Let’s kick off this afternoon’s briefing with the Health & Social Care Minister bringing us today’s update on testing and cases. I know the Minister also wants to update you on the roll out of the antibody testing and the new graph to show our numbers.
Thank you, David.
It is great that we are able to start our antibody testing so soon. As I have said before, it is not a silver bullet. It won’t change the game in the same way as a vaccine will one day. But it is an incredibly important tool for us to understand the virus on our Island.
As David said, we are now down to one single active case on the Island. For those who religiously watch these briefings to see the latest numbers – and I know there are a few of you out there – you will remember that we reported our last new confirmed case on 20 May. This means that if we continue with the zero cases that we have now enjoyed for twelve days, we should be able to report no active cases later this week.
As the Health & Social Care Minister has said a number of times, the continued zeros does not necessarily mean that there is no virus left on the Island. And even no active cases later this week would not mean that. But it does tell us that the risk of catching the virus on the Island is currently exceptionally low.
Let’s see how the week pans out. I have learnt that everything to do with this pandemic can change as quickly as the Manx weather.
But I do want to talk to you about that level of risk and what it means for us.
Right now, if the virus is out there on our Island at all, it is there in tiny numbers of people. We have had a string of zero new cases each day. This is despite us increasing the numbers of tests each day and widening the scope of testing beyond those who show symptoms.
We have been offering tests to all health and social care workers who want one. They can have one every week if they wish. We have done the same for teachers, prison and police officers and a number of other key staff. And still no cases. So far so good.
We have had a robust track and trace system in place since the very start. It is a joint team working with the COVID-111 line and is scale-able quickly if we do need to react to a new confirmed case.
So where we are now does give me cause for optimism. Before this week it was cautious optimism. Now it is real optimism. And I hope you are also starting to share that optimism with me.
The measures that we have had in place have done what we needed them to - they prevented our health and care sector from being truly overwhelmed.
We will always remember the twenty four people who tragically lost their lives because of the virus. But the measures we put in place surely prevented many more deaths.
At previous briefings, we have talked about the wider health issues that COVID has caused in our community. But we are now changing that.
People were being impacted because some health services had to be suspended. As the Health & Society Minister told you last week, those services are coming back online. Some are already happening.
People have resisted going to hospital because they were worried about catching COVID. We now don’t have a single patient in the hospital with COVID. And as Doctor Gerry reminded us on Friday if you have any health concerns, you must seek advice and support. You must not let things fester.
People were isolated. I am glad we have been able to allow people to see their friends and loved ones for some time now. At the moment that is limited to 'ten outside, two inside'. But later this week, the Council of Ministers will be discussing taking this to the next stage.
The low risk in the community has meant that we have been able to open up. You can get out and about. You can go shopping. You can see friends.
Today, I want to spend a few minutes focussing on the people who for a number of reasons have been classed as 'clinically vulnerable' or 'clinically extremely vulnerable'. People in these groups have a higher risk of severe disease if they catch COVID.
We are now ready for people who have been classed as clinically vulnerable or extremely vulnerable to make some changes. We want you to start going about your life. It might not be quite normal. But we want you to start doing those things that you did before, as long as you can do so safely.
Returning to physical exercise outdoors and fresh air has significant benefits for physical and mental health – benefits that significantly outweigh the current very low risk of COVID.
Whether or not you wish to meet friends, family or other people in line with our rules on gatherings is for you to decide. You know your own situation. If you do – and I think this goes without saying – distance, hand hygiene and all the other measures we talk about so often remain important.
I know that some of you may be worried about spending more time out of their house. I understand that. But there is a real risk attached to staying locked down and isolated – and this now worries us more than the risk from COVID out in the community.
Some people in our community have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable and have been told to shield. These are the people who are most at risk if they catch COVID. We know that some of you may have suffered terribly during the early phases of our measures. Measures that we put into place - to protect especially you - have been tough. We really do want you to start resuming your lives too.
If you have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable, we will be writing to you soon. We will be inviting you to get out if you can and get some fresh air. If you want to invite a friend to come over for a cup of tea in the garden, then please do so. Speak to your doctor or another health or care professional if you have any clinical questions once you get your letter. Or call the Community Support Line for wider support. We do want you to start feeling that life is returning to something a bit normal.
Whether you are clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable, we need you to make the right decisions for you. We know that even though the level of risk in the community is now very low, some people will not be ready to go out and restart their lives. You know best what you are comfortable with. This is an opportunity for you to decide what is best for you. It is not in any way an obligation to do so.
I told you last week that the Council of Ministers would be taking a fresh look at social distancing. We have now agreed that if the current situation continues, we are ready to change our approach around two weeks from now – on or around 15 June.
What will this mean?
We want to stop social distancing being regulated for you as an individual. You know who you are comfortable being close to or inviting into your home. This needs to be your choice. We have already entrusted you to make the right decisions inside your home. We now want to extend beyond the walls of your home. You are best placed to know who you are comfortable sitting next to on the same table at a restaurant.
But for the time being, there will still be a number of areas where we will have to regulate. I think you would expect us to set standards where people come together in greater numbers. We will still require businesses and companies to ensure that they provide safe environments for their staff and their customers. We need to ensure that the places where for example we work, learn and shop are safe. As restaurants, cafés, bars etc start to open again, it will also be important there. We will continue to set standard in these environments and where we judge it is in the national interest to do so.
So you will be able to choose who you share your table with in a restaurant. But we will insist that the restaurant maintains a safe distance between tables. You will decide how close you get when talking to a colleague at work. But your employer will have to ensure that desks are far enough apart that you don’t have to be close to others if you don’t want to.
The big question will be how far will be far enough.
We have been considering how others have been doing this. We still have some way to go to ensure we have the best possible guidance there for you. But I can share with you today that if our strong results continue, we are ready – from 15 June – to reset out social distancing rules to match the World Health Organisation guidance of 'at least one metre'.
We want to make this as straight forward as possible. We will only use 'one metre' in technical guidance where we have to. But for all of us going about our business, don’t worry too much about the 'one metre'. Just think about it as 'keeping an arm’s length'. If you can reach out and touch someone, they are too close. You have been great at respecting other people's space.
This is where we want to get to. We will talk more about it between now and then. And please remember, this is dependent on a strong set of results from now until the 15. Please keep doing what you have been doing so well until then.
Over the two meetings of the Council of Ministers that we have held since I last spoke to you, we have made a number of small adjustments that I hope you will agree will make a big difference. We have tidied up some areas where some inconsistencies had crept in.
We have removed the restriction on your being able to share a car. We have brought it in line with the gathering rules. The 'two inside' bit of 'ten outside, two inside'. So with effect from tomorrow morning, you can share a car but for the moment with up to two people from another household. We have lined these rules up so that as the gatherings rule changes, so will this.
We have done the same with exercise. You can now exercise with up to ten people outdoors. This time the 'ten outside' part of 'ten outside, two inside'. Again as the rule on gatherings changes – and it may do soon – so will this.
The Department of Education, Sport & Culture will issue guidance for individual sports and will work with them to bring them back online as soon as protocols relating to safety are agreed. Those decisions will not have to come back to the Council of Ministers from now on. A lot of sports have already been able to resume. We will work as quickly as possible on the others.
One area that I know is important to people, is around weddings and other indoor religious services. We are now ready to allow these in places of worship, registry offices and other premises to a maximum of ten people. The ten does not need to include the celebrant – the vicar for example - and one other person who will probably be the registrar or their representative.
This is now a matter for the individual places of worship who I know are busy planning how to make this happen safely. I also know that some have already put in place the ability for people to undertake private prayer.
It does seem that I need to say at each briefing – for the avoidance of doubt – that we have no plans to open our border. Let me say it again. We have fought hard to get to the situation we have today. The time is not right to open our borders and put that at risk. I still cannot imagine unhindered travel between the United Kingdom and our Island for some time to come.
We do however want to continue to enable our people to come home. Some still remain in the United Kingdom - and beyond - and want to come home.
The Council of Ministers has agreed to make a small – but important – change to the Home Quarantine. Given the extremely low levels here on the Island and our robust contact tracing, from 10 June, we can allow people to Home Quarantine with others as long as – and this is a critical point – as long as those other people also agree to quarantine with them.
The repatriation by boat has been going well. The boat will remain the main way for our residents to get back – and the two sailings with a maximum of fifty on each will continue. But from 11 June, we are now ready to allow a small number of people to return by air. The procedure when they return will be the same – home quarantine.
Before people put two and two together to make five, it might be worth me updating you on EasyJet’s plans. Following their announcement that they would resume a range of flights across the British Isles, we talked to them and reminded them that our borders remained closed. They have now reviewed their plans and will be looking to resume the London Gatwick route later into the summer.
Just before I take questions, I do need to correct a mistake I made last week. I said that I would be making announcements about our plan to exit emergency powers. I said that I would do this in Tynwald on Tuesday. Tynwald this week is unusually on Friday so it will be Friday not Tuesday.
I will now take questions.
On this the first day of National Volunteers week it is only fitting to send a shout out to all those volunteers across the Island who week in week out give up their time to help and support others or to improve the quality of life of another. Around seven thousand of you in fact, giving on average one hundred hours a year. Truly amazing.
To those who have gone that extra mile during COVID-19, too many to mention individually, a Shout Out, we may not know who you are or all that you have done, but we know so many of you have helped to keep our community safe and knitted tightly together during this crisis. Thank you.
So time to wrap up. But before I do, I would like to tell you about the video that will be running at the end of this briefing.
During the lockdown, the Isle of Man Arts Council launched the ‘Home Is Where The Art Is’ project to keep culture alive and boost wellbeing during the period of self-isolation.
The project, which has reached fifty five thousand people, concluded on Sunday with the release of a special performance one of the Island’s most treasured songs – Ellan Vannin - sung by a digital choir of Manx school children.
The choir was the idea of Ballacottier teacher Katie Lawrence – who produced this film with the support of Glenn Whorrall, David Rowles and the Isle of Man Arts Council. I hope you enjoy. I certainly did.
Thank you. Let’s keep up the amazing work. I will be back with you on Thursday with a read-out from the Council of Ministers.
Please keep safe. And keep your loved ones safe. Remember the basics. Keep your distance. Respect other people’s space.
The future is in your hands.