Good afternoon everyone and thank you for taking the time to watch and listen today.
I am joined by the Minister for Health and Social Care David Ashford and our Director of Public Health Dr Henrietta Ewart.
We are back at the podiums sooner than I had indicated at the briefing held on Thursday. Since then, the situation in the United Kingdom has changed considerably, with a rapid deterioration in the COVID position there.
On Sunday, over thirty five thousand people in the United Kingdom tested positive for COVID-19 in a single day – the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the total number of people in the United Kingdom to have tested positive for the virus, surpassed two million.
Looking at recent data from the United Kingdom, the impact that a second national lockdown in England had on suppressing the virus in November is clearly evident.
A new tiered system of restrictions was brought in at the end of the second lockdown, with many areas of the country placed in tier three, the tightest in terms of restrictions.
Despite this, the virus has once again taken hold, creating a new spike and that record number of infections.
The cause of this is now becoming clear. On Monday 14 December the UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced in Parliament the detection of a new variant of the virus. One that is – potentially – up the seventy per cent more likely to be transmitted between people because of the way the virus has mutated.
Thankfully, there are no indications, yet, that the variant results in symptoms being any worse, or that the new vaccines are not effective in protecting against the mutated form of COVID-19.
Nonetheless, the variant is resulting in the more rapid spread of the virus, particularly in the south and east of England, although it is now clear that the variant has spread throughout the United Kingdom. Unchecked, the likelihood of more people having the virus at a single point in time is greatly increased, with the potential to place severe pressure on hospital services and potentially overwhelm the NHS.
As a result, on Saturday, the UK Prime Minister announced a new fourth tier of restrictions for England, effectively returning many parts back to lockdown. Wales entered lockdown on Saturday, whilst mainland Scotland and Northern Ireland will follow suit on Boxing Day. It also seems increasingly likely that more parts of England will see a move to tier four.
Arrangements to relax restrictions over Christmas have been largely withdrawn, with no mixing of households permitted in the new tier four areas of England whilst in the rest of the United Kingdom relaxed restrictions will only apply on Christmas Day.
Travel within the United Kingdom is severely restricted. People in tier four areas of England must stay at home apart from in a limited number of circumstances. Across the rest of the United Kingdom, everyone is being encouraged to stay local this Christmas.
There is clearly serious concern in the scientific community about this new variant of COVID-19. The United Kingdom is working closely with the World Health Organisation, sharing its findings and research.
Despite this concern, context is king.
Viruses naturally mutate – it is why we have to vaccinate against flu every year – and COVID-19 has been mutating since it was first detected, so this news in itself is not unusual or a cause for alarm.
It’s also important to bear in mind that the United Kingdom is particularly strong at genomics in the fight against COVID-19 – that is the study of the genome of the virus, its RNA, and monitoring and analysing changes.
This is precisely how this particular mutation and its spread have been identified.
I will hand over to Dr Ewart to talk more about the science.
Thank you Henrietta. It is clear that this is a complex and evolving situation.
So, what does this mean for the Isle of Man?
You will have seen reports in the news of a growing number of countries temporarily banning travel from the United Kingdom, such is the concern over this new COVID-19 variant.
We too need to consider the risks that this variant poses to public health on our Island.
Yesterday, the Council of Ministers met to discuss the situation in the United Kingdom and what response, if any, was required here in the Isle of Man.
Whenever we review our response to COVID-19, the Council of Ministers returns to its four primary policy principles, which are to:
- Protect life
- Maintain our critical national infrastructure
- Maintain public safety, confidence and welfare; and to
- Support a controlled return to normality, balancing the social and economic impacts against the risks to health
These principles have guided our actions to date and will continue to do so.
The assessment from officials has demonstrated a clear cause for concern on the potential impact a more virulent strain of the virus could have on our Island community.
The key to protecting life is not just preventing the virus from spreading in our community but, crucially, ensuring that we have sufficient medical resources available to care for those who become ill due to COVID-19.
Winter is always the most challenging and busiest time for health services around the globe. This year is no different and our hospitals and wider health and care services are feeling the strain of winter pressures. The Department of Health and Social Care has already activated its winter plan.
Given the situation and the reasons I have set out, it is clear to the Council of Ministers that action is required to shore up our defences given the rapid spread of the new variant in the United Kingdom. Although we are only seeing a handful of sporadic COVID cases, and even though they are being detected in isolation, it is inevitable that the mutated virus will make its way to the Isle of Man. The question then, is, what steps can we take to mitigate the risk posed by the virus in its more virulent form, with a seventy per cent increase in the likelihood of transmission?
The Council of Ministers has carefully considered the risks posed by the new strain of the virus, the options available to us and the impact these decisions may have.
We have determined that the Island will remain on level four of the borders framework – there will not be a return to level five at this stage.
That said, we have identified a number of areas where we can tighten controls to provide our community with added protection.
For people who are not already in possession of an exemption certificate or direction notice, a number of measures will come into force for people arriving on the Island from one minute past midnight tonight.
Firstly, the rules for non-residents travelling to our Island.
All categories of exemption, granting permission for non-residents to travel to the Island, are suspended except for future applications in the following three categories:
- The maintenance of critical national infrastructure
- The provision of health and social care
- Circumstances where an exemption is in the public interest
Those who have already been issued with an exemption certificate will be permitted to travel to the Island – to be clear, these certificates are not being revoked and existing conditions apply. But, no new exemptions, except in the three categories I have just outlined, will now be permitted form this point onwards.
To be clear, this includes exemption certificates issued on compassionate grounds. With immediate effect, we are temporarily suspending new applications for travel to the Island for compassionate grounds. Those already in the system but not yet reviewed will be processed and those already granted will be honoured.
Secondly, whilst strict protocols are already in place to prevent the spread of the virus from visiting key workers – such as social distancing, face masks, self-isolation outside of working times – from tomorrow, all of those arriving on an exemption will be required to have a test for COVID-19 following their arrival on the Island.
Thirdly, from tomorrow, all those arriving in possession of an exemption certificate will no longer be permitted to undertake exercise.
Fourthly, any amendments people have been granted to their self-isolation requirements are revoked and disallowed with effect from tomorrow.
Turning now to measures for returning residents and what the Council of Ministers has decided.
Firstly, we are introducing a new testing regime with a test following arrival and a second test on day thirteen of self-isolation. If the day thirteen test is negative, residents will be able to leave self-isolation on day fourteen. If the test is positive, the period of isolation will be extended by a further fourteen days.
Those who do not wish to undergo testing will be required to self-isolate for twenty-one days.
The cost of both tests combined with be fifty pounds.
Tests can be booked by calling the COVID-111 service.
There has always been a risk that one per cent of people could still be carrying the virus after fourteen days of self-isolation. This has, previously, been a small but acceptable risk. The changing nature of the virus and the virulence of the new strain change the nature of this risk. The Council of Ministers feel that it is prudent to be certain that those self-isolating are free from the virus before leaving self-isolation. The confirmation of a negative test result or the extended isolation period for those who do not wish to be tested provide added assurance that the virus is likely to have been eliminated.
Secondly, as with non-residents, those in self-isolation arriving after one minute past midnight will no longer be able to leave their accommodation to exercise. You must stay at home.
Thirdly, the day seven test pathway available for patient transfers and UK based Isle of Man resident key workers will also be suspended.
To summarise – these new measures apply to those arriving on the Island from tomorrow onwards. If you are already here and already self-isolating, the rules do not change. If you are already in possession of an exemption certificate or direction notice, the rules do not change.
Many of our residents have now returned home and it’s clear that over the next two weeks the anticipated travel volumes are likely to be less than they have been. I also expect many people who had planned to travel to review this in light of the changing situation.
I do appreciate these changes will be unwelcome to some though, and the message I would like to give everyone who plans on travelling away is to think carefully and only do so in exceptional circumstances.
Our borders remain our principle line of defence. The Council of Ministers was determined not to have a kneejerk reaction to the latest developments, but we are keenly aware of the responsibility we have to respond to new and emerging threats. We determined that further strengthening our borders – albeit on a temporary basis – to be the most appropriate course of action.
We hope that these changes will be short term with a view to reverting back to our current position as swiftly as possible. The Council of Ministers will review the situation in two weeks’ time.
With a number of countries suspending people travelling from the United Kingdom, notably France, there has been an impact on the flow of goods.
This is causing understandable concern as we approach Christmas. However, the supply chain is robust and rest assured that your Christmas dinner is safe.
We work closely with partners on-Island and with the UK Government and have been in discussions in recent days and again this morning. Most food for Christmas is now either already in store or is waiting in regional distribution centres. There is no need for panic buying and all reports show adequate supply, including here on the Island.
We may see some impact next week because of the forty-eight hour suspension of freight between the UK and France, but this will likely extend only to salad, citrus and soft fruits and some out of season vegetables.
So please do shop responsibly and thoughtfully. There is plenty of food and supplies and no cause for concern.
Whilst the focus of today’s briefing is on the changing situation in the United Kingdom and our border measures, I do want to touch upon our COVID vaccination programme.
Our intention is to start the vaccination programme in earnest on Monday 4 January. I have said before that this is not a race. This is too important to rush. We have a responsibility to get it right.
I would like to invite Minister Ashford to go into a little more detail on where we are up to and what our plans are.
Thank you David.
And now to questions from the media.
Thank you for those questions.
The events of the past few days are the latest in a series of twists and turns that have run throughout this year. I remain extremely proud of everything our community has achieved. As I have said time and again, this success is down to you. I am confident we can adapt once again to the changing circumstances around us and look to 2021 with optimism and hope.
I would like to extend my best wishes to all of you for a happy and peaceful Christmas.
That’s all for today, thank you.