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 MHK and our Director of Public Health Dr Henrietta Ewart.
This week we learnt the sad news that an Isle of Man resident, receiving treatment in the United Kingdom, had died as a result of COVID-19.
Our thoughts are with their family and loved ones at this difficult time.
Since I last spoke to you a week ago, we have identified three new cases of COVID-19.
Two of these cases are residents who returned to the Island following a trip to the United Kingdom. They became symptomatic during self-isolation and called the COVID-111 line to request a test. Upon confirmation of a positive result, their period of isolation was extended by a further fourteen days.
The third case was a close contact of someone in the recent cluster of people who have tested positive for the virus.
As this individual was identified through contact tracing as being at a high risk of contracting the virus, they were already self-isolating for fourteen days.
As with the two cases I have just referred to, this individual also became symptomatic during their period of isolation and contacted the COVID-111 service to request a test. Upon confirmation of a positive result, their period of isolation was extended by a further fourteen days.
I wish all three individuals a speedy recovery.
The number of active cases of COVID-19 in the Isle of Man stands at six. Four of these are part of the recent small cluster. We are seeing the small number of active cases begin to tail off, which is encouraging.
I have said time and again to so many of those affected by this virus thank you.
Thank you for following the rules and being responsible. Your actions have enabled us to move swiftly to test, isolate and trace. You have helped us to contain the virus, preventing it from spreading throughout our community and, in doing so, lives and livelihoods have been protected.
Moving quickly and ensuring the virus is contained means we can continue to enjoy our lives in relative normality. No physical distancing, no face masks, no restrictions on social gatherings.
Last Thursday evening we were reminded once again how very fortunate we are in the Isle of Man. It was the switch-on of the Christmas lights in Douglas. Thousands of people filled the streets of our capital. Events like this occupy a special place in our national consciousness and are all too easy to take for granted.
But 2020’s switch-on is particularly poignant given the situation that surrounds us. As one of the few light switch-ons in the British Isles that the public will be able to attend, this year the festive spectacle attracted attention from further afield with coverage on BBC Breakfast and Good Morning Britain, in The Daily Telegraph, the Mail Online and in other national dailies.
And so, the switching on of the Christmas lights was not only a sight to behold for the thousands here who attended, but also one for our neighbours. The festivities quite literally shone a light on our Island and all that, together, we have achieved as a community in keeping the virus at bay, which is allowing us to enjoy a normal build up to Christmas.
Next week sees the start of December and people’s thoughts –here, in the United Kingdom, and around the world – are increasingly focussed on the festive season and what impact the virus will have.
On Wednesday, the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland unveiled a jointly agreed plan to allow a slight easing of restrictions between the 23 and 27 December across the whole of the United Kingdom. It will create a Christmas window to allow up to three households to form a “Christmas bubble” with a suspension of the rules that restrict travelling between the four nations and regions in different tiers of restrictions.
It is a glimmer of hope and will make life easier for some, but it does come with risk. Leaders in the UK have been at pains to point out that this is a matter of personal judgement for individuals and families to take and that in any event Christmas in the United Kingdom will not, and cannot, be normal this year.
Here on the Island, despite all we have achieved, our Christmas will not be immune from the impact of the virus.
Restrictions remain in place at our borders and we remain at level four of our borders framework.
The Council of Ministers continues to review the situation on the Island and in the jurisdictions that surround us. But we must be realistic. Given the continuing prevalence of the virus in the UK and Ireland, it is all but certain that we will have to remain on level four of our borders framework for the remainder of this year.
This means continuing to restrict who can come to the Island, limiting it to returning residents, key workers and those granted permission to come on compassionate grounds.
As a result, many of us will not be able to welcome loved ones onto our Island this Christmas. I know that this is causing unease for many.
These decisions are never easy and the impact they can have on our community weighs heavily on me personally and my colleagues in the Council of Ministers.
There is a growing sense of anticipation and, I believe, a clear collective will in our community to maintain the status quo and keep the virus from spreading across our Island this December.
To do otherwise would risk a Christmas that, for the vast majority, will be normal in many more ways than we had dared hope for earlier in the year.
But we have yet to cross the finish line. We must maintain a laser focus on doing all we can to keep our wider community free of the virus. We have to remain vigilant and avoid complacency. It is our actions and behaviours that have helped to keep the virus at bay and it is our actions and behaviours that will determine whether we can enjoy a COVID-free Christmas in the Isle of Man.
Henrietta, I know you wanted to say a few words on this topic.
Despite restrictions at our border, Isle of Man residents continue to be free to travel, with a fourteen day period of self-isolation on return for the travellers and, since last Thursday 19 November, for all other members of the household.
To ease the impact of this measure on non-travellers in the household, Government is making available a contribution of up to two-hundred and fifty pounds a week towards the cost of alternative accommodation for returning residents.
The latest figures show that the number of accommodation providers registered with the self-isolation scheme has increased to one-hundred and thirty-four, now with over nine-hundred bed spaces available.
Take up of the scheme has been strong, with one-hundred and thirty-nine bookings so far.
In addition to this assistance, which I must emphasise is available only once and is for all returning residents, yesterday the Manx Solidarity Fund announced a support package specifically for returning students.
Up to an additional two-hundred and fifty pounds will be available to help towards the cost of self-isolation accommodation for students returning home to the Island for Christmas. They will need to demonstrate a need for additional financial support and will need to show proof that they are in receipt of a grant or a loan from the Government.
Applications can be made online at manxsolidarityfund.com.
My thanks to the Fund and to everyone who has contributed towards it.
Looking ahead to next year and our borders, we know the current restrictions cannot last forever. The New Year will start to bring a new set of circumstances and new considerations. Will the vaccines be approved and a programme underway? What will be the impact of the current lockdowns in the United Kingdom? What might be the impact of decisions on Christmas taken in the United Kingdom this week be? We don’t know the answer to any of these questions at the moment. What we do know is that they will shape our decision making.
One final point on borders before I move on. Our air bridge with Guernsey. I am happy to report that given the level of cases in Guernsey and the Isle of Man we are now in discussions to explore how air links between our two islands might be re-established in the future.
I spoke earlier about how our measures to prevent the spread of the virus not only protects lives, but also livelihoods. Yesterday, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, delivered a statement to Parliament on his spending review for the year ahead.
I do not propose to go into detail here, but the message was stark. The scale of the fiscal challenge facing the United Kingdom is considerable. An eleven per cent contraction of the economy, a scale of national borrowing not seen since the Second World War, and a potential for an increase in unemployment of one million.
Yet a further reminder of how lucky we are. We have not been immune to the economic shock of COVID-19. I know for some out there, things have been really tough. But our collective action to control and eradicate the virus has not just protected lives. It has protected our economy and jobs.
Turning now to testing and vaccines.
On the testing front, I am pleased to announce that private testing for those who require confirmation of being COVID free, prior to travelling, is now available. As with our seven day test scheme, the cost will be fixed at fifty pounds per test. If you require a private test for travel related purposes, you may contact the COVID-111 line to arrange an appointment and to make the payment.
On the vaccination front, we now have the appropriate legislation in place and we have access to a supply of the vaccines confirmed. Work continues at pace to put in place the logistics and infrastructure required for a mass vaccination programme. We must remember that a project of this scope and scale is unprecedented in modern times. It will take significant planning and considerable resources.
It is now a matter of waiting for the governance and regulatory approval process to run its course.
I will keep you updated on developments.
I am sure many of you will have noticed the cold and crisp weather over the past few days. We can be in no doubt that winter is here. Many of you will regularly hear of the pressures that winter can bring to bear on our health and social care services. This is a challenge every winter, but one we must monitor carefully with the looming threat of COVID.
I would like to handover to Minister Ashford who will go into a little more detail on the pressures being experienced in our health and social care system – particularly in our hospitals at Noble’s and in Ramsey.
I am certain everyone in our community will act responsibly to help protect our health and care services from unnecessary pressure this winter.
Before moving to questions from the media, I wanted to pick up a topic from last week – the transfer of pets by ferry.
A decision was taken, given the prevalence of the virus in the United Kingdom, that it was no longer appropriate to allow Isle of Man residents to collect pets and horses from the UK – even when remaining on board – without them self-isolating upon return.
What I want to make clear is that it is not simply a change in Government policy but, as I understand it, also a change in policy by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. Until last month, I believe that the Steam Packet would allow pets to travel in their on-board kennels, without owners. By law, pets cannot travel unaccompanied, as someone must ensure their welfare during the journey. The Steam Packet did, however, allow pets to be booked for passage, with staff members on board taking on the role of attendant responsible for the animal’s welfare during the journey. That policy has changed and is a matter for the Steam Packet. It is not a decision taken by the Isle of Man Government.
I know this has caused disappointment and frustration for some of you.
The existing arrangements remain unchanged for food producing livestock.
To be clear, individuals can travel with their pets and horses as they wish, however, like all travellers, they must self-isolate when they return to the Island, to ensure the safety of the Island’s community.
And now to questions from the media.
Christmas is coming, as they say. Our job now is to stay the course. We must work together to follow the rules and act responsibly. If we do, there is every chance that we can end this most challenging of years able to enjoy the festive traditions and activities we would in any other year. Please stay safe, please stay responsible.
That’s all for today, thank you.