Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us today.
We are now into Day 15 of our circuit break lockdown.
Once again, we have our Director of Public Health joining us on Zoom and the Minister of Health & Social Care here in person.
As I mentioned to you on Monday, the Council of Ministers met today to consider what the emerging situation meant for us and most importantly for you and the measures we have in place. I told you on Monday that if the situation continued to move in the right direction, that we would be able to consider some changes.
I want to take you through that. And also through our view on next steps. But before I do, I will invite the Minister of Health & Social Care to update us on the testing numbers. And I know he has a couple of other important updates.
Thank you, David. This now makes today the ninth consecutive day where we have not seen any unexplained community cases. Every day without cases is of course a cause for optimism but we must not forget this is often an invisible threat. Let me invite our Director of Public Health to set this in context.
Thank you, Dr Ewart.
Dr Ewart, along with senior colleagues from across Government who have been leading the response to this outbreak joined the Council of Ministers this morning to review our current situation.
We wanted the most detailed picture of what the situation might be now that we have passed this milestone of one week with no evidence of community transmission - no unexplained cases.
As the Director of Public Health rightly reminds us, we are not out of the woods yet. While the risk may be receding, it has not gone.
The last thing we want is to step boldly out of lockdown and find ourselves having to go back in because we moved too quickly.
We have to tread carefully. As I indicated on Monday, most of the immediate changes that we considered today are around outside spaces where there is a broad consensus that the risk of transmission is significantly lower. Especially if social distancing, face coverings and good hygiene are also used.
This will be a first step. But we are starting on our path back to normality.
Let me take you through the changes that we are ready to bring in from first thing Saturday morning. I will then come back to the strategic picture – of how we see the rest of the circuit break lifting - and beyond.
From midnight Friday night to Saturday morning – so the first minute of 23 January - we will be easing a number of the measures in place.
We will allow a range of construction and trades to return to work. This includes trades like electricians, telecoms, utilities, roofers, decorators, gardeners, builders, joiners, window cleaners etc.
The next part is important. As they all go back to work, they must still have mitigations in place. What do we mean by this? Outdoors, this means either working alone or maintaining social distancing. Where this is not possible – for example if you really have to share transport - please use face coverings.
Tradespeople may work indoors only if they are working alone on an empty property.
The principle here is for this transition phase to allow only very low risk activities and - importantly - not to have any level of additional household mixing.
So moving on to households. Given the evidence that outdoor settings with social distancing are very low risk, we are also able to lighten some of the restrictions on us all being able to see people from other households.
That means if you wish to meet other people, such as friends or family, or wish to exercise with people from other households, you can do all this again as long as this is outdoors and you maintain social distancing.
But I have to underline that despite these changes coming in Saturday, social distancing will remain with us and continues to be important. And we will be asking you to continue to wear face coverings as much as possible.
So if you are a gardener returning to work. Or if you go for a walk with a friend along the seafront. Or if you deckchair with your aunt. Please keep your distance and if possible wear a face covering.
The removal of social distancing and face coverings we hope will come at some stage soon and I will talk about that shortly. But that moment is not now.
It might be useful for me to go through what we are NOT changing today.
For now, we need you to avoid indoor meetings with people who are not members of your household. Deckchair-ing, sitting in the park or a walk together is OK. But stay two metres apart. And please don’t be tempted to go indoors. We still need to minimise the links between different households a little longer.
We need people to continue to work from home as much as possible.
We are not quite ready to reopen even low-risk indoor venues like non-essential shops.
And we will not be asking our schools to open their doors to all students quite yet.
I have said before – and stand by this – that we will only have measures in place for as long as we judge they are necessary.
So where does this leave us going forward?
To give people as much clarity and certainty as possible, we want to approach this in two simple phases.
During the lockdown last year, from the moment we allowed construction to when we lifted all restrictions was around twelve weeks. This time we hope to be able to move through these phases in around twelve days.
To some this may sound awfully rushed. But you will recall that we entered this circuit break lockdown as a precaution – we did not know what we might be up against.
But from where we are today - and from what we understand from analysing the cases - we have collectively agreed that we should work towards a full exit after twenty-one days of no community transmission.
That means - subject to no further community cases - we would plan to lift all restrictions – on all activities – on or around 1 February.
This of course is only a plan – it may change - but it is the latest position we have and it is what I wanted to share with you all today.
So from tomorrow we move to a new phase. A transition phase before we lift all lockdown measures.
I mentioned that this could be as early as 1 February. I cannot guarantee that will be the precise day when we return to the old normal. We need to keep the position under review. But 1 February would be twenty-one days after the last evidence of community transmission. And this is the date we are working towards.
I hope that it provides you all with a line of sight to the end and a return to the life we enjoyed for over six months at the end of last year.
I know there has been a certain amount of speculation that the Council of Ministers would seek to continue longer term with some of the restrictions we now have in place. But no. If we are confident we have dealt with this recent outbreak then we will lift the measures.
We will be refreshing our guidance as soon as possible.
What does this mean for schools? It is important that students do not miss any more school than is necessary.
Discussions are underway with colleagues in the Department of Education, Sport & Culture. They will be speaking to Headteachers shortly to ensure that if all is well they will be able to open to all students from 1 February.
So if we are able to lift all restrictions on 1 February we will be back to where we were at the end of last year. Where all business are back up and running. Where social distancing is not needed and where face coverings are more a matter of personal and business choice.
BUT. There are of course some risks to all this.
The first risk is that there is in fact some virus still circulating in our community that we have not yet seen. When I say in our community, we know there are cases where people are in self-isolation. What I mean is if we see cases pop up where we struggle to see a clear link to a case we are aware of. This virus can be invisible and can pass from person to person without any signs.
What would happen then? Well we may have to pause while we identify and isolate again.
If a case does spread then we may even have to go backwards in our phases. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But I did want to be 100% honest with you that the risks of course exists – as it has done all the way through this pandemic.
I should stress that we are still likely to have cases occurring – for example from travellers in isolation, but our key concern is of course cases of unknown transmission.
Another risk is that another case of the virus arrives onto our Island as seems to have happened around Christmas. I do not need to go over here how the virus – and particularly its more easily transmissible variants – is sweeping through our neighbours.
As we head into this phased approach to exit our circuit break lockdown, we need to be incredibly careful not to import new risk. We cannot jeopardise what you have achieved.
We will NOT be making any changes to our border controls at this stage. Our borders remain our strongest shields against the virus.
We believe that the three-test regime that we have in place at the moment - focused on the traveller - is fit for purpose. I know it is not easy. And again I have to thank all those who have been doing it. But it is the right thing to do to protect our Island while we roll out the vaccine to protect our most vulnerable.
We of course review our border position regularly.
The Council of Ministers did take a look at whether we were ready to allow applications to resume for compassionate travel, and for those looking to move here and make our Island their home. Some of these cases are heart-breaking.
We decided that as long as we apply exactly the same controls as we do to returning residents – three tests or twenty-one days isolation - then the risks that compassionate and contractual travellers pose are no greater than that of returning residents and the absolute numbers are far more modest.
So we have agreed that from next Tuesday - 26 January - we will accept new applications for compassionate and contractual travellers only.
I would like to repeat again my advice to everyone – please do not travel off Island unless absolutely necessary.
We had a positive debate in Tynwald yesterday about what the future might look like regarding our borders. A real look ahead. The word 'pivot' came up a lot. Members were rightly asking government at what point might border restrictions be a thing of the past.
It is of course an impossible question to answer with a high degree of certainty. But I think some important principles emerged.
First of all, we all accepted that we cannot keep these border restrictions in place for ever. It is not good for the people or the economy of our Island.
The key moments in the future will be when we have vaccinated at least all those at most risk of getting sick from the virus, so that they are protected, and then of course when we have offered the vaccine to everyone on our Island. This means when we know they – and our health service - are safe. On current planning, this first priority group could be by the end of May. This depends on a number of factors, some of which are beyond our control.
It will depend also on how things are going with our neighbours.
The Lord Bishop had a good way of describing it in Tynwald yesterday. He said that while the world may never fully eliminate the virus, it has to try to get to a point where it has eliminated the 'threat of the virus' and the danger it poses.
This feels right to me. For the moment, we need to continue our policy of local elimination while we vaccinate our most vulnerable. Once that is done, then maybe we can pivot. Mapping out what this might look like and what the triggers might be is underway. When I have more news then of course I will share that with you.
You have heard me speak a lot today. Time to go to questions from the media.
Thank you for those questions.
So from first thing Saturday we will be into a transition phase towards our exit from lockdown. I know this will be welcome news for many.
But please let’s not forget that there is still a risk that there is virus in our community. The best thing is to continue to act like it is out there.
The basics are what got us here.
- Wash your hands
- Keep your distance
- Wear a face covering if you can
And of course if you have any symptoms then stay at home and call 111 as soon as you can.
Please keep doing the right thing. This is what will see us through to the end of the month and hopefully out of all measures. We must not drop our guard.
Make the right decisions to keep you, your family and your Island safe. And to protect our vaccination programme.