Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for taking the time to watch and listen today. I am back sooner than I had expected and am joined by the Minister for Education, Sport and Culture Dr Alex Allinson, and our Director of Public Health, Dr Henrietta Ewart.
This morning Government announced two new cases of COVID-19. These positive test results came in late yesterday evening and contact tracing began immediately.
Through that initial process, our contact tracing team have – so far – been unable to identify any solid link to the existing cases of COVID-19 on the Island – including the cases announced on New Year’s Eve and on Tuesday this week.
Given the time course, it is likely that these cases are related to the current clusters, and we may yet identify a link through further contact tracing. However, and regardless of whether we do identify the link, these cases indicate that the virus has spread beyond the immediate contacts of the previous cases, into the wider community.
I know this will come as a blow. Last year, together, we all worked so hard and were successful in eliminating the virus, stopping it from circulating in our community for more than six months – a remarkable achievement given the situation that surrounds us.
Having initially succeeded in eliminating the virus, the Council of Ministers has continually adapted the measures in place to protect our Island – notably our border controls – to reflect the level of infection in the United Kingdom in order to mitigate the risk it poses to our community. This has not been an easy task, and as I have said before, it has always been about balancing risk and consequence, whether these are economic, social or health-related.
Despite the strong measures put in place by Government, and all your efforts, these two new cases once again demonstrate why it is so important we remain vigilant – government and the public alike.
I understand the concern that will be caused from the circumstances of one of these cases – which I will ask Dr Ewart to go through in a moment – as it involves St Mary’s Primary School in Douglas. We were spared this type of spread in our initial response to the virus last year. Anything that threatens the health of our children will of course elicit a strong emotional response. I know it will be a difficult day for the children, teaching and support staff and the wider families involved.
Our contact tracing team are working at speed to reach all those who are potentially affected by the case at St Mary’s.
Whilst this takes place – as set out in our announcement this morning – I would ask all those who attend or work at St Mary’s Primary School to continue to self-isolate today, along with other members of their household. This is a precaution whilst the COVID-111 team contacts those potentially affected. There is no need for you to call 111. All contacts of concern should have been reached by the end of today. If you are not contacted today, then you can leave self-isolation tomorrow.
Those who are contacted will be offered tests. Anyone who tests positive or who declines a test will have to continue their self-isolation and further contact tracing will take place.
Many of you watching and listening will likely be familiar with the evidence that children with COVID-19 tend not to be as badly affected by the virus as adults. It is important we bear this in mind.
I will now hand over to Dr Ewart who will take you through the case details and also how children tend to react to the COVID virus.
Thank you Henrietta.
As well as our contact tracing, breaking that all important chain of infection is absolutely critical to our response. This is where we all have a role to play. Please follow the rules. Stay at home whenever possible. Ask yourself each time you leave the house: is my trip absolutely essential? The more we can avoid contact with other members of our community, the quicker we can bring this outbreak under control. Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, when outside your home cover your face if you can, and please keep your distance from other people. Our behaviours are the frontline in this fight. For example, I have received a number of comments that some individuals are leaving disposable face masks in shopping trollies. This means someone else has to pick it up, potentially negating the whole benefit of having worn it in the first place. Please think carefully about your actions.
I will now handover to Minister Allinson who would like to say a few words.
As well as the two cases we identified yesterday evening, last night we also received confirmation that one of the tests we had sent away to Liverpool for genomic analysis, was confirmed to be the new UK strain of the virus, known as B.1.1.7. The sample was not from the cluster we announced on New Year’s Eve, but instead from an earlier set of results that we sent away for genomic analysis. The strain was detected in a patient who returned to the Island following a medical appointment in the UK last year. They self-isolated upon their return and, as a result, we do not believe there would have been any onward transmission.
Whilst the B.1.1.7 variant was announced by the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the 14 December, the earliest signs of this variant goes back to the middle of September. That is three months prior to publication of the genomics study that identified and analysed the new strain.
Viruses constantly adapt and mutate – the B.1.1.7 strain is but one of many COVID-19 variants. A prime example I have used before to demonstrate this constant process of virus mutation is the flu virus. It too continuously adapts and mutates, which is why we have to vaccinate each year against new strains.
On the genomic results for the cases from New Year, I am advised that these are now expected towards the middle of next week.
Regardless of this, we now know that the new strain has “visited” our Island.
We have covered a lot of ground on the new variant in recent days, and I will hand over to Dr Ewart who will, I am sure, be pleased to go over the facts again.
Before I do so, I would like everyone to understand something fundamental in our approach to addressing this pandemic. The Isle of Man Government’s response to the virus since day one has been to pursue a strategy of elimination. We are not seeking to supress the spread of the virus. We are not seeking a way to coexist with the virus. We are not seeking to make the virus a normal part of our lives. Our current strategy it to eliminate the virus from our island. Whilst suppression or mitigation is the only strategy realistically available to many countries where the virus has – and continues – to spread rapidly, including the United Kingdom; the Council of Ministers remains resolute that our objective is to obliterate the virus from our shores and, we hope, allow life to return to normal, as quickly as possible.
Why is this point important? Because I use it to illustrate that it makes no difference what variations of the virus reach our shores. Our outbreak response is the same, regardless, because our strategy is one of elimination.
To illustrate this point, we now know the new variant made its way to the Isle of Man, but the measures we have in place and our response remain unchanged.
Dr Ewart, would you like to say a little more on the topic of the variant…
Thank you Henrietta. I know that media coverage about the UK and South African variants of the virus and public discourse has raised understandable concern about what this means and the consequences, including a more rapid spread. The Council of Ministers will continue to follow the science and Public Health advice in pursuing our elimination strategy.
And now to questions from the media, with the usual reminder that we must of course be careful about providing sensitive information that could inadvertently identify people.
Thank you for those questions.
We have beaten back the virus before. With the circuit breaker measures we have put in place; by harnessing the remarkable strength of our Island’s community spirit; and by acting responsibly, I am confident that – together – we can do so again.
Please follow the rules. Stay at home, be responsible and stay safe. For you, for your loved ones, and for our community.