Good afternoon – my thanks for taking the time to watch and listen today.
Here at the podium with me is the Minister for Health and Social Care and joining us virtually is the Minister for Education, Sport and Culture.
In recent days the number of COVID-19 cases on the Island has been increasing. But with strong uptake of our game changing vaccination programme – over 116,000 doses administered and over 88% of those eligible having had at least their first dose – we have been able to shift our focus away from raw case numbers. This is because of the protection vaccinations give us as individuals and our wider community.
The key metric now is hospital capacity and the number of people who are seriously ill with COVID.
I am pleased to report that – currently – we have no COVID-19 hospital admissions. As the number of cases increase, however, it is inevitable that we will see some people having to go into hospital. But each day more and more people in our community become fully vaccinated against the virus. And whilst this does not offer complete protection – no vaccine does, and we must remember that – it does enable us to move forward.
As case numbers have crept up, so has the number of close contacts required to isolate for 10 days. We have been watching this number closely.
I know the impact this has had on many parts of our community. Yesterday evening the total number of people in self-isolation had reached around 900, with 800 of those being close contacts. Fully vaccinated close contacts have not been required to isolate for several weeks now, so numbers have been lower than they could have been. And whilst we have made massive strides in rolling out vaccines, we still have around 12,000 second doses to administer in the coming weeks. That is thousands of people who, if identified as close contacts, have been required to self-isolate.
This has affected staffing, particularly for smaller organisations, with some having to temporarily close. And of course it has affected our young people and our schools. This has caused understandable concern.
Government has listened to these concerns and we have acted on them.
Yesterday, we announced a change in approach to isolation requirements for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated.
A new home testing scheme was launched, meaning an end to PCR testing and self-isolation for people identified as close contacts of someone with the virus – so long as they have no COVID symptoms. This is all close contacts, whether you live with someone who has tested positive for the virus or not.
This is our policy going forward, but the change also applies retrospectively. This removed around 800 people from isolation yesterday evening, meaning they were able to return to work and school this morning.
Contact tracing will continue to take place and close contacts will still be notified. However, instead of being directed to isolate, they are now being strongly encouraged to take part in the free seven-day home testing scheme – and to be extra vigilant for symptoms, of course.
I must be clear that this change to self-isolation rules only affects those who are identified as close contacts. Anyone who is self-isolating because they have tested positive for the virus must continue to self-isolate in accordance with their direction notice.
The home test kits – called lateral flow devices – are available in packs of seven, free of charge.
Close contacts are encouraged to take a test every day for seven days from when they are notified they’re a close contact by the COVID-111 team. These tests are less intrusive on people’s lives and minimise inconvenience, whilst helping to keep us all safe.
Test kits are first and foremost to offer close contacts peace of mind as to whether or not they are likely to have the virus. But the results also offer useful data for Government in relation to monitoring the number of tests being used and the results. So we have launched an anonymous online reporting system on the COVID-19 website, where close contacts can confirm their daily negative results.
Anyone who receives a positive home test result, or anyone who develops symptoms, should immediately isolate and call 111 and they will be offered a PCR test, if necessary. If the PCR test comes back as positive, they will have to self-isolate for 10 days.
We made thousands of home test kits available yesterday evening for close contacts who were released from isolation. My thanks to Civil Defence and everyone involved in making these quickly available. I know there was strong demand and I thank the public for their patience.
Test kits are now available free of charge from a number of pharmacies around the Island, with full details of participating outlets is available on the COVID-19 website.
Kits will again be available this evening between 8pm and 10pm from the car parks at Ballakermeen, Castle Rushen and QEII high schools and Ramsey Grammar School.
If you’re collecting test kits you must wear a face covering and if collecting from a pharmacy please observe social distancing rules within the premises.
As with so many twists and turns during this pandemic, I am ever conscious that a change in approach will be welcomed by some, whilst others in our community will be more cautious. These decisions are never easy.
It comes back to that phrase I often turn to: the balance of risk.
Our vaccination programme means that tens of thousands of Islanders are now as protected from the virus as is possible. We know vaccination reduces the risk of serious illness and death, and that it also reduces the chances of someone with the virus spreading it.
This is a leap forward, and it means we can continue to adjust our approach to COVID-19 as we adapt and learn to live with the virus. Changes to self-isolation and the introduction of home testing for close contacts is another step on that journey.
The majority of close contacts do not typically go on to develop the virus, especially those outside the household of a positive case. Therefore we need to take a balanced approach to this, as we did when we removed fully vaccinated individuals from precautionary isolation.
Whilst of course there is a level of increased risk from this approach, we are now at the point where we must take a more proportionate response to these risks.
Personal choice, responsibility and judgement all remain important. If you’ve been identified as a close contact, think about how you go about your daily life in the 10 days after you’ve been notified.
A combination of daily self-testing and asking the public to consider mitigations and their personal choices is, on balance, an appropriate alternative to having large numbers of our community in self-isolation.
Whilst there will be no legal restrictions on close contacts, anyone told they are a close contact should consider:
- Telling their employer that they have been identified as a close contact and letting them know if they’ll be undertaking daily home testing
- Telling friends, family and colleagues who may feel anxious or vulnerable, so they can make informed choices
- Thinking about who they interact with in the 10 days after being told they’re a close contact
- Taking precautions that may make them and others feel safer, such as minimising face to face close contact, avoiding confined and poorly ventilated areas or wearing a face covering as appropriate.
I know there are a number of topics the Health and Social Care Minister wishes to cover, so I’ll hand over.
Thank you David.
The Council of Ministers has been reviewing a number of our COVID-19 policies and exploring what measures need to be in place for the summer so we can continue to flex our response to meet the circumstances we face. We have done this regularly throughout the pandemic, but it has been particularly important as we approach the dissolution of the House of Keys and the General Election.
Changes to regulations will go before Tynwald at its final scheduled sitting next week and of I will of course update you on what Tynwald agrees.
Let’s take some questions…
Thank you for those questions.
That’s all for today.