Mr Speaker, Members opposite, and to all those listening today.
I am grateful for the continued indulgence of all Members of this House as we continue to suspend session after session as the Government works to tackle the many challenges facing the Community today.
First of all, Mr Speaker, I note that we are down two members of this Parliament who are positive with the COVID infection.
The Deputy Chief Minister, Hon Dr Garcia, who was diagnosed as positive yesterday evening.
And additionally, Hon Mr Damon Bossino, who has been in isolation and diagnosed as positive for some days now.
The House will be very pleased to know that I am in touch with both of them and both are well. We wish both of them, no doubt, a very speedy recovery.
Additionally, Mr Speaker, we have two members of the Parliament who are in self-isolation, Hon Mr Edwin Reyes and Hon Minister Samantha Sacramento, the Minister for Health and Justice.
Technology means that Minister Sacramento continues in full charge of her ministries whilst self- isolating.
I wish to begin by placing on record my apology to the Community as a whole for once again having to escalate measures that relate to COVID-19.
I had certainly hoped not to have to address this Community once more in this regard, especially as recent weeks had provided us with a feint glimmer of hope that, with news about vaccines, we were rounding the corner.
But we are where we are and needs must. So let me set out exactly where we are.
It is clear to anyone who has read a newspaper or switched on any news channel in the past 24 hours that the United Kingdom and Europe are, once again, plunged into a renewed public health crisis arising from Coronavirus COVID-19.
A new, more infectious, but not more deadly, strain of the disease appears to have emerged. I do not need to take the House through the scientific aspects of it.
The key issue is that the rate of infection is in the region of 70% more virulent.
It is as a result of this, Mr Speaker, that it is clear that we are seeing infection rates rocket in the United Kingdom.
Like every other EU country, we cannot say with certainty that the new strain is in Gibraltar in earnest or that it is not.
I can tell the House, however, that it appears that one patient manifested with the new variant in November but that we appear to have shut down that particular vector.
It is not clear that other vectors of the new variant will not be present in Gibraltar or indeed in the rest of Southern Europe, or Europe as a whole.
What is clear is that the old and new strains of COVID-19 have found, at least in Gibraltar, at least a new ally.
The most powerful ally a virus can find. Apathy and irresponsibility.
Apathy and irresponsibility in very few but having an effect on very many.
And that is what will light the path for the infection to the many who are now labouring under its effects.
The majority, of course, will have been entirely responsible people who have not been assisted by those who have thrown caution to the wind and then brought the virus into the lives of others.
Happily, most people are only mildly afflicted. A few, however, will be very badly affected.
Unfortunately, some of the latter may end up suffering the most lethal effects of the virus. Death.
We have already suffered 6 deaths with COVID in this Community. We would not want to suffer any more.
But I fear, Mr Speaker that we will.
Mr Speaker, as the results developed last week, we saw the numbers of new infections increase quite dramatically in Gibraltar.
On the 10th December, we had 47 active cases.
On the 11th December, we had 41 active cases, down 6.
On the 12th December, we had 39 active cases, down another 2. And on the 13th December we had 37 active cases, down 2 again. Yet, on the 15th December we had 60 active cases, up 23.
On the 16th December we had 71 active cases, up 11.
And today, Mr Speaker, barely five days later, we are up at 202 cases. That is an extra 131 cases.
In five days, we have gone from 71 to 202.
Our confirmed cases are up 38 on yesterday, and that’s on half the number of tests that we usually carry out.
So yesterday there were less than 500 tests, when usually there are about 1000 plus tests. One of those is a non-resident.
The total number of confirmed cases in Gibraltar to date in total is 1,282. One fifth of those almost are active now.
The total number of active cases in Gibraltar today is 202. 4 persons are recovered who were previously active.
Out of the 37 residents, 20 were previous close contacts of previously diagnosed infectees. There are now 1,365 persons in self isolation in Gibraltar.
6 days ago, that number was 222.
This growth is clearly becoming exponential.
On Friday, as we received reports of restaurants fully booked and the numbers again reported reaching new record levels of infections, we had no alternative but to act.
We were facing the potential for a full lock down if we did not act. And we wanted to avoid a full lock down.
So we acted to close all catering establishments within hours.
We did so, Mr Speaker, as the Minister for Justice and Health told the House on Friday, with a very, very heavy heart.
As I have already said, we will compensate all those who followed our COVID rules in the catering industry.
We have already prepared a claim form which has been sent to the head of the Catering Association.
I will be meeting with him later this evening to further discuss the measures introduced on Friday and the further measures I will refer to later in my address, in respect of which we are also, of course, committed to addressing compensation for the sector.
But I want to be clear, Mr Speaker, we will compensate those who have complied with all our COVID rules.
Conversely, we will not compensate those who defied our rules. Those very few who sought to put profit over public health.
They will be specifically excluded from receiving benefit.
After Friday, as numbers continued to increase, we have seen great pressure on our services on testing, on sampling, on 111 and on the Contact Tracing Bureau.
For that reason, in consultation with the Teachers’ Union, we took the decision to close our schools two days early, leaving the schools open only for those children whose parents could not make other arrangements in time.
In fact, we have had only in the region of 20 children in each of our primary schools and 9 and 10 respectively in each of our comprehensive schools.
Now we must act more generally also.
And we must do so despite the coming festive period and because of the coming festive period.
The potential damage that could be done by a more virulent strain of the virus combined with the social interaction we can expect to see in Gibraltar over a traditional Christmas period, is obvious.
And so, Mr Speaker, the following new measures will apply with effect from tomorrow:
As from midnight tonight, masks should be worn in every public place. The new strain of the virus requires us to take this step now.
Mask wearing will only be exempted for those with conditions that require it and when a person is exercising by running or cycling but not when exercising by walking.
As from 7pm tonight, all catering establishments will have to remain closed until at least Monday the 11th January.
This period may be further extended.
Exceptions will be made for take away and delivery services.
As I have already said, the Government will be funding losses in the industry in a number of different ways for those that have complied with all COVID regulations.
Again, I also want to be clear that those who have not complied with all COVID regulations will not be compensated.
Restrictions will apply on entry and movement in all retail establishments also.
We are not shutting down non-essential retail, but we are putting in place the same systems we put in place in April when we started to come out of lockdown.
Tight controls on the numbers in each shop.
Tight controls on hygiene on entry and exit from shops.
Tight controls designed to allow us to keep retail open for now.
GYMS & SPORTS
All gyms will be closed from tomorrow. We will try to reopen them as soon as possible. All permits for sports are cancelled, from tomorrow.
This includes the polar bear swim and any other organised activity.
It is the Government’s strong advice that only three households should mix at Christmas in family homes.
This is STRONG ADVICE which I urge all members of our Community to follow. We will not legislate to police this.
We will not have police officers put in the invidious position of having to determine how many households are mixing.
But members of this Community must police themselves. Please.
We are doing this for you. For our families.
I turn now to the rules that will govern our over 70 year olds. We will NOT lock down our over 70s.
But please remember that our great success against this virus was the over 70s lockdown.
But I do not believe that we are able to legislate effectively or legitimately for such a legal lockdown of our over 70s now.
The Government’s strongest advice – in terms just short of legislation – is that our over 70s should act as if they were legally locked down.
Golden hour is therefore cancelled until at least until Monday 11th January.
Our over-70s should stay home unless they need to move for work or for any other emergency or necessity.
We will bring you what you need. But please stay home.
We understand how difficult this will be. They will not see all of their loved ones.
I know their love feels more precious than life itself but you can only know their love if you are alive to feel it.
Please, I urge our over 70-year-olds,- please don’t allow a lunch date get in the way of your continued existence.
Please do not go to your children’s home for Christmas lunch. Do not go to your relatives.
I know this is bad, especially at Christmas. But the alternative is worse.
It’s lonelier in a coffin.
We are talking to all of the religions to have all in person worship cancelled.
We will provide alternative forms of worship through the public broadcaster as we did in the first lockdown.
GBC has already confirmed arrangements to broadcast Midnight Mass from the Vatican in Rome and other arrangements will be made for the rest of the relevant days.
I am sure, Mr Speaker, that our respective deities do not wish to see you sacrifice our lives in worship.
So please do not leave home to go to collective worship.
Schools will likely not re-open on Thursday 7th January but maybe on Monday 11th January. Parents should be ready to make arrangements now in case they do not.
We may have to stay closed for a week or two more.
Arrangements will be made for digital teaching systems to operate as they have to date for as long as necessary in the following weeks.
I shall say more about that and about other arrangements on the 27th December, when I will hold a live press conference from No 6 Convent Place at 4pm.
Mr Speaker, in respect of work places. All persons who can should start working remotely as from tomorrow.
If anyone can, they should please stay away from the work place completely over the Christmas break.
There should be no socialising in work places.
I know this is the last thing that people want to hear. It is the last thing I want to say.
Please understand why we’re doing this.
But please do not have a party or ‘comelonas’ (as they’re known) this year at your work place. In doing so, you could be creating an unnecessary vector for infection and you could end up being responsible for the growth of persons infected and potential fatalities.
If you cannot work from home, tight restrictions will be put in place about workplace behaviour through COVID-19 Officers in each workplace.
We strongly encourage moving to Team A and Team B working systems in each workplace. The public sector will be adopting that stance in respect of all utilities and all public services. AIR LINKS
On air links, we will work with the United Kingdom Department of Transport on continuation of air links with Britain in a mutually agreed, safe and secure way that permits the movement of persons and goods between us.
We will require arrivals from London to show a current, negative test for COVID taken no earlier than in the three days before arrival or the option will be available to take a rapid test at the airport.
TRAVEL TO SPAIN
We will not impose restrictions on travel to Spain.
But the Spanish Government has announced a moment ago, that their measures against the will include the imposition of re-enforced controls at the frontier between Gibraltar and Spain.
In any event Mr Speaker, I am calling on our people, especially our young people, not go to Spain to do the things they cannot do here.
There are many of our people who have their homes or their second homes in Spain. We do not want to restrict their plans to move between their homes.
And my heart goes out to the young people who will feel that they cannot socialise as they wish to this Christmas.
But the young have to spare a place in their hearts for the effects that their actions can have on the elderly.
Mr Speaker, in view of this significant threat to GHA’s preparedness arising from the increase in numbers that we have seen to date and to deal further with a potential rapid rise in the number of admissions that we are likely to see arising from them, and for the safety of patients and the safety and resilience of GHA staff, the Minister for Civil Contingencies has sought, and I have agreed, that we should declare a major incident in the GHA.
The organisation has therefore today increased its posture to Major Incident.
This means that only priority surgeries, interventions, investigations and outpatient appointments will take place. Routine surgeries and appointments will, once again, have to be postponed until such time as it is safe for patients to come back in to the hospital.
This also means no visitors to any GHA premises. All GHA staff leave is cancelled and staff are being actively recalled to work or redeployed to other departments.
We are gearing up now also, once again, for the reopening of Nightingale.
I am also sorry to say that ERS visits are now closed again unless there are end of life issues. So, in summary, Mr Speaker, our advice as from today is to stay home.
Work from home if you can. Go out only if you have to.
This is not what we want to announce, especially in the run-up to Christmas. But it is what we have to announce.
No one dies from missing a Xmas party.
No one dies because they were not able to go out to shop for the present they wanted to gift to a loved one.
No one dies from not having a drink with friends or work mates.
But a vulnerable or elderly person may die if we do not follow these rules. And that is why we are doing this.
To protect the vulnerable.
Because we are now in a race, literally to the death in some instances, for the vaccine to prevent these measures being required.
That is what will really protect our elderly and infirm.
A vaccine that ensures this virus can become water off a duck’s back.
We are assured, Mr Speaker, that the vaccine will arrive in Gibraltar in the first week of January. Mr Speaker, that is what is going to be the real game changer.
The sun begins to rise brighter and earlier as from tomorrow.
At winter solstice, we will find a ourselves at the bottom of the mountain we are together called upon to climb.
This year, today, the shortest of days will also be the hardest of days. And what is to follow shall be, I have no doubt, NO winter of discontent.
But the winter of the advent of the vaccine that will wake us from this nightmare.
I have today the singularly unwelcome responsibility of speaking words that I simply could not have imagined ever having to say in even a lifetime of public service.
I am here today to set out a new series of restrictions which will, as ever, heavily impact on the expectations and aspirations of our Community at the time of year when any limitation on being with our friends and loved ones feels almost cruel.
Let me assure you, Mr Speaker and all Members of this House, that if any of the measures we have taken so far, as well those we are announcing today, could be avoided, they would be.
But as they cannot be avoided it IS MY RESPONSIBILITY, and that of my Government to take these measures and we will not waver in doing so.
As your Government, we are shouldered with the responsibility of balancing all these many and varied, sometimes contradicting, demands in the community.
I know full well that we have all lost our patience with this pandemic but we cannot, indeed must not and we will not give up now.
But the Government’s protection only extends so far.
We can legislate, and the police can enforce the rules, but a determined community is the most powerful defence to the spread of this disease.
The responsibility for tackling this challenge is a shared one, and our people have the most important role to play.
Together we can defeat COVID 19, we can see ourselves through to the point where, through vaccination, we can protect the most vulnerable in our community and we can begin to live and love like we used to once more.
Mr Speaker I know that we can do this.
I know that the Government of Gibraltar I lead will get us through these very difficult moments. I know that the People of a Gibraltar are up to this challenge too.
And call upon every one of the People of Gibraltar to rise up again, as they did in the Spring and Summer of this year, to the challenge of COVID-19.
Not just this week, but as we go into 2021.
Together, presenting a united front to an enemy that preys on the human frailty which makes us who we are.
A virus that preys on our need for human contact, for a handshake, a kiss, or an embrace.
In this respect, Mr Speaker, I have been desperately disappointed by the behaviour of some when we announced the measures that we announced on Friday.
Protesting against our COVID rules is not going to convince us to undo something we did not want to do in the first place.
Running off to party in Spain is not going to convince us to change rules that we have reluctantly passed.
But you, Mr Speaker, may pass the protection that we are trying to put in place if you behave in this way and you may bring the infection to people in Gibraltar.
And Mr Speaker some of our people have to stop behaving as if nothing is happening.
They have to realise that we have in reality to confront this virus, a virus which knows no season, knows no feast and knows no religion.
Just as Eid, Diwali and Passover and Hanukkah have been badly affected and restricted this year, so will Christmas be.
But let us understand that we should not allow our emotions to rule our hearts on this issue. Logic must lead us to our conclusions and decisions.
And with logic and science we will make better decisions than with emotions, however heavy our hearts as a result.
Mr Speaker, these are the hardest of times. Yes. But we do have to take a step back and realise that in Gibraltar we do not live the hardest of lives.
And we will look back and see these as the proudest of times, so long as we stick together. Because by sticking together we will get through these times together.
And in a more sanguine, logical analysis it should be clear that we are not banning Christmas. We are not cancelling Christmas.
We are changing Christmas.
It will be a less commercial Christmas this year, but Christmas it will be nonetheless. With all the essentials.
And calmer, even perhaps.
With more time for reflection and more time for immediate family.
Though with a longing for friends and family to once again be able to reunite without any controls to stop us.
Mr Speaker, with the Deputy Chief Minister attending virtually from his home and all other colleagues also signing in by video conference, I might have been alone in the Cabinet Office today,
but I know we are all in this together and we are united in our Community in our measures in dealing with it.
We never walk alone in Gibraltar.
I do not have the words to fix this problem.
I do not have words that can address the concerns of so many.
There are no words that can fix this problem or address all the concerns of our citizens. But I do have an unshakeable belief that we will come through this difficult time.
Mr Speaker, I commend this statement to the House.