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Chief Minister's statement on COVID-19 - 17 June 2021

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Good afternoon everyone and thank you for taking the time to watch and listen.

I am joined today by the Minister for Health and Social Care and our Director of Public Health.

It has been a month since our last COVID-19 briefing, which reflects the stable situation here on the Island.  At the last briefing I announced a further easing of our border restrictions. This move reflected continued progress in the vaccination programmes, both here on the Island, and in the United Kingdom. It also reflected the UK’s falling levels of infection.

Since the most recent border changes came into effect on the 24 May, we have seen only a handful of COVID cases detected in those travelling to our Island. This is despite a sharp increase in traveller numbers – doubling in the first two weeks alone. All of these cases appear to have been contained.

Today, I return to the podium to again talk about our border restrictions and our plans to take another step towards normality.

The changes we have made in recent weeks reflect our aim of a return to unrestricted travel between our Island and the rest of the British Isles.

This objective was set out in the COVID-19 Exit Framework – unanimously approved by Tynwald in April. The framework sets out a managed and gradual process of relaxing travel restrictions, allowing us to move forward one step at a time, always careful not to lose our footing.

We have been in a privileged position for many months of this pandemic, with large periods of relative normality. But it has been that – relative. We must accept that the restrictions at our borders is not a normal situation.

We all have families and friends who we have not seen for many months, and it is very clear that we have areas of our economy under real pressure from the continued border restrictions.

Our ambition – the return of a free flow of people between the Island and our neighbours – is only possible because of our vaccination programme, a game changer in how we can now approach the pandemic.

It has enabled us to pivot away from seeking to eliminate the virus from our lives and all that this entails, to instead pursue a new approach: of learning to live in a world with COVID-19.

The vaccination programme means the risk of the virus spreading, as well as the risk of serious illness and death from COVID, is greatly reduced. Our response to the virus is adapting to reflect these new facts on the ground. Focus is shifting away from raw case numbers, with levels of serious illness from COVID-19 and the capacity in our hospitals now the key factors. That is where the risk will lie when the next outbreak occurs, and so this is where our focus must be.

And we must all be prepared for another outbreak. It is a matter of when, not if.  But thanks to vaccinations, our response to a future outbreak is likely to be different. It will be proportionate, taking account of the high level of vaccination amongst our population and the benefits this brings in reducing spread, reducing serious illness and reducing fatalities.

Education and raising awareness, so that people can make informed personal choices, will play an important part in adapting to live with the virus.  No matter how much we may wish to, we cannot eliminate all risk in our lives, and that includes COVID-19. But people must be free to choose how they want to live their lives and manage their own risk based on clear guidance and advice. This is why we have been running our Be Safe, Be Smart, Be Kind campaign over recent weeks. People may wish to keep their distance, wear face coverings or avoid crowds, for example. And that is perfectly fine. We must be patient and tolerant, respecting people’s choices and personal circumstances.

When the Exit Framework was agreed in April our vaccination programme was well under way and we have continued work to vaccinate as many people as possible.

Almost 63,000 people have now received their first dose of vaccine, and almost 30,000 people have received their second dose. Our focus now is on getting through the 32,000 second doses we have booked in over the coming weeks, ensuring those who are vaccinated have the maximum possible protection.

As I said earlier, progress with vaccinations – both here and in the UK – is a key factor in being able to progress with implementing our exit framework.

But two other factors remain equally important: case numbers in our nearest neighbours; and the emergence of any variants of the virus that give us cause for concern.

One such variant of concern has emerged: the delta variant, first detected in India. We are by now, I am sure, all familiar with the threat delta poses.

It is now the predominant strain of the virus in the UK –it appears to be easier to catch and is more likely to lead to hospitalisation than previous variants, where someone has not been vaccinated. It has seen a sharp uptick in case numbers in the UK, and the North West in particular, with a rise in hospitalisations as a result.

The evidence suggests that the vaccines are less effective against the delta variant after only one dose. The good news however is that vaccines continue to provide broadly the same level of protection after the second dose, and even more importantly, are highly effective at reducing the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation, even after just one dose. 

So, what does this mean for our plans? The Exit Framework set an indicative date for a return to unrestricted travel of the 28 June. But we have always been clear that any decision will need to be based on data, not dates. 

In light of the impact of the delta variant, the Council of Ministers, supported yesterday by Tynwald, believes it would be premature to remove the Island’s remaining border restrictions at the end of this month, without further mitigations.

This is reflected in decisions being taken by our neighbours. In the last few days alone, England, Scotland, Jersey and Guernsey have all adjusted their positions as a result of the delta variant.

The move towards unrestricted travel is undoubtedly one of the hardest decisions we need to make.  And it is a decision that can only be fully reviewed with the benefit of hindsight.

The key question is: do we believe that the increased risk posed by opening up the border further, is outweighed by the needs across our society and our economy to do so?

Given the continued vaccination progress I have outlined, the Council of Ministers does believe that, despite concerns from the delta variant, we can take another important step forward in our quest to return to normal travel.

I have said how important the protection offered by the vaccine is. It does more than protect an individual, by reducing the likelihood of them becoming seriously ill; it protects us all, as those who are vaccinated are less likely to spread the virus. Every time we get another jab in an arm, our level of protection as a society increases. And so in seeking to move forward, we have considered how vaccination status could play a role in our journey back to normality.

Our border restrictions bought us time whilst a vaccine was developed.  Now we must buy a little more time to complete the vaccination roll-out.

Let me take you through what we are now proposing for Monday 28 June.

Anyone who has had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccination administered within the British Isles and has had at least a two week period following their second dose – allowing the vaccine to take full effect – will be able to travel to the Isle of Man unrestricted. We’re calling this 2 + 2. This means no isolation and no testing on arrival.

This will apply equally to residents returning to the Island and, for the first time in over fifteen months, to non-residents who wish to visit our beautiful Island.

2 + 2 means there will be no need for fully vaccinated non-residents to apply for an exemption to travel here – although everyone coming to the Island will still need to complete a landing form.

An important caveat remains, however. Even if fully vaccinated, anyone who has travelled outside of the Common Travel Area – that is the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey – in the previous 10 days to arriving here on the Island will still face restrictions. Those who have been to an amber list country, as defined by the UK, will need to continue to follow the existing pathway of isolation and testing, either here or in the UK. Those who have been to a red list country, as defined by the UK, will not be permitted to enter the Island directly, and must first complete their period of quarantine in the UK before travelling on.

2 + 2 is a significant change and moves us a step closer towards unrestricted travel across the British Isles for many of our residents and non-residents. The number of people eligible will only increase over the coming weeks as the vaccination programmes here and across the water, continue.

Checks for vaccination status will of course need to happen and we are putting in place processes for this in the lead up to the 28th. We will see increased activity and checks around our ports, and we will also start to see a significant police and customs operations around the ports as we move forward.

Given that only those aged 18 years and over are currently being offered vaccinations, we will still need measures in place for children travelling to the Isle of Man: both residents and non-residents alike.

Testing will therefore, in the short term, need to remain a requirement for children, with a test on arrival and release from isolation if the result is negative.  We are, however, removing the requirement for children aged under 5 to have to test and isolate. I know testing can be difficult for some young children. Our focus must be on preventing the spread of the virus in our schools, and so we think it is proportionate and reasonable to target testing at children of school age.

We will of course keep this, and all these policies, under review and on the aspect of children, would hope to be able to review this position again as the schools approach their end of term.

The protection offered by 2 + 2 means that we can now also take vaccination status into account as part of contact tracing where we have cases of the virus on-Island. If someone is fully vaccinated then, from 28 June they will no longer be required to isolate if they are identified as a close contact of someone with the virus. This will significantly reduce the impact on our society during an outbreak.

Another change we are making is opening up to people wishing to travel from Ireland. This includes the new rule for 2 + 2 as well as those who are not fully vaccinated, who will be able to apply for an exemption to travel to the Island if they have immediate family here, own property or have a contract of employment for at least three months.

I said earlier, these changes around fully opening our borders are perhaps the hardest to call.  

There will be many members of our society who will be anxious at a further relaxation of our border restrictions. We do understand that.

There will be some within our community who will raise calls to increase, not decrease restrictions on our borders.  We also understand that.

Likewise, there will be some who feel the pace is too slow and that we need to go further, faster.

And, when cases do inevitably occur, there will be members of our community who question the approach we took.

But we believe the changes we are bringing forward strike the right balance.

The right balance between the concerns over rising cases and hospitalisation in the UK, and the increasing pressures across society and the economy for movement once again given the protection offered by the vaccine programme.

The right balance between the benefit of waiting for more of our population to get second doses, and the important insights, such as those published by Public Health England, that give us more confidence that the vaccines are effective against the delta variant when it comes to serious illness and hospitalisation, even after just one dose.

I appreciate there is a lot of information there.  We are working to update our website with full details.

I would close in just emphasising that the Council of Ministers considered long and hard the choices we had. We could, of course, choose to stand still and hold the current position.  We could have chosen to step backwards, increasing restrictions.

For all the reasons I have set out, we have chosen to take another step forward.  It isn’t quite the one we had hoped to be able to take at this stage, but it is a step forward nonetheless. 

We will continue to review the position, here and elsewhere, and we fully intend on continuing to progress towards unrestricted travel for all, as soon as the situation allows.

Let’s take some questions…

Thank you for those questions.

That’s all for today.