Residents of a block of flats in Stamford Hill living next to a Covid test centre are speaking out over the stress and anxiety caused by its opening, as well as raising concerns over lapses in mask-wearing and social distancing by staff members at the site.
The Sandford Court site, on which residents say work began with just 12 hours notice, was set up in response to the north of the borough being a coronavirus hotspot for much of the year, with the location needing to be local to Stamford Hill, constantly accessible with separate entrances and exits, on a hard surface, and not a risk to members of the public.
Council officers this week admitted there had been “teething problems” with the centre, with private company Serco, which runs it, committing to put in place new training after residents reported seeing staff members on the block’s games area without masks or wearing them round their chins, and not practising social distancing.
One Sandford Court resident said: “We as a community feel that no regards for our safety and mental well being was taken into consideration when the decision to build the centre in our only communal space was made.
“When this decision was made this area was still allowed to be used as we were not in a lockdown. The flats are quite small so its vital that the children and the rest of the community can use the outside space for exercise and visiting each other at a social distance.
“We understand the need for testing completely but the cost to our community is huge. All of us are starting to feel really stressed, anxious and concerned for our mental wellbeing and physical health. It is recommended that sites are positioned at least 10m away from any building. This site is 2m away from the doors to peoples houses, clearly too close.
“It also runs seven days a week from 7am to 8pm. We never get any chance of quiet from this as there are always security and trucks unloading and maintaining the site. It feels like we are living on an industrial estate during a very stressful period of time.
“We feel that this site needs to be relocated to a more suitable site, and several have been put forward by other residents, as it’s not been thought through or even consulted with the residents. We were only given twelve hours notice that they were building the site.
“Hackney Council clearly knew they were going to do this weeks or months before but knew if they mentioned it to us we would be opposed to it. They were correct. We are.”
The council has said that it is continuing to search for an alternative location, with the current station set to move after 13 weeks.
According to civil protection service documentation seen by the LDRS, 26 other sites have also been explored by the council, which presented all options to the Department for Health and Social Care, which would have had final sign-off on which was chosen. The documents also show three other sites suggested by residents earlier in the month.
Top of the list was the Stamford Hill Morrisons, which, while meeting the 625-square-metre size requirement and with a landowner willing to allow its use, presented a “severe risk of cross contamination of shoppers”, with its entrance route too narrow for HGVs and subject to delays through the involvement of legal teams.
Above Sandford Court, which appears eighth on the list, sites at Lincoln Court or the Fawcett Estate are considered, as well as at Springfield Park and the car park on nearby Spring Hill.
The site on Fawcett is too small at 409 sqm, with the documents also warning that installation of the centre would have necessitated the removal of play equipment at the estate and would have incurred “anticipated anxiety to residents”.
The use of the Spring Hill car park would have meant closing a local business and the Lea Valley Rowing Club, according to the documents, and was judged to present mobility difficulties due to its inclined access road. Springfield Park, where a site would cause “environmental damage”, does not have the hardstanding ground required.
Meanwhile, using the play decks at Lincoln Court presented “severe structural problems” according to planners, and would have required significant underpinning, as well as causing “anticipated anxiety to residents”.
The decision to install the site at Sandford Court was taken despite the space being too small, though the documents judge that the site “could be squeezed in” nonetheless, while accepting that the centre could cause “anticipated anxiety to residents”, as it has now done.
It also noted the loss of the games area, while pointing to this part of the site’s closure during strict lockdown.
The document also reveals other options which could have been used, including space between the blocks of the Woodberry Down estate, which would have needed retarmaccing, though council planners point out that this would have also held up the blocks’ demolition under regeneration plans.
Tennis and basketball courts on Clissold Park were also weighed up, but appear to have been dismissed due to the “huge cost” of constructing a roadway and carrying out remedial work afterwards.
The council had asked residents to make their own suggestions for an alternative site, and of those, a basketball court on Bethune Road is not big enough and an empty space next to St Ignatius Church is outside Hackney and too overgrown, while the council is understood to be attempting to access an empty pitch at the end of Hurstdene Gardens, having already tried several times.
Town Hall health lead Cllr Chris Kennedy has underlined that the station at Sandford Court poses “no health risk” to residents, while accepting that the estate is “not an ideal setting”.
He added: “Work is continuing to find an alternative site in Stamford Hill that would allow the testing station to be moved. We have also responded in full to residents’ queries about why certain other sites were rejected and have looked seriously at all their additional suggestions.
“Private contractor Serco has promised that it has reiterated correct PPE requirements to staff with additional management checks in place to make sure that the centre’s barrier gate is staffed at all times.
While staff members do have a ‘welfare’ area in the site where they are allowed to not wear facemasks as long as they are socially distanced, Serco’s London regional manager for its Covid-19 testing services Tom Hopkins has apologised to residents for any lapses they have witnessed.
In an email to residents, Hopkins said: “We have strict procedures in place on all our sites for appropriate PPE to be worn at all times where required for safety purposes as directed by the Department of Health and Social Care. This includes occasions where staff are stationed in areas that customers will have access to
“I have had a member of my management team stationed on site today to review the current situation, deliver appropriate re-training and ensure that the correct standards are currently being adhered to at Sandford Court. They are also identifying any further improvements that can be made to our operation to support the welfare of local residents.”
The Serco boss added that it is working to ensure that smaller collection trucks are used at the site “wherever possible”, in response to further concerns from locals over traffic disruption and access difficulties
Andy Wells, manager of the council’s civil protection service, said: “The last thing we want to happen is for residents to feel vulnerable, especially given how safe we have made the site
“We do appreciate that it is important for staff behaviour to reflect that safety on site and I will work diligently with the Test and Trace team to ensure that happens.”
Town Hall health lead Cllr Chris Kennedy said: “This testing station was put in place at a time when coronavirus infection rates in Stamford Hill were rocketing, and Sandford Court was the only identified option in the area that met the government’s strict criteria for a safe, secure testing facility.
“The facility has meant thousands of people can safely get a test when they need it, supported those who need to self-isolate to do so quickly, and helped stop the spread of the virus.
“Since then we have seen infection rates in Stamford Hill reducing. There is no doubt that the support of Sandford Court residents in accommodating this facility on their estate has helped save lives – something that I, alongside no doubt the wider community, am extremely grateful for.
“Although responsibility for managing this facility sits with the government, we are grateful for the feedback from residents and have always worked to address the issues raised and ensure disruption is kept to a minimum.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The government has set up more than 700 test sites across the country, where there is space and local demand for testing.
“We engage with local authorities and their directors of public health before launching new local testing sites to ensure that the sites can be managed safely, and all sites are carefully designed and have detailed clinical operating procedures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Anyone with coronavirus symptoms can get a free test and must get tested as soon as they develop symptoms.”