May I start by wishing our Jewish Community on the festival of Shavuot, which is the festival of the Harvest and the Law.
I am grateful that the Honourable Lady joins us today despite it being her festival, although she will not be an active participant in our proceedings
She has my apology that we have to meet today to get through the business of the House in the third week of the month
This year, our Jewish Community is able to celebrate, as our Muslim Community did its Eid, with a much more normal situation.
We celebrate, in that way, together, not just the religious festival, but also the closer normality that we all crave and in respect of which Gibraltar is the envy of the world thanks to the work of so many.
Mr Speaker, I am also happy to confirm the arrival last night of more vaccines in Gibraltar, after huge efforts by colleagues in the FCDO and Convent in Gibraltar after myriad logistical challenges were getting in the way of their transit to Gibraltar.
Indeed, the success of the vaccination programme has been such that yesterday we saw the first day of ZERO cases across the board in Gibraltar since July last year
We will have more cases in future, no doubt, but this is an important milestone for Gibraltar.
Today we have seen the first arrivals from the United Kingdom of flights which will benefit from Gibraltar being on the UK’s ‘green list’ for air travel.
We are delighted at the advent of this moment.
Air travel between the United Kingdom is not just about tourism.
Given our unbreakable and almost filial link with the UK, travel between us is about families reuniting, it’s about the social aspects of our relationship, about business and trade and also about tourism.
The high level of vaccination in the UK and the complete adult vaccination in Gibraltar also made the re-establishment of an open air corridor very safe.
For that reason, we have hoped and advertised that arrivals from the UK would not require testing on arrival in Gibraltar.
Alas, Mr Speaker, this morning the Government has had to take the tough decision to continue testing all arrivals from the United Kingdom.
We said before we will not require a PCR test for those arriving from the UK – and that will still be the case.
The testing required will be a lateral flow test on arrival.
But the fact is that, after many months of good news, falling COVID cases and the successful vaccination campaign in any large nation in the world, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has alerted the public to the onset on infections of what is referred to as the Indian Variant in the UK.
There is even comment of the potential for England’s full relaxation of rules in June to be in jeopardy because of the potential of greater pressure on the NHS if the variant takes hold.
The thorn in the plans is one of the variants of coronavirus that has emerged from India.
This is referred to as B.1.617.2.
For the first time this weekend the Prime Minister has referred to the advice from scientists advising the UK government that are now confident it does spread more easily.
This morning I met with the GHA’s Consultant Microbiologist, Nick Cortes, to discuss these issues as he has also raised these concerns directly with us yesterday.
Also with me were the Deputy Chief Minister, the Minister for Tourism and Transport and the Ministers for Health and Public Health and our magnificent Civil Contingencies Coordinator.
Mr Speaker, from the advice we received from Dr Cortes it is clear that the expectation is the variant will become more prevalent than the so called ‘Kent variant’.
The UK is clearly in a race between the virus and the vaccine.
The much awaited easing of restrictions in the UK today, coupled with a more transmissible variant, will mean that the virus will move even faster.
There is still no clarity about exactly how much faster the B.1.617.2 variant spreads.
The UK government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies says there is a “realistic possibility” it could spread 50% faster.
There are some higher estimates of 60% from India.
Anything which is more than 40% more transmissible than the Kent variant could once again unleash issues of resurgences of hospitalisations if the variant is resistant to vaccines.
For us, it is more about potential resistance to the Pfizer vaccine in particular, as the vast majority of our population have had that inoculation.
There is no clear science on that yet.
Dr Cortes has today referred us to anecdotal evidence of two cases of hospitalisation in the United States where the Centre for Disease Control reports the cases appear to have had Pfizer inoculations.
One case appears to have been reported in the UK of a post vaccination hospitalisation with the Indian Variant.
But the data is not yet reliable.
The science is not yet there.
We therefore need to be cautious in our approach and remain vigilant in the regime we have in place for arrivals at Gibraltar Airport.
It is in that context, Mr Speaker, that the Government has today acted in keeping with the advice we have received from Dr Cortes.
Given the concerns expressed by the Prime Minister in the UK and the advice we have received from Dr Cortes, the decision was taken by a Ministerial Sub-Committee to continue testing arrivals, with a quick lateral flow test.
This decision was later ratified by the full Cabinet at this morning’s session.
We took the decision to vary the Cabinet decision in the Committee to ensure that we were able to give effect to it by 11am today upon the arrival of the first BA flight.
The Cabinet fully agreed with our decision based on the logical consideration of the advice received.
The ratification was therefore by unanimous consensus.
Mr Speaker, the test that will be required will be an instant, lateral flow test.
Our position remains that no PCR test will be required on arrival.
There will be no charge to the arriving traveller.
This will continue whilst more information on the effect of the Indian Variant is assessed.
The application of the precautionary principle must prevail Mr Speaker, whilst we will continue to be as welcoming of our kith and kin from the United Kingdom.