Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us today.
For the first time in a while, today I am joined in person by our Director of Public Health and the Minister of Health & Social Care.
This is the first time I have appeared at these briefings since we ended our circuit break lockdown. I hope you have all enjoyed the ability to go about your business and see friends and family. I know I have.
I hope you have all seen how the media and people from way beyond our shores have been talking about our Island.
We do have to be careful and not appear to be arrogant about our situation. There are so many people globally still struggling with the impact of COVID.
What I found moving was people commenting that seeing our Island gave them hope – that there were better times ahead for them too.
But most importantly, the coverage has rightly focussed on the fact that it was you - the Great Manx Public - who made the right decisions and got us to where we are.
Before I share some updates with you, I will invite the Minister of Health & Social Care to update us on the most recent testing numbers.
I know the Minister has some other updates for us. We will come back to that in a minute or two.
Now that we have got through our circuit break, I would like to talk to you about the future. I won’t have all the answers to all of your questions. But I want to tell you how the Council of Ministers sees the path ahead.
The first thing to say is that our approach will continue to be carefully considered. We are not about to embark on a plan that leads to unnecessary risk for our Island. We have all worked too hard to get to where we are. We are not going to jeopardise that.
There is significant uncertainty around us. While the situation in the United Kingdom is getting steadily better, the infection rates are still extremely high.
But at the same time, there is cause for optimism. The UK vaccination programme is going well. The NHS has delivered an impressive operation.
Of course there is also uncertainty around variants and how they might impact on the vaccines available. I will ask Dr Ewart to share the latest information with us on that in just a minute.
As I have said on a number of occasions, we only want to have measures in place for as long as they are necessary. The last remaining measure is of course the restrictions around our borders.
And forefront in my mind is the need for families who may have one foot either side of the Irish Sea to be able to see each other. We do want to enable this. But we are not there yet.
There is still some way to go before we can make bold changes to our borders. As soon as we judge that we can do so without risk to our Island then we will do so.
We are working to finalise our longer term approach. We still have some work to do on it. Once it is ready we will share it with you. Our aim is to do this before the end of the month. Just to manage everyone’s expectations, it will not give precise dates on when we will make precise changes. But it should give you a clear view of the path ahead and the milestones on that path.
There are two things that we are watching closely and will form the basis of our decision making. As always, the infection rate in the UK – and to an extent beyond - will be key. This is how we measure the threat to our community. As more people there are vaccinated, we would hope that this rate will start to drop significantly.
But the new factor now is our own vaccination programme. As we vaccinate people – starting of course with our most vulnerable – the risk to us if COVID does arrive onto our Island reduces.
And when I talk about the risk, I mean the risk of our people getting seriously sick and the risk of our health system being overwhelmed.
Let’s not forget that winter is always a challenging time for our hospitals. At the moment, it would not take many people hospitalised with COVID to push them to the edge. We must protect our NHS so that it is there for us when we need it.
So we need to see our most vulnerable vaccinated and the infection rate in the UK much lower. And a change in the weather would also help. These things will reduce the risk. And when we judge that the risk is manageable, we can make changes.
So of course everyone would like to know when this will be. That is a big question. And impossible to answer with much certainty. Not least when so many factors are beyond our control.
So I can’t make you promises. But I can share some hopes.
It does feel that when we have vaccinated all of what is known as the nine Priority Groups in Phase One – so those who are over 50 and all those with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk - this will be a key milestone.
We hope to be able to have done this by the end of May. If we can do this, and if the UK infection rate decreases significantly, then could May be the month we see change? Possibly
Might we be able to make some changes before May? Maybe. But that moment where we have vaccinated our Priority Groups does feel like the moment when we can consider taking bolder steps.
But I need to be clear, this is an aspiration. There are so many external factors that we do not control. Not least the supply of vaccines. And of course with this virus the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain.
This might be a good time for me to pause and invite our Director of Public Health to update us on another thing that I know is causing some concern, notably variants and what they mean for our vaccines.
On the question of variants, just before I hand back to the Health Minister for an update on the vaccination programme, I would like to touch on the question of the UK’s own border restrictions that come into force from Monday.
We have been working closely with the UK to fully understand the impact on our Island and on our residents. With my colleagues from Guernsey and Jersey, I spoke to UK Ministers yesterday.
The requirement for hotel based quarantine in the UK will apply to those travelling from those countries – currently thirty three - on the UK’s “red list”. If someone is coming to the Isle of Man – via the UK - from one of those countries they WILL need to complete and pay for the hotel quarantine before they are allowed to travel onwards to us. Even if they are just transiting Heathrow. And then of course they will still need to complete quarantine when they arrive here.
This is only for those red list countries. So there is no change for people who travel from the Isle of Man to the UK. But please remember, we continue to strongly urge you not to travel unless it is essential.
So back to our vaccination programme. Let me ask the Minister to update us.
I need to thank the Department of Infrastructure and all the local companies that worked with them for the wonderful job they have done getting the new hub ready so quickly. Really very impressive. At the end of the briefing, you can see a short video of one of our wonderful health care professionals – Sam Kneen - walking you through the Chester Street hub.
And as always, a big thanks to all our health and care professionals and their teams who have been operating the hubs, visiting residential homes and going out to some of our housebound people.
It is great that over 75% of our two top priority groups – so those in residential homes and their carers, our over 80s and our frontline health staff – have now had a first dose. And almost a third have now had their second. This is really important progress.
Let’s stop there for today.
Despite pretty awful weather being forecast, I hope you can have a great valentine’s weekend. And support our local businesses as much as you can.
Please take care and be kind to each other.