Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us today.
Here with me at the podium is the Minister for Health and Social Care and our Director of Public Health.
It’s been some two and a half weeks since our last briefing. This reflects the stable situation here on the Island. Yes, we have seen the occasional new case popping up now and again – including today – but they have been manageable and - on the whole - explainable.
How we approach COVID-19 as a community is changing. The virus is here to stay and we must adapt and learn to live with it. But this isn’t about being cavalier or throwing caution to the wind. This change in approach is possible thanks to the success of the vaccination programmes both here on the Island and in the United Kingdom, as well as the overall fall in COVID cases in the UK.
This change in approach means that you - rather than Government - will increasingly decide how to live in a world with the virus. What steps you take to protect yourself will be a matter of personal choice.
We have launched a new campaign, which you will begin to see around the Island and on social media, to support the community with this transition, ensuring everyone can make informed choices.
For now, the only area where Government continues to play a role is when someone tests positive for the virus – and of course the restrictions at our borders.
Just over two weeks ago we began the process of implementing our COVID-19 Exit Framework - the managed and gradual easing of our border restrictions.
This saw immediate family, property owners and those with a contract of employment of at least three months, able to apply for an exemption to travel to the Island.
We have seen a small uptick in people coming here. The numbers have been relatively modest – no doubt reflecting the fact that a seven-day period of isolation on arrival for immediate family from the UK means that a visit to the Island remains challenging for some.
Despite this, our situation has remained stable and this first stage of the easing of our border restrictions appears to have been a success.
Our ambition remains for unrestricted travel between the Island and the rest of the British Isles by 28 June. But before that, the Exit Framework set a target of 29 May for the next phase of our border restrictions easing.
As we are now in the middle of May, the Council of Ministers has been considering precisely what this next phase will look like.
The outlook here and in the United Kingdom is broadly positive. But many of you will have heard of growing concerns about the India variant that is beginning to take hold in some parts of the United Kingdom – notably the North West of England.
I will handover to our Director of Public Health to talk more about this development.
Thank you Dr Ewart. Public Health, other officials and the Council of Ministers will of course be closely monitoring developments over the coming days and weeks.
We must continue to take a cautious approach where this is warranted. But with the scale of our vaccination programme and signs that the vaccine is effective against the India variant, there is no immediate need to radically alter or abandon our plans.
The key indicator in moving to the next phase of our Exit Framework is the level of COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people in the UK over a 14 day period. We use the figures taken by the ECDC – the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
To move from our current border level three down to level two, we had said we wanted to see a rate of 30 cases per 100,000 people or less. Today’s update put the figure at 44 per 100,000 people. A little higher than we would like.
Because of uncertainty over the India variant and because the figures in the UK are not quite yet low enough, the Council of Ministers considered a number of options on what our next steps might be.
Following advice and debate, we determined that we were not quite ready to change who can come to the Island. But we did judge that we were ready to makes some changes to what people who can come here have to do when they arrive.
As things stand today, our intention is that from next Monday - 24 May - anyone travelling to the Island who has not been outside of the United Kingdom, Guernsey or Jersey in the 10 days prior to arriving here will no longer have to isolate for seven days. As ever, this is of course subject to them agreeing to be tested for COVID-19. From next week, people will still have to isolate immediately on arrival. But if they then agree to take a test - within 48 hours of arrival - and if the result is negative, they will be free to leave isolation. This test will cost £30.
The only restriction will be the requirement to avoid health and social care sites – our most sensitive settings – until ten days after arriving on the Island. An exception of course would be for anyone needing emergency treatment.
A second COVID-19 test will also be required six days after arriving on the Island. This test will be free of charge.
Anyone who has been outside of the United Kingdom, Guernsey or Jersey – and for the moment this does include Ireland – in the 10 days prior to arriving on the Island will have to isolate for seven days. This longer period of isolation reflects the increased risk posed by those who have travelled outside of the UK. Again, this is subject to the traveller agreeing to testing. A test will be required within 48 hours of arrival and another on day six - at £30 each. If both results are negative, the traveller will be able to leave isolation. The same requirement to avoid health and social care settings will continue until ten days after arrival on the Island.
If a traveller chooses not to undergo testing, they will be required to isolate for 21 days. They will have to isolate alone or those they travelled with.
These changes will be retrospective for those already in self-isolation on 24 May.
The Council of Ministers agreed that - based on the evidence available - this approach was a sensible and reasonable compromise. It makes it easier and more practical for family members to travel to the Island and for islanders to travel to the UK.
But for the moment we still want to restrict the categories of people who can come – not least the keep the numbers down while we continue to monitor the infection rate in the UK and the need to monitor the India variant.
It is our vaccination programme rather than our borders that will shift to being our primary defence against the virus.
The high level of vaccinations amongst our population also means that we will focus on the rate of serious illness, hospital capacity, and deaths from the virus, rather than raw case numbers.
It could be that we see an uptick in cases in the coming weeks. We shall see. But our response to this is likely to be different. While the risk of cases of course remains, the threat posed to the health of our community has now changed. And so too will the nature of how we react to cases.
That said, the Council of Ministers will keep a watchful eye on what is happening on the Island and beyond our shores. With the questions very much live about variants and new data available every day, a final decision on the changes I have set out today will be taken this Thursday.
On the subject of vaccinations, I know there are a few points Minister Ashford would like to cover, notably on the gap between first and second doses and the importance of appointments for second doses.
Thank you David. Some important messages there.
Before handing over to the media, I would like to talk briefly about the independent review I commissioned into the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and the isolation requirements for their employees during the pandemic.
I had hoped that the report would have been published by now. It has taken a little longer than expected to compile. But it is critical that the team producing the report had the time to do a thorough job. I hope to be in a position to publish the review this week. As I am sure you understand, I want the opportunity to review its findings and recommendations before making any further comment.
That’s all for today. I hope you all have a good week.
In the meantime, please continue to do what you have been doing so well. Make the right personal decisions. For you, your loved ones and your Island.