COVID-19 Exit Strategy plans for phased reduction of existing restrictions
Press Conference Script: The Chief Minister, the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP:
My dear fellow Gibraltarians and residents of Gibraltar.
Welcome to No6 Convent Place for this live COVID-19 press conference.
Twenty-four months ago, I appeared before you live also from here, the seat of your Government, to announce lockdown measures.
A long two years later, I now appear before you in order to set out a further Exit Strategy plan for a phased reduction of our existing restrictions.
I sincerely hope and believe this will be the last time I have to address you from here on this subject, although with COVID-19, we have suffered setbacks before.
In the same way as I appeared before you to impose restrictions, I consider it is my duty and obligation to appear before you to announce this de-escalation plan.
It is also right that, in doing so, I should make myself available to answer any questions our journalists from trusted media sources may have.
That is why we have not just issued a press release to make this important announcement.
I am very pleased to be joined today by the Director of Public Health, Dr Helen Carter.
Dr Carter presented Gibraltar’s COVID-19 exit strategy to the COVID-19 Strategic Coordinating Group earlier this week.
The SCG, chaired by the Minister for Civil Contingencies, the Honourable Samantha Sacramento, has accepted that strategy proposal.
The Director of Public Health’s plan is for a phased reduction of the remaining restrictions over the coming weeks.
Gibraltar is, indeed, currently in a much better position regarding COVID-19 case incidence.
The impressive vaccination programme we have rolled out with the help of the United Kingdom Government is successfully protecting most people from severe disease and hospitalisation.
We must, nonetheless, remind ourselves that, while the incidence and severity of COVID-19 is reduced by vaccination, the possibility of infection is not completely eradicated by it.
The exit strategy therefore maintains a cautious approach.
We will maintain a specific focus on continuing to protect the most vulnerable in our Community from unnecessary risk.
The COVID-19 exit strategy will therefore now be rolled out as follows.
- From today, Friday 4th March, general requirements to wear masks are finally removed.
- Masks will continue to be required ONLY in the GHA, Elderly Residential Services and other medical and health service settings (including private providers).
- Those who are vulnerable are, nonetheless, strongly advised to continue to wear masks in enclosed or crowded public areas.
- After today, COVID-19 Permits will no longer be required for nightclubs, restaurants, cafeterias and bars.
- Two weeks from now, that is to say, from Friday 18th March, testing will no longer be required for those entering Gibraltar via Gibraltar International Airport or via Gibraltar Port.
- Also two weeks from now, that is to say, again from Friday 18th March, travellers landing at Gibraltar International Airport will no longer be required to submit a Passenger Locator Form.
- Three weeks from now, that is to say, from Friday 25th March, even unvaccinated close contacts of COVID-19 positive cases will no longer be required to self-isolate.
- Healthcare workers will be individually risk assessed on a case-by-case basis.
- In Gibraltar, however, COVID-19 positive cases, will have to continue to have to self-isolate in line with the established day 6 and day 7 testing regime. This will nonetheless be kept under review.
- Second booster doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will be offered to those over 60 years of age.
- Further information on the logistical arrangements for this will be issued after this press conference.
- The Contact Tracing Bureau will scale back on its operations but will maintain limited functions with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. We will retain the ability to upscale these functions of course, if necessary.
- Strategic changes to Gibraltar’s COVID-19 testing regime will be rolled out, beginning with increasing the capacity of private service providers. Further announcements will be made in due course.
- A model of supervised testing will remain in place for health and care staff. This will also remain under review.
- Specific COVID-19 mitigation measures will remain in place in the GHA, ERS and other high risk settings with the aim of protecting the elderly, the immunocompromised and other at risk groups.
Let us be clear:
We have NOT reached the end of the pandemic, although it may, at least, increasingly start to feel like that.
We have reached the end of the worst of the OMICRON wave in Gibraltar.
We all hope that this will soon result in the end of COVID-19 as a killer virus.
But we must continue to act in consonance with the advice from our Public Health professionals.
Now, more than ever, it is dangerous to think that politicians or lay people can make safe assessments about relaxation or removal of restrictions just because we might feel we are in a ‘different place’ to 2020.
Of course, we all want all our freedoms and normality restored.
Indeed, it is my sacred duty as your Chief Minister and our sacred duty as your Government to protect those civil rights and freedoms.
But we must act prudently and properly and with the benefit of the scientific advice
That is why we must not throw caution to the wind.
That is the wrong approach.
We must remain cautious, particularly when in close social contact with the elderly or others in vulnerable groups.
I ask you also to please remain conscious that, whilst there is no longer a legal requirement to wear masks and practice social distancing, some individuals may choose to continue to do so.
Please respect the choices of others.
Some may be immunocompromised without your knowledge.
And everyone is entitled to their own medical privacy.
It has been an arduous journey to get to this point.
We have sought to protect the Community whilst constantly reviewing measures to ensure that any restrictions were appropriate and proportionate.
We have taken measures to preserve life and protect our GHA which have had severe consequences for our economy and which have decimated our public finances.
We have curtailed personal freedoms and civil rights to preserve life and protect our GHA.
So I am relieved to finally be in a position to announce a marked de-escalation.
Gibraltar has achieved this thanks principally to our strong community values.
We cannot and must not lose sight of that.
I am now pleased and grateful to be able to ask the Minister for Civil Contingencies to publish these changes to our legislation today.
Gibraltar now moves towards a posture of a population taking more personal responsibility and much less imposition by Government.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank everyone at the GHA at every level, from our cleaners and our cooks to our nurses, doctors, consultants and managers.
Everyone at ERS, and Social Services who have been on the frontline throughout and continue their frontline work to keep the virus under control and to treat those who unfortunately require it.
Gibraltar is indebted to them.
As we are also indebted to those in our Civil Contingencies department and those involved in Contact Tracing, in testing at the airport, at Midtown and elsewhere.
Those who do our travel certification.
Everyone at the Convent, FCDO, MOD Gibraltar, RAF Gibraltar, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment and the Royal Gibraltar Police who deployed to get our life saving vaccines here and delivered to our hospital safely.
I also want to single out Minister Sacramento herself for the dedication and remarkable hard work she has put in, with no regard to her own well-being, as she has carried the burden of the portfolios of health and justice as well as civil contingencies.
Her contribution to the public’s wellbeing has been a demonstration of service above self which I have no doubt history will record more fairly than contemporary commentary can.
The fact is that COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on all of us.
Whilst it is time to scale back the few measures that remain in place, we must continue to remain cautious and protect the most vulnerable in the community.
The virus is still here and we can’t simply begin to ignore the fact because it might be politically popular.
The Government has a responsibility to be the adult in the room.
We cannot simply do what is popular.
We have to do what is right.
As part of this cautious exit plan, a second round of boosters will be offered to all those over 60.
We strongly encourage those in that age group to take up these boosters.
Gibraltar will also begin to make changes to its testing regime.
We are going to be allowing for greater flexibility for individuals whilst maintaining some level of epidemiological control.
The challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented.
It is a challenge that none of us expected in our lifetimes.
Gibraltar’s unshakeable resolve and sense of community has brought us to this point.
Now, for the most part, normality can return.
As we return to a semblance of normality, we will also start the work to learn from this pandemic.
The COVID inquiry will be convened in coming weeks.
Of course, such joy as we might feel in reaching this stage must be tempered principally by two things.
The first, of course, is the loss of 101 of our compatriots to COVID-19.
I will always remember this period.
I will never forget that loss of life on my watch.
I will remember every letter of condolence I have written to each bereaved family.
We will make an announcement before the end of this month of a multi faith and multicultural event to be held this year to remember those we lost to COVID.
A COVID memorial will also be announced after the competition run by the Ministry of Culture for this purpose.
Finally, our joy at this milestone will also be tempered by the return of war to Europe.
Where COVID-19 relieved us of news headlines repeatedly reminding us of Brexit, now war steals the headlines from COVID.
Let us all hope or pray that we can soon see Europe also shed the virus of war and the pandemic of killing which is engulfing Ukraine today.
And let us keep up that Gibraltarian spirit as we look to a brighter post-pandemic future.
Let us bring the best of Gibraltar to our continued collective growth as a people from now.
There are many challenges still ahead.
Today, let us count one at least, surpassed.
I will now hand you over to the Director of Public Health who will say a few words before we are both available to take questions from journalists here with us this afternoon. …
Press Conference Script: The Director of Public Health, Dr Helen Carter
Thank you, Chief Minister.
I have now been in Gibraltar for some 6 months.
In the time I have been here I have better understood the demographics of Gibraltar that make its epidemiology unique.
Gibraltar’s COVID-19 exit strategy is, therefore, also, unique to our circumstances.
It is informed, of course, by developments in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
But it is tailored to our specific situation and needs.
The strategy plans for a cautious approach.
It provides for the scaling back of restrictions, but not stopping the response entirely.
Gibraltar’s particular epidemiology means that we can move to the next phase whilst continuing to protect the most vulnerable.
We will do so whilst continuously monitoring global developments.
We will be looking out for any new variants of concern.
And we will be adjusting Gibraltar’s posture if necessary.
I ask everyone to remain cautious.
The pandemic is not over.
But we are beyond the peak of the Omicron wave we have been experiencing for some weeks.
To reinforce our resilience as a community, the GHA is pleased to be able to offer a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
And I strongly encourage those aged 60 years and over to accept this offer.
This will improve their immunity as we progress through this next phase of living with COVID-19.
This is going to be one of the final opportunities for us to be able to offer this vaccine.
So I ask people to please take the offer up.
It is important to keep immunity up as much as possible, especially in this age group.