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Chief Minister’s Statement – Covid-19 – 233/2021

By March 16, 2021 No Comments

Mr Speaker,

It is exactly a year today since we locked down our over 70s.

I want therefore to just quickly reflect today that a year has passed since we took measures to confine some of our citizens to their homes. These days that sounds like something quite normal but it was something quite abnormal before.

Days later, we would act to lock down our whole population.

It has been a year like no other.

I want to briefly say thank you to everyone for their help this year.

I do not want to break down that general thank you beyond highlighting those who work in the GHA and ERS.

But I want to extend my personal thanks and the thanks of the whole Government also – and no doubt all members of this House – to everyone in this community.

We have all played a different part in this difficult year.

From leading in difficult decision making to accepting the equally difficult obligation to stay home.

All of us have been just as important.

All of us have been Team Gibraltar.

Mr Speaker, we have worked together in the Cabinet and in this Parliament.

We have worked together across the political divide, across the community and across the whole nation.

That is what has been the core of our work.

And additionally, we have felt the real support of the United Kingdom.

In the provision of PPE, testing and the sovereign guarantee for our COVID spending.

But perhaps, Mr Speaker, most importantly, with the provision, at no cost to Gibraltar, of the COVID vaccine in quantities that enable me to say today that Gibraltar will be the first nation to complete a whole nation vaccination programme.

We will do that thanks to the UK, thanks to its Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and thanks to its Department of Health and Care.

Mr Speaker, those in the Convent, in King Charles Street, and in Downing Street who have been there to help will live forever in our political hearts and in our political history as our guardian angels at this time.

Our sincere thanks.

The loyalty of the People of Gibraltar to the Crown of the United Kingdom has never and will never be in doubt.

In these harrowing and difficult times, our deep loyalty has been recognised and repaid.

The United Kingdom has played a blinder on vaccinations and we have been among the beneficiaries in the British family of nations.

Mr Speaker, today I must also report the COVID-19 statistics to Parliament.

The total number of Gibraltarians lost to COVID-19 is 94, 87 of them since the start of the year.

Happily though, we have no patients in our Critical Care Unit and we have only two non-resident visitors in our Victoria Ward.

As at midnight last night, we have now administered 48,296 inoculations.

Of these, 29,667 have had a second dose and 18,629 only a first dose for now.

After 200,713 tests, 1,489 of which have happened overnight, and after some weeks of very low daily numbers, today I must report 7 new cases in our community.

Four of these were close contacts of an existing, identified active case.

That active case was a waiter in restaurant.

I want to highlight that 4 of those infected have had one vaccine dose and one had had both vaccine doses.

I highlight that so that people are reminded that we must remain cautious and vigilant even after vaccinations.

One positive is a lunch lady in one school and that has led to 3 staff (not teachers) and 17 children isolating.

Another is a lunch lady in another school and that has led to 4 staff (not teachers) and 15 children isolating.

Additionally, we have had an infection in one of our elderly care facilities through one of the care professionals.

In this case, the care professional had already had two doses of the vaccine and the two residents exposed have also had two doses of the vaccine.

So there is evidence that we must remain vigilant even post vaccination.

Please let us remind ourselves that the virus is still around us, even though we have been inoculated and that vaccination does not provide 100% immunity.

I am aware, Mr Speaker, that the Community, the Media and fellow Parliamentarians have been keen to receive information on the variants that have been in play in Gibraltar.

The Government is now in receipt of this information.

It tells us the following, and please excuse the technical aspects of this information:

We have had 60 results back from samples dating 27th December 2020 to 6th January 2021.

Of note is that 15 of these were the B.1.1.7 lineage (Kent variant of concern).

None of these cases were particularly severe cases or in inpatients or residents of healthcare/residential facilities.

We still have over 300 results on samples pending at PHE.

We should soon be able to carry out this testing here in Gibraltar.

All sequencing on GHA samples to date has been undertaken by Public Health England.

To date, we have had valid sequencing results from PHE back on 565 SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA extracts sent from 624 positive cases.

The dates of the samples for which we have valid sequencing results span from the 8th August 2020 to 6th January 2021.

Of the 565 samples sent, 59 samples sent have failed to yield a valid sequencing result at PHE (due to technical reasons).

There remain over 300 results on GHA samples pending at PHE – from samples dating from December onwards selected & sent for sequencing from the GHA in January, February & March 2021

Samples sent to date have largely consisted of an unselected random sample of positives obtained by testing from GHA labs: both St Bernard’s Hospital & Public Health University Laboratory.

The predominant strain type detected in the 565 samples sent has been the B.1.177 strain which emerged as the predominant strain in the UK & Western EU from late summer onwards with 357 out of 565 classified as within that B.1.177 lineage (333 pure B.1.177 & 24 being subtypes of this).

One important point to emphasise is that we still have over 300 samples pending results which date from December to February during the third wave we have just come out of.

But for now what we have seen is that the predominant strain in our third wave was the B.1.177 strain, that is to say, not the Kent strain.

In short hand this was labelled the “Spanish” strain by some sectors of the UK media back in autumn, as it was first identified in arrivals from Spain.

The important issue of course is that the data we have up to now suggests we were not seeing the third wave here or around us prompted, at least originally, by the more transmissible Kent variant (B.1.1.7) or any other variant of concern, based on the data we have available to us at the moment. 

This is based on the results on a relatively small sample we have had back from PHE and there remains the possibility this may change once we get more genotyping results back of that third wave in the period of December 2020 to February 2021.

The B.1.177 variant is not associated with any notable mutations of concern in the spike (S) protein and is not classified as a Variant of Concern (VOC)

The predominant sequence from results to date from samples dating from “wave 3” over Xmas-NY period remains the B.1.177 strain outlined above

There have been to date 16 samples that have shown either a mutation of note in the spike (S) region (N501Y mutation) and / or are classified as a Variant of Concern.

15 of these 16 have been sequenced as the more transmissible “Kent” variant of concern (lineage B.1.1.7), with 1 of 16 as a B.1.1.49 lineage.

B.1.1.7 (Kent variant) lineage was detected in samples dating from 27th December 2020 to 5th January 2021.

From the analysis, none of these 15 originated from severe or fatal cases or from admitted or resident cases within a healthcare or residential facility.

The ages of these cases ranged from 16-74.

As far as the Government is aware there has been no assessment of antecedent travel on these cases to ascertain route of acquisition.

So, in summary Mr Speaker, although we have identified some instances of the KENT variant in Gibraltar, our third wave seems, for now, to have originated from the SPANISH variant.

There have been no cases in samples sent from Gibraltar identified as a South African (B.1.351 lineage) variant of concern or a Brazilian (P.1 lineage) variant of concern.

No Gibraltar viral sequences of any lineage have been reported as having the E484K escape mutation to date (associated with increased evasion of the immune response & reported in some cases of B.1.1.7 in Bristol/ Somerset/Liverpool regions in UK).

At present, there are no data available on sequencing results to be able to communicate any findings on specific groups, including but not limited to: severe or fatal cases, post-vaccination cases or any clusters or outbreaks.

I know, Mr Speaker, that this is very detailed and very technical information.

But it is information that must be put in the public domain.

I also ask that people do not read the references to KENT variant or SPANISH variant in any political terms. These are shorthand terms adopted to label variants with numerological names and are associated only with place of first detection only.

Finally, Mr Speaker, the sun is shining and we are all now vaccinated or on the way to being vaccinated.

But we are not out of the woods yet.

One year on from our first restrictions, we are in a good place.

But we are not yet in our happy place.

We have a road still to travel.

I want to assure our Community that we remain exacting in the continuation of restrictions.

We will release all restrictions including on the freedom of assembly as soon as we are advised we are able to.

But we will only do so when we are advised it is safe for us to do so.

For now, we have released all the restrictions that we have been advised we are safe to release.

We will not keep any restriction in place for one moment longer than is strictly necessary.

But caution must remain our watchword.

Prudence must define our approach.

And success must be the objective we keep in mind.

Thank you.