Good evening. Thank you for joining us today.
I must apologise that this briefing is later than we had planned. This was due to a lengthy and ongoing sitting of the House of Keys.
I am joined on Zoom by our Director of Public Health.
Our numbers have continued to go in the right direction. The key here, of course, is ensuring we are not seeing unexplained cases popping up that could mean the virus is spreading through our community unchecked.
The last case where we were unable to identify a clear chain of transmission was towards the end of March. This means that, all being well, Monday will be our twenty-first day without an unexplained case of COVID-19 on our Island.
As you may recall, 21 days is significant. I’ll hand over to our Director of Public Health to talk a little more about this and to give you the latest figures.
Thank you Dr Ewart. Monday then will be an important milestone in this outbreak.
Over the past few weeks, we have gradually eased restrictions, enabling people to team up and form bubbles. We have allowed construction to return. We have allowed gatherings of up to 10 people to take place outside. And we have allowed a small number of retail outlets to reopen – albeit with the usual mitigations of social distancing and face coverings. We have also been able to reopen schools for vulnerable children, those needing to complete important assessments, and the children of essential workers.
As we have worked through each step of this managed exit from lockdown, we have made clear our hope to be able to lift all restrictions on or around the 19 April.
I know how important it is to be able to plan, especially for parents and for our businesses.
What has been crucial throughout has been data, not simply picking a date. Our target of 19 April was based on there being a continued reduction in case numbers and the ability to link any new cases of COVID-19 to travel or an existing chain of transmission.
The Council of Ministers met today and reviewed the latest data, taking advice from Public Health and other senior officials.
We agreed that, based on the data, our society can fully reopen on Monday. All children can return to school, pre-school, nursery or their childminder. Businesses can reopen including the hospitality, indoor leisure and lifestyle sectors. All limits on gatherings will be lifted. People can return to their place of work. Sport can fully resume.
The legal restrictions currently in place will be lifted at one minute past midnight on Sunday night into Monday morning. For now, our borders will remain at level 4 with the existing testing and isolation arrangements.
I know for many of us, this lockdown has felt different. It has been tough. And a year into this pandemic, the restrictions have become more challenging to live with.
The Council of Ministers recognises this. It is one of the reasons we brought in bubbles and ‘deck chairing’. We understand the strain lockdown has had on our community. I do therefore have another announcement to make.
The Council of Ministers today decided that given the current level of risk, ahead of the wider opening on Monday, we are ready for people from different households to be able to gather together insidethis weekend.
For Saturday and Sunday, we are asking you to limit this – like outdoor gatherings – to groups of no more than ten people. This is not a free for all. Please continue to act responsibly. If you can maintain social distancing please do. And we still recommend face coverings. Increasingly these will be personal choices however and we recognise that once people are in their homes, Government has very limited powers or rationale for saying what can and cannot be done.
I hope this will give everyone the chance to spend time with family and friends indoors before the return to a more normal routine on Monday. The change around indoor gatherings will come into effect at one minute past midnight on Friday night into Saturday morning.
When restrictions were lifted at the end of our first lockdown on the 18 June last year, we enjoyed almost seven months of near normality on our Island.
When the virus returned in January, working together, we once again achieved local elimination following a 25 day circuit-break lockdown. After less than a month, however, the virus once again took hold and we found ourselves in this, our third lockdown.
Throughout this pandemic the Government’s overriding priory has been the preservation of life. It is truly heart wrenching to have lost 29 of our own to COVID-19 – four during this outbreak. We can never know how many lives have been saved from the measures we have put in place, but our collective determination as a community to beat the virus has undoubtedly protected people from its ravages.
And although we have done all we can to preserve life, we cannot be – and have not been – blind to the impact this pandemic has had on lives.
There have been costs: to mental health and emotional wellbeing; to relationships; to education; and of course the cost to livelihoods, prosperity and the wider economy.
Our response has always been trying to strike the right balance between the benefits and the impacts of lockdowns and border restrictions.
The sacrifices made by everyone in our community have not just protected lives, they have also bought us time.
When we entered our first lockdown, hopes of developing effective treatments to fight COVID or a vaccine seemed a considerable time away. Come our second lockdown in January, not only had vaccines been developed and tested, we were beginning the roll out of the largest ever mass vaccination programme here on the Island. Come our third lockdown, our vaccination programme was well underway. But we needed more time to get jabs in arms and to get people protected.
As things stand today, we have given at least a first dose to ninety-three percent of the people likely to be most vulnerable to the virus.
This is a game changer. The vaccines will work to protect our most vulnerable from serious disease and death.
As we continue the vaccination programme, we will reach a pivot point in this pandemic. One where we move away from thoughts of eliminating the virus, to instead mitigating its impact and learning to live with it.
We are beginning our journey towards that transition today.
I have said before that we want this lockdown to be our last. That this is now a one way journey. With a comprehensive mass vaccination programme in place – it will be vaccines and the personal choices each and every one of us makes, rather than our Manx bubble, border restrictions and lockdowns imposed by Government, which will serve as our defence against the virus.
No vaccine is one hundred percent effective. Some people will still get ill with COVID and there may unfortunately still be fatalities as there are with other cruel diseases. But the vaccination programme will radically alter the impact the virus has on the vast majority of the population’s health and therefore our society. We will of course focus our efforts on giving the best treatment possible to those who are still exposed to its risks.
Adjusting will take time. I know that. But adjust we must.
There is every likelihood that COVID will return to our Island and it will spread in our community. That is inevitable and I need you to be ready for that. Thanks to the vaccines, our response when this happens is increasingly going to be very different to what you have seen over the past 14 months.
The Council of Ministers is currently working with other members of Tynwald to develop our future response options. This will undoubtedly focus more on offering advice and guidance as opposed to putting in place legal restrictions to protect people, which will no longer be necessary. There will be a greater focus on personal responsibility, responsibility for businesses and organisations, and for people to do what feels right for them.
We need everyone to be aware of, and to maintain, healthy habits. That isn’t just handwashing and sanitising but considering aspects such as the World Health Organisation’s 3Cs – thinking about crowded spaces, confined spaces and close contact situations. Thinking about personal space. Thinking about fresh air.
In the future it is our goal that restrictions will only be brought in when there is a significant threat of our health services being severely impacted or overwhelmed. Our vaccination programme makes this less likely. The remaining area of concern is variants of the virus that may have mutated to such a degree that current vaccines do not offer a sufficient level of protection. But with boosters and ongoing vaccine developments, we can look to the future with hope.
Before moving to questions, it is important for all of us to recognise that some people will feel nervous and apprehensive as we exit lockdown. People should do what they feel is right for them and their loved ones. People may wish to maintain social distancing. Some people may continue to wear face coverings. Some businesses may encourage people to continue to work from home. Some people may choose to work from home.
All of this is ok, and as a society we must allow it, and indeed encourage it.
By making informed choices and by protecting ourselves, we will undoubtedly protect each other and the community as a whole.
Everyone will need space and time. Please be kind. Please be patient. Please be understanding.
Let’s take some questions.
Thank you for those questions.
I have spoken a great deal today about the importance of our vaccination programme. Yesterday we marked 100 days since it began. During that time we have administered more than 63,000 doses of vaccine. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone involved. This remarkable journey has been tracked in a video, which we will show in a moment at the end of the briefing.
This weekend we begin the next chapter in this pandemic. At times, COVID has kept us apart – but it has also brought us together. This pandemic has tested our community, but in doing so, it has strengthened it. We have been in this together, and we have come through it together. We must continue to draw on this strength and resolve, from which our Manx nation was forged.
My thanks for everything you have done to get us to where we are. Our success is down to you.
Before I finish, a final appeal. Please continue to do the right thing. The virus will return. Please do remain vigilant. If you have any COVID-like symptoms, please don’t ignore them. Self-isolate right away and contact 111 for advice and to arrange a test.