that would not be necessary. They are away from the public, offer parking space in the playgrounds and have toilet facilities.

Informing the public

It is also to be hoped that the public will be informed next time an pop-up testing station pops up in Hastings. No warning was given last time. Stephen Kelleher, who with his wife Louise runs Eat@ The Stade, told HOT they were informed that a testing site would be set up on the Stade open space several weeks beforehand, but given to understand it would occupy only a restricted area away from the cafe. In the event it occupied the whole space and the cafe was not allowed to open the door which gives onto the space.

The presence of the mobile testing unit on the Stade open space caused several days’ loss of business for Eat@The Stade cafe (photo: Stephen Kelleher).

No further communication has been received since from the council, Kelleher said, though a nice message had been received from the Sussex Resilience Forum. They have now lodged a claim for compensation for loss of business earnings – part of the summer take is squirrelled away to tide the business over the winter, he said.

East Sussex County Council gave HOT the following statement about the policy for publicising the visit of a mobile testing unit.

“It is not the policy of the councils in Sussex as a whole to forewarn the general public as to the whereabouts of mobile testing units.  This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, essential workers will be informed via their employer so they can take advantage of the testing site.

“Secondly, members of the public who have symptoms will seek a test via the national Test and Trace system at which point they will be given a choice to attend the MTU if this is the best option for them.

“Thirdly, forewarning the general public may, in some cases, delay them from arranging and accessing a test.

“The general public will be notified the day before an MTU arrives in order to prompt those who are experiencing symptoms to book a test.”

One day’s notice

Readers may form their own opinion as to whether this is a convincing argument for secrecy. However we understand from it that one day’s warning will be given. Knowing where the station will be sited has the advantage of allowing those worried about coming into proximity with possibly infected people on their way to the site to take a test to give it a wide berth.

As ESCC pointed out, the pop-up centre serves two categories of people needing testing: key workers who need regular testing and individuals with symptoms. They otherwise have to go to Bexhill, although ESCC told HOT that home kits could be sent to symptomatic members of the public. However this was before the dispatch of home kits was suspended recently.

The county council also said: “The MTUs are not facilities that people can just turn up at. Anyone needing a test has to book an appointment through the NHS.

“Those reporting symptoms will have to attend by car and will be tested through the window – they can’t get out of their vehicle. Those without symptoms can attend on foot and they are likely to be key workers who have been in contact with someone with symptoms, or they are staff working in care homes or children’s residential homes, for example.”

According to council leader Kim Forward, around 140 people were tested on the two days the mobile unit was present on the Stade open space, with two positive results.

Meanwhile the petition to have the testing site moved away from the Old Town continues to gather signatures. On Wednesday the number stood at 1,949.

Criteria for siting mobile test units according to DHSC

  • Parking for at least 30 cars
  • The ability to implement a one-way system on site to allow social distancing
  • Toilet facilities for staff operating the MTU
  • Separate entry and exit points for pedestrians
  • A suitable distance from buildings in active use by the public
  • Hardstanding for drive-in capability
  • Site entry height restriction not below 2.8 metres
  • Approval of the site owner.

Posted 19:01 Wednesday, Aug 5, 2020 In: Covid-19

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