Good afternoon everyone,
Thank you for taking the time to watch and listen today.
It has been over a fortnight since I last provided you with an update. Given developments in the United Kingdom in recent days, it seems an appropriate time to speak to you all again.
I am sure it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the situation in relation to COVID-19 in the United Kingdom is not developing as any of us would have hoped.
On Monday, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, and the Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, held a briefing. They set out a stark picture of the potential – and I must emphasise that word – potential – for an exponential growth of coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom in the coming weeks. This could see as many as 50,000 new cases a day by the middle of October, placing severe pressure on the country’s health and social care services. By the middle of November, this could mean as many as 200 deaths from COVID-19 each day in the United Kingdom.
Later on Monday, the United Kingdom’s coronavirus alert level was raised from level three to four – the second highest level. This reflected the fact that transmission rates are high, potentially exponential.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of Cobra, the United Kingdom’s Emergency Response Committee, following which he made a statement in Parliament setting out new measures designed to restrict the spread of the virus in England.
On Tuesday evening the Prime Minister once again addressed the nation, a clear signal of the seriousness with which the UK Government is treating these signs of a second wave.
Earlier today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, set out a package of measures to Parliament designed to help UK workers and businesses, which includes extending the reduction in VAT on hospitality, accommodation and attractions from twenty percent to five percent which had been due to expire on 12 January 2021.
In accordance with the Customs and Excise agreement with the UK, the Isle of Man will also extend the application of the 5 percent rate to hospitality and attractions until 31 March 2021. The reduced rate of VAT already applies to holiday accommodation here.
The UK Government also announced the provision of an option to pay the deferred VAT in smaller instalments during 2021 to 2022 without incurring interest.
The Isle of Man will also introduce this payment scheme and more details will be made available in due course.
The North-West of England – the region with which our Island has perhaps the closest connections – continues to be one of areas worst affected by the virus’s resurgence.
Many of us have loved ones in the region and we have close ties through commerce and our transport links.
In recent weeks I have spoken with the mayors of Liverpool and of Greater Manchester, as well as North-West MPs, and have expressed our solidarity with the people of Northern England and, of course, the wider United Kingdom.
Turning to the situation here in the Isle of Man, whilst we currently have two active cases of coronavirus, both of these have been detected in individuals who were already in self-isolation. There are no signs whatsoever that the virus is circulating in our community, and the Isle of Man therefore remains free of coronavirus.
I will hand over to the Health and Social Care Minister, David Ashford, who can briefly go into a little more detail on the four activate cases we have seen in the past few weeks.
Thank you David. A clear sign there that the processes and procedures we have put in place are working and are robust, serving to protect our Island and its people.
I commend everyone who has complied with the self-isolation requirements when arriving on our Island. This is the most important protective barrier we have to keep the virus at bay. If you leave the Island and return, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that you follow the instructions you are given, instructions you are legally obliged to adhere to. As we have seen in the news, the consequences for not following the rules can be severe.
Turning now to borders. We remain on level four of our borders framework, which means that residents are free to travel off the Island, but must self-isolate upon their return. This is either for fourteen days, or for seven days, followed by a test and – if that test result is negative for COVID-19 – then those self-isolation restrictions are relaxed, but remain in force for a further seven days.
Our borders framework was designed to help us eliminate the virus locally, which we achieved, together. The framework was also designed to allow us to transition, gradually, through varying levels of restrictions in order to protect the Island, by carefully managing the risk of the virus returning to our community.
We have said throughout this pandemic that, in order to be effective in protecting our Island, our borders policy must reflect and respond to the situation in the United Kingdom. Given the resurgence of the virus and the potential for this to build into a fully-fledged second wave, we have to be realistic about the threat to our Island.
I know the borders situation has been tough for many of you in terms of being able to reunite, here on the Island, with close family and loved ones who live away. The Council of Ministers is also conscious that people’s thoughts are now turning towards the festive season, when bringing family and kin together is so important.
All of us had been hoping that the promising signs in the United Kingdom earlier in the summer, where the virus was contained and in retreat, might be sustained and that this could enable a move from level four to level three of our borders framework. As I set out earlier, however, the situation in the United Kingdom is, sadly, going in the wrong direction.
For now, the Council of Ministers has decided that in the best interests of our Island and our community, it is prudent to remain at level four.
I appreciate that, for some, not moving to level three will be a disappointment, whilst for others, remaining at level four will bring reassurance.
This reflects my inbox and the comments I receive from you. There are those who want us to remain where we are, there are those who want restrictions to be relaxed further and there are those who want us to return to level five of our borders framework.
On the topic of level five, as we touched upon earlier, the processes and precautions we have in place are working. Our fourteen day self-isolation policy and the restrictions in place for key workers have kept the virus out of our community. And our new day 7 testing programme is picking up positive cases of the virus and allowing us to direct those individuals to isolate for a further fourteen days.
A return to level five would remove the ability for people to freely leave the Island and to return, subject to a period of self-isolation. We must be mindful of the practical, emotional and mental health consequences that a move back to level five would entail.
And we must also bear in mind that even at level five, essential workers – so vital to keeping our essential services and critical national infrastructure functioning – remain able to come to the Island. Such workers made up two of the four positive tests we have had in recent weeks. Again the safeguards we have in place detected the virus and we were effective in preventing its spread.
All of these considerations serve as a reminder of the difficult balancing act the Council of Ministers must perform in taking decisions that keep our Island safe whilst taking account of the potential economic and social impact of those decisions.
The Council of Ministers does recognise, however, that we have been at level four for a prolonged period. And so we have set to work on exploring what other avenues may be available to help those who are unable, or who are finding it difficult, to travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland to see close family. We want to do all we can to help you see your loved ones.
It has become clear that a sticking point in moving from level four to level three is the potential risk involved. Is it perhaps that, in the current climate, moving from level three to level four feels like more of a leap than a step? We think so.
And so, the Council of Ministers is actively considering breaking level three into two parts. Level three A would allow residents to 'sponsor' immediate family members – that is mums, dads, grandparents, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and partners – to come to the Island. Visiting family members would, of course, be required to follow a mandatory period of self-isolation.
Level three B would be about sponsorship more generally in addition to family, and could cover business and friends, for example.
This potential for a revised approach to level three would give the Council of Ministers more room for manoeuvre in judging when the time is right to take the next step. That time is not today; for the reasons I have set out around the situation in the United Kingdom and because we have more work to do in fleshing out this potential change to our borders framework to ensure it is right and that the safeguards we need are in place.
As I said earlier, I hope that this news brings reassurance. Reassurance to those wanting their loved ones to come to the Island, and reassurance to those who do not wish to see too sudden a change in who can come to our Island.
These decisions are never easy and there are many factors to consider. The Council of Ministers acts in what we believe are the best interests of our Island and you, its people.
Before taking questions from the media, I spoke earlier about thoughts turning to the festive season. One particular aspect of this is students returning from university, and I would like to invite the Minister for Education, Sport and Culture, Alex Allinson, so say a little more on this.
Thank you Alex.
And now to questions from the media.
Thank you for those questions.
As I have said throughout, I am committed to keeping you updated and informed with developments. We will continue to deliver these briefings regularly. We may not always have announcements to make and it may not always be me who appears. But we will continue to communicate with you.
That’s all for today. Thank you again for your time.