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Coronavirus test centre opens in Ashford's Victoria Road car park today amid concerns over location

A new Covid-19 testing centre is to open on the edge of a town centre today - but anxious residents have raised fears over its location.

KentOnline revealed yesterday how a regional test site is being set up in Ashford's Victoria Road car park as the district continues to suffer one of the highest infection rates in the country.

The Victoria Road car park only opened in February, but has now been turned into a Covid-19 test centre. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The Victoria Road car park only opened in February, but has now been turned into a Covid-19 test centre. Picture: Barry Goodwin

But residents have shared concerns about opening the centre in the car park, which is next to Victoria Road Primary School and overlooked by a busy footbridge.

In a letter to Ashford Borough Council's (ABC) chief executive Tracey Kerly, South Ashford resident Jean Shrubb begged the authority to stop the launch of the facility.

"It's the most ridiculous place for it," she said.

"There is a primary school located adjacent to the Victoria Road site.

"Yes, I hear you say, young children are far less likely to get it, but, sorry, my friend's three-year-old has just spent three weeks on ITU (Intensive Therapy Unit] with complications associated with coming into contact with the virus at nursery school and will be under the care of a cardiologist for some time to come."

Where the new Covid-19 testing centre is going in Victoria Road, next to a primary school
Where the new Covid-19 testing centre is going in Victoria Road, next to a primary school

Mrs Shrubb says the Stour Centre car park - where the Army has already been carrying out Covid-19 testing during the crisis - would have been a better spot for the new facility.

In her letter to the council, she added: "It is impossible to keep two metres away from people using the footbridge over the railway line and this is the major pedestrian route to town from South Ashford.

"Is it appropriate that people from South Ashford, an area already considered to be one of the poorest parts of the borough and all that that entails, have now to reconsider how they will get to town for essential shopping?"

"Will ABC be undertaking regular cleaning of the footbridge and steps, including all handrails associated with this walkway, something it hasn't done for almost 30 years?

"There has been a temporary test site located in the Stour Centre car park. Is it a case of not in my backyard from ABC?

The car park sits next to the Victoria Road Primary School, which can be seen to the left of this photo behind green fencing. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The car park sits next to the Victoria Road Primary School, which can be seen to the left of this photo behind green fencing. Picture: Barry Goodwin

"For now the Stour Centre site is perfect, well away from any pedestrian footpaths, large enough to accommodate a greater number of cars and not impede traffic."

In response, Ms Kerly said she "totally understands" the concerns about the site, which is set to open today after the town's MP Damian Green lobbied the government during a House of Commons session last week.

Ms Kerly sought to reassure Mrs Shrubb, writing: "The testing station is a drive in, drive out facility and the test will be carried out in the car either by the individual or supported by a trained tester to undertake the test on behalf of the individual wearing appropriate PPE.

"The test is then distributed into a separate location on exit where it is then taken off site for testing.

"The testing area is a distance from any public access that runs alongside the car park and this access will remain open, enabling residents to continue to use the access between the test centre and the school safely as they access the high street across the bridge.

Staff at the testing site this morning. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Staff at the testing site this morning. Picture: Barry Goodwin

"The only access to the test site is by car and will be pre-booked appointment service.

"It will not be possible to just turn up and be tested."

Ms Kerly says the facility will be open from 8am to 8pm seven days a week, allowing residents with symptoms to access testing "extremely quickly".

She said the booking system will provide people with a code that is checked on site before they can drive into the testing area.

Damian Green has been calling on the government to open a new testing centre in Ashford
Damian Green has been calling on the government to open a new testing centre in Ashford

Ms Kerly added: "The testing centre is self-contained with all its own facilities for the staff who will be operating the site.

"There will be additional fencing to improve security and limit the overlooking into the testing area.

"The Victoria Road Primary School head teacher has been advised of the location of the temporary facility and KCC Highways is also engaged in the operation.

"Supporting government in its programme to test and trace and support the impacts on our communities is seen as an essential part to combat this terrible crisis that the world finds itself in."

Ms Kerly confirmed the Army-run testing site on the Stour Centre car park will no longer operate.

Staff at the centre are preparing to welcome their first drivers today. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Staff at the centre are preparing to welcome their first drivers today. Picture: Barry Goodwin

She added: "There has been a mobile testing facility operating in the Stour Centre car park most weeks over a three-day period which has been run by the military.

"This testing facility will cease and will be mobilised around Kent where there is limited access to testing facilities.

"The Stour Centre car park will come back into more normal use over the next few months as high street/offices open and hence its capability as a mobile testing facility cannot be guaranteed."

In latest statistics released yesterday, Ashford is second only to Barrow-in-Furness in number of confirmed coronavirus cases by population, with 663 infections per 100,000 people.

This makes the rate of infection in the borough roughly twice that of Kent as a whole, with the countywide figure standing at 338 per 100,000.

Ashford's Covid-19 infection rate is one of the highest in England. Stock picture
Ashford's Covid-19 infection rate is one of the highest in England. Stock picture

On Wednesday, the opening of the new centre was confirmed by the health secretary Matt Hancock in a letter to Mr Green.

He said the Victoria Road facility will be a hybrid test site, offering both assisted and self-administered tests.

Mr Hancock wrote: "Before selecting this site, we have engaged with local stakeholders to narrow down the location and identify a suitable site.

"This includes the local authority and NHS stakeholders.

"In order to reach a decision, we have considered which site is most suitable for safely testing as many people as possible and how long it is available for."

The Victoria Road car park is just over the train tracks from the Elwick Place leisure complex and opened in February
The Victoria Road car park is just over the train tracks from the Elwick Place leisure complex and opened in February

Mr Green is urging people displaying Covid-19 symptoms - which include a persistent cough, a fever, or a change to your sense of smell or taste - to go to the new centre.

"All anyone can do is say to people if you have symptoms, get tested," he said.

"The NHS has found people still want to go to test centres because they like having someone there to advise them rather than doing it at home."

Mr Green added that though the infection rate is cumulative and therefore cannot be lowered, he noted that: "Obviously for the test and trace to work - which is what we’re going to rely on to bring incidents of the virus down - you need as many tests completed as possible to do the tracing as fast as possible.

"Having a centre in Ashford will keep the tracing up, which will keep us all safer."

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