Good afternoon and welcome once again, to No6 Convent Place for a further COVID-19 information conference.
Today, I will address you on the latest information available on COVID-19 infections, the vaccination programme, matters relating to our education programme and, finally, on our new BEAT 5.0 business support measures.
My dear friends, we have now endured 5 full days of full social lockdown.
We continue in a MAJOR INCIDENT posture.
We have carried out 1,100 tests yesterday alone.
The total number of new infections today is 93.
We are starting to see a slow downturn of the curve of infections, but not enough.
The R number is estimated by Public Health Gibraltar to be 1.14.
That is down from 1.5, but it is still above 1.
Today, the total number of people actively infected with COVID-19 in our Community is 1,209.
It really is something to consider that over 33% of the total of all detected COVID cases since last spring in Gibraltar are actually active right now.
That means that slightly over a third of the total numbers of cases detected in the last year have been infected in the last fortnight.
Taken by itself this alone is highly concerning.
It also vindicates the decision to impose this social lockdown and the earlier measures that we had to adopt.
Additionally, I must today regretfully and with great sadness confirm the death of a twelfth resident of Gibraltar related to COVID-19.
The deceased was a man, aged between 70 and 75, who had suffered from a disease in the past, but which was no longer an issue.
He did not have any underlying active conditions when he died, other than COVID-19.
The patient was admitted to the Critical Care Unit on the 30th December 2020 after testing positive.
The patient passed away late yesterday as a result of COVID-19 pneumonitis.
The death will be reported in today’s statistics as a death from COVID-19.
As you know, the number of persons infected in our Elderly Residential Services facilities is now 86.
The continuing high numbers of infections in our Community generally and the growth of infections in ERS in particular, is extraordinarily worrying.
It continues to pile pressure on our ability to provide frontline public services.
Additionally, our hospital services continue to come under increased pressure.
The number of patients in the COVID-19 Ward in St Bernard’s Hospital is now 23.
The number of patients in the Critical Care Unit with COVID is now 8, 5 of whom are ventilated.
For all of these reasons, the decision we have made is to continue the current social lockdown restrictions.
This is the decision of the Cabinet in consultation with COVID Platinum.
We have no choice.
And we do so, conscious that we are infringing your sacred constitutional rights.
And I confirm to you again that we will not continue in this posture for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary.
At this stage however, the only safe decision to make is to reluctantly continue the application of these restrictive measures for a further period of seven days without any changes.
I will again appear before you next week in order to further report on the progress of the numbers of persons infected with COVID-19 in Gibraltar.
The good news is that tomorrow, weather permitting, the Royal Air Force will fly in our first consignment of vaccines.
They are scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening.
These will be the PFIZER vaccines.
As you know, these require particularly careful handling.
The dry ice packaging requirement makes it impossible for them to be carried by the commercial or private aircraft that can land in Gibraltar.
I want to express the gratitude of the Government and People of Gibraltar to the United Kingdom Government for the supply of these vaccines, which are presently not otherwise commercially available.
I also want to thank the Ministry of Defence for their assistance in the delivery of the vaccine to Gibraltar.
In addition to the provision of a £500 million sovereign guarantee, support in the EU negotiations and the provision of the COVID-19 vaccines, the strength of our bonds with Britain has really come to the fore in these past ten months.
The team at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in London and in Gibraltar have been incredible in supporting us in obtaining access to the vaccine.
Too often, we think of the FCDO as faceless and not on Gibraltar’s side.
The truth must be told however; and their work these past few months alone on COVID and BREXIT assistance to Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians demonstrates the opposite.
The vaccination programme will commence on Sunday at 5am when the vaccines will be removed from the freezer.
The first vaccinations will be administered to our frontline hospital staff at 8am on Sunday.
At 9am, we will start to see the first patients at ERS vaccinated.
That will be a moment of huge personal relief to me personally and to all members of the Government and no doubt everyone in this Community.
On Monday, at 8.30am, we will start the process of Community vaccinations.
If the landing of vaccines in Gibraltar is delayed for any operational or weather reason, those timings will obviously also have to be delayed.
But we are ready for these timings.
As part of the GHA’s vaccination programme, the team at the GHA, supported by colleagues deployed from other departments, are currently contacting people over the age of 70 to offer them an appointment for the Pfizer COVID vaccine.
If you are over 70 and the GHA has not already been in touch with you, please register for the vaccine on gha.gi.
You can also find the link pinned to my social media feed.
It is important at this time that the general public do not contact the GHA to request an appointment.
Please just register online and wait to be contacted with the offer of an appointment in order of priority of the criteria that has been set.
I know that there is some delay in the issuing of S1s and health cards that is affecting some workers.
Please just register and those matters will be resolved in time for your vaccination, which will not be delayed.
Once offered an appointment, it is important that on the day of your appointment you attend for that appointment promptly as there is a very busy schedule.
It is even more important that if you are not going to attend your appointment that you cancel it so that it can be offered to someone else so that the vaccines do not go to waste.
I want to single out for gratitude the Massias family.
As landlords of the ICC, they have made the former Primary Care or Health Centre available at no charge for 3 months so that we can undertake the vaccination programme in the centre of town.
Additionally, they will be permitting free parking at the ICC for those coming in to be vaccinated.
As well as running a full and well-stocked supermarket despite the BREXIT and COVID issues, they have also stepped up now in this way to help at the request of our formidable Rose Suissa.
Instead of seeking to profit from this moment of our Nation’s need, they have put our people first and volunteered this service at no cost.
Thank you to the Massias family on behalf of all of Gibraltar for their stepping up in this way at short notice and without question.
Sincere thanks also to those of our GHA, ERS and Care Agency personnel who are working so hard on our vaccination programme.
They are now our key, frontline gladiators against this virus.
The ‘star strikers’ that we hope will finally pierce the progress of the virus throughout our community.
This is what our Community is all about and the depth and strength of this our Nation.
Now, the decision to continue the social lockdown will of course have social and economic consequences.
I want to try and deal with these major issues now.
A number of announcements have already been made which I will emphasise and a number of matters will announce now will be new.
As we announced yesterday, consistent with the current lockdown, we have taken the decision to postpone the start of the school term to Monday 25th January.
I do believe we will then be able to see schools return.
But please remember that nothing is certain in respect of how this virus behaves.
This timetable will be reviewed every week by the Minister for Education in discussion with the Department of Education and NASUWT and following Public Health recommendations.
We are looking at the possibility of opening St Martin’s School much sooner.
We understand the special needs of the children there.
We understand the concerns and problems which parents are experiencing also.
But we have to be cautious in order not to expose the children there to the virus at this time of high prevalence in the Community.
The Minister for Education is constantly reviewing this particular school’s operations with the Department, the head teacher and the teachers’ union.
An online learning programme has been prepared which starts on Monday for all schools and which will have extensive curriculum content.
This is designed to meet the learning needs of the children at each stage.
The detail of the online learning programme and full guidelines are available on education.gov.gi.
Additionally, child supervision will be provided for children whose both parents are key frontline workers.
This supervision will be provided by support staff, allowing the teachers to concentrate on the online programmes.
We want to keep the number of children in school to a minimum at this time of high prevalence of COVID-19, so please keep them at home if you can.
University students should check with their universities and colleges to confirm their arrangements, as these vary between different parts of the UK and from institution to institution, even in some instances, from course to course.
In this respect, I can tell you that the air corridor between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom remains open.
But please do note that there will be a requirement for a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before departure to the UK which has been announced by the Department for Transport in the United Kingdom for arrivals from all destinations whether or not there is an airport corridor open.
More details of these requirements will be available in coming days.
Flights will obviously be greatly reduced at this time of lockdowns in both the UK and Gibraltar.
This will obviously also have an effect on students’ ability to return to university.
If, after seeking advice from their university, there are any queries for students, advice will be available from the Department of Education.
The UK Government has announced that exams will not take place this year.
Full details of the alternative arrangements, which will essentially be teacher assessments, are awaited from the examination boards, and will be shared as soon as we have these available.
I want to now address you on assistance that we will be providing to the business community, in particular those who have been affected by the mandatory closures by the Government.
As we continue this work in dealing with the pandemic and finalise our plans for the rollout of the vaccine, it is important also that we work to provide security and support for our business community, for our entrepreneurs and for our wealth creators.
It is on them that we will rely heavily to help get us back to some sense of normality in the coming months and to deliver economic growth in years to come.
Many of the businesses in our Community continue to operate, they continue to work in limited numbers in their premises complying with our protocols or working from home.
I am grateful to them.
Financial services firms, gaming firms, lawyers, accountants and many more of our businesses have worked – since last March – with little, if any, support.
They deserve our deep gratitude.
They can continue to work remotely or in their offices if they have to.
And now, other businesses which were closed in the first lockdown continue to work, like our construction firms, all complying with new COVID-19 protocols.
But as a result of the measures we announced on the 28th December 2020, we need to provide additional support specifically to those businesses that we have had no choice but to close as a result of the resurgence of the pandemic.
Businesses are currently ALREADY receiving significant support.
I announced the latest round of these measures in my Statement to Parliament on 10th December 2020.
I want to remind you of what those measures are:
1. There is a payment of 30% of the original BEAT grant scheme to each business;
2. A 100% waiver of payment of rates for the wholesale, retail, hotel, bar & restaurant sectors;
3. For all other sectors an additional 25% early rates payment discount (except for supermarkets and pharmacies);
4. A discount of 50% on all Government rent and licence fees, and 25% for private landlords;
5. A restriction on all rental and licence fee increases;
6. A waiver of tables and chairs licences fees on Government-owned premises and a 50% reduction on private sector premises;
7. Continued import duty waiver schemes for businesses;
8. Waiver of work permit and registration and administrative fees;
9. A Moratorium on insolvency claims;
10. And a Bank Guarantee Scheme to enable lending to COVID-related distressed businesses.
As I announced in December, these measures will continue to apply now until the 31st March 2021.
But of course, these measures were intended to assist businesses that were open, not closed, and working in a difficult environment.
They are measures that would have enabled businesses to commence their journey to economic recovery.
The tighter restrictions that I was forced to announce on the 27th December prevent this.
With the benefit of hindsight, I know you will all agree that the difficult decision we took to close down these businesses was the right call to make at the right time.
As you know this week I convened a meeting of CELAC.
We discussed the existing measures and the possible new measures that we should consider introducing.
As always, I am grateful to all of our CELAC members for their open and candid contributions to our discussions.
I am especially grateful to those organisations who confirmed their members needed no support.
Following these discussions, we have developed a package of additional measures to assist the affected businesses.
A press release is being issued today with full details on these measures, and how to apply for assistance.
The new measures can be summarised as follows:
BEAT 5.0 – Increased BEAT Payments
The January BEAT payment for all those businesses that we closed on the 27th December is increased from 30% to 100%.
This will enable closed businesses to retain their staff and meet their costs.
Businesses which are eligible may apply for this support by responding to the email they will receive from our BEAT COVID team.
For those businesses that are in receipt of BEAT 4.0 payments, and which we have not closed down, the BEAT payment for January ONLY is increased by a further 10% to 40%.
We appreciate that these businesses may be experiencing a significant downturn in trade due to the lockdown measures and we have therefore increased our support to them.
New businesses which have opened since March 2020 will also be able to participate in these support measures.
Government expects these increased BEAT payments to be used by businesses to ensure that staff are paid.
We require that participating businesses undertake to pay their employees their contracted salaries OR THE PAYMENTS PROVIDED FOR UNDER BEAT 1.0 FOR THOSE ON ZERO HOUR OR AGENCY CONTRACTS, up to a maximum of £1,155.
These payments to workers are to be paid without discrimination on the grounds of nationality or place of residence.
This is a condition of the payments being accepted by businesses.
As was the case for BEAT 1.0, businesses in receipt of the BEAT 5.0 payments will not be required to make PAYE contributions for employees earning up to £1,155 or social insurance where the business has been required to close.
The amounts will continue to be paid as a grant, so participating businesses may keep any surplus, provided these monies are used solely and exclusively for their ongoing business expenses.
As and when we lift the lockdown restrictions and we allow businesses to reopen, BEAT payments will revert to 30% from that time until the 31st March 2021.
Our support will continue at these new levels at least until businesses are permitted to reopen, which we hope and expect to be before the 31st January as our vaccination programme is introduced and our numbers of active cases reduce once more.
As with previous BEAT payments, Government will aim to make payments on or before the end of the month.
We appreciate that the timing is essential to these businesses and that every day counts.
That is why we are opting for measures that are simple to implement and effective, even if they may not be perfect.
Our BEAT COVID, our hard-working BEAT COVID team will be emailing all firms in receipt of BEAT Payments inviting them to apply for these measures with the appropriate claim form.
Firms not previously in receipt of any BEAT Payments should email email@example.com to receive the claim form they will be required to submit.
In addition, and for the month of January ONLY, the rental discount scheme will be increased from 25% to 50% for those businesses that have been closed down and who have premises leased or licensed from private landlords.
This increase will work on the same basis as we have described previously.
Government is aware and thankful for the continued support that landlords have extended to most of their tenants.
We are aware that landlords are businesses too and we are conscious that for some, these concessions to support businesses are a sacrifice.
For that reason, I do want to assure landlords that this increase deduction in rents is truly expected to be a temporary increase for the month of January only.
Waiver of Rates for Void Properties
To assist landlords, and following representations made by the Gibraltar Landlordss’ Association at the latest CELAC meeting, the Government will be introducing a rates waiver for any business premises that are unoccupied from 1st January 2021 to the end of the year, 31st December 2021.
This will relieve those landlords with empty premises for the entirety of this Quarter from having to make any payment towards rates.
This increased financial support builds on the existing set of measures that we have already put in place.
We have drawn on last year’s experience and introduced a package that is quickly able to be deployed and flexible to extend, if necessary.
But principally, it is a package that is simple to understand.
Our business community is already familiar with these measures from last year and we believe this will help to ensure ease of use.
Each business will be able to calculate with certainty how they can improve their own cashflow over the tumultuous weeks to come.
I do understand that the focus of the majority of businesses will be survival.
For many, these measures will be the life support they desperately need.
This support will together combine to meet a very significant part of the costs of most businesses.
That is what we originally set out to do and we must unfortunately now do again.
We are confident they will achieve the objectives we have set out to meet.
Because these measures are necessary and they are proportionate.
Targeted at those most in need and designed to enable the continuance and, in time, the future prosperity of our Community as our economy returns to a post-COVID, post-BREXIT normality that we all hanker for.
I am grateful to the Opposition for supporting the new package and to CELAC for their thinking in assisting us to devise these measures.
A full press release on these measures will be released after my address.
Today, as we end this press conference, I reiterate my sadness at the loss of life we have experienced to COVID-19 since the last time I addressed you. .
Our thoughts are with all the families and friends of the deceased at this extremely difficult time.
Finally, please, help us stop the spread of this deadly virus.
We must do everything we can to safeguard the vulnerable and the elderly from the worst effects of COVID-19.
Stay at home unless going out is absolutely necessary.
If you do have to go out to work, exercise or to go to an essential shop, wear a mask, wash your hands and keep a safe 2 metre distance from others.
With the arrival of the vaccine in the next twenty-four hours, we are finally at the beginning of the end.
Together, we can and we will get through this.
I will now take questions from journalists.