You will all be aware by now of the rapid spread of COVID infections across the United Kingdom and further afield caused by the recently identified Omicron variant.
You will also recall that we announced additional protective measures on Sunday 28th November to combat Omicron - which included PCR Testing for international arrivals, the introduction of LFD Tests for arrivals from the Common Travel Area, the mandatory wearing of masks in Healthcare and on public transport the raising the expectation level for wearing of masks in public spaces and the requirement for whole households to isolate when OMICRON is suspected.
These measures were TIMELY, APPROPRIATE AND PROPORTIONAL but since Omicron was first identified on the Island on the 10th of December, cases of the variant have been rising steadily in the Island.
By late last week, more than 60 had been identified. The latest figures indicate there are now 126 cases and I’d now like to introduce Chief Operating Officer Mark Lewin who has been leading our COVID response and will provide an overview of the situation both here and in the UK.
It is clear that we must prepare for a substantial number of Omicron cases on the Island - although the actual numbers of infections and the rate of spread is always hard to predict. Nevertheless, we should plan for a high infection rate and potentially thousands of cases at any one time may cause the current COVID management structure to become overwhelmed. Of course the easy answer is to impose restrictions on our lives to protect the existing structures – but we know the economic and social cost of enforced legal restrictions can be significant. We also have to ask what such restrictions are going to achieve – yes, it might slow the spread – but Omicrom appears likely to sweep back in when such restrictions are lifted which may very quickly put us right back at square one and call into question the judgements around enforcing restrictions.
As I have mentioned, thousands of cases could cause our PCR Testing to become overwhelmed, contact tracing to become virtually impossible and the 111 line unmanageable.
In addition, if we continue with our current strategy of requiring whole households to isolate, we will quickly find that we get serious impacts on the delivery of critical public services and the ability of our economy to function as more and more households are put into isolation.
Therefore it has been entirely right and appropriate that the Council of Ministers has determined that a new strategic approach is required that requires greater community involvement and management of the caseload.
We need a more fluid and flexible approach if we are to get through the next few weeks and we can do this as a nation together by utilising the main tools at our disposal – our vaccine booster program as the foundation to protect us from the direct health risks, the use of Lateral Flow Devices to identify the virus, the wearing of masks to protect ourselves and others and by bringing this all together as a community with discretion and common-sense.
Dealing with the Booster Program we know that third doses will provide increased protection from both transmission and serious illness.
Our approach is therefore to get as many people boosted as quickly as possible – and the current accelerated programme is working towards 90% of eligible adults receiving boosters by mid-January.
This morning, boosters became available for everyone over 18, and our vaccinations team will be working throughout the festive period to get as many jabs and boosters in arms as possible.
Just today more than 2,200 people have received injections from the hard-working team at the vaccination centre at Chester Street. A brilliant effort. I know the whole team down there has pulled out all the stops, so a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved.
I urge everyone to take the opportunity to get protected – walk-in sessions are available, or you can make an appointment. This remains one of the most important tools for us to limit the damage of this impending wave.
Moving on now to another fundamental shift in strategy as we move forward as a community. This will begin at one minute past midnight on Wednesday morning, when a positive LFD test alone will require an individual to self-isolate for 10 days. You no longer need a PCR test to confirm a COVID diagnosis.
In addition, the period of self-isolation can be reduced by recording two negative LFD tests a minimum of 24 hours apart.
We are asking that the original positive test must be recorded online. An email will then be sent explaining the isolation requirements, and providing guidance previously received through a Direction Notice.
Both negative test results must also be officially recorded before someone is free from self-isolation.
This change is designed to harness the testing capability across our community and capitalise on the reliability and availability of home testing kits.
A move to include LFDs as well as PCR tests recognises the huge amount of public support for voluntary self-testing that has identified the vast majority of COVID cases over recent months.
Self-management also brings obvious benefits around the possibility of ending self-isolation earlier than 10 days, once the risk of transmission has been removed.
It’s vital that asymptomatic cases are picked up and I urge everyone to keep a good stock of LFDs to ensure you, your family and those around you are testing regularly. I am asking you all to self-mange your health, self-mange your families and help us by reporting in the actions that you are taking.
We are now asking and empowering every member of our society to help keep the Island moving.
As far as Close contacts are concerned - all cases will be treated identically, and are asked to be vigilant by self-testing for 7 days. Those close contacts currently adhering to rules specific to the Omicron variant will be contacted by 111 and released from self-isolation, and asked to undertake an LFD prior to leaving.
Contact tracing will be based on self-declarations in most cases and we will ask those who log a positive test to get in touch with people who may need to take extra precautions. The work of the Government’s Contact Tracing team will focus largely on cases that include complex and high risk settings.
PCR testing will continue to be used for travel and hospital screening. It will also be available for anyone who is symptomatic but has tested negative at home, and those who need to confirm a positive diagnosis if their self-tests remain positive after 7 days.
These changes are appropriate. They will help protect infrastructure and give you much more ability to self manage the pandemic and the rapid spread of the Omicrom variant.
Speaking of self-management, I know many of you are wearing masks and following the strengthened guidance issued in recent weeks. Thank you for doing what is right for our community but we need now to be even more vigilant. We need to consider how we approach environments outside the household, including in social, retail and work settings. Please be considerate to others, respect mitigations people wish to take, respect personal space, wear face coverings and please USE LATERAL FLOW TESTS to "Know before you go“.
The coming weeks may be difficult and I have to tell you that we are prepared to act hard and fast if the situation demands it if we are unable to provide critical public services. However, we should not be afraid – we have all the tools at our disposal to get through this - and we will get through this.
- Get Boosted
- Use Lateral Flow Devices to diagnose COVID and as a tool to ensure you are safe to go out
- Wear masks as appropriate
- And consider others