Thank you, Mr President.
On Wednesday our Island reached a milestone in the fight against COVID-19. We now have no active cases of the virus here in the Isle of Man and we have had no new cases for sixteen days.
This milestone has been hard fought for. Through the grit, determination - and all too often sacrifice - of the Manx people. I am sure all Honourable Members will join me in paying tribute to them.
We can now look to the future with optimism. We have not been cowed by this tragedy. It has brought out the very best in our community. The adversity has spurred our people on. We have adapted and worked together to tackle COVID-19. In order to protect our Island, our people and – ultimately – our way of life.
Our ability to crush the curve and control the virus in the Isle of Man has been a phenomenal effort by every individual on our Island. I wish to pay tribute to our Island community. It is our people who have made this achievement possible.
And, of course, this includes Honourable Members of this Court.
Throughout this crisis, Honourable Members, I have welcomed – and indeed solicited - your views, your ideas and your input - as have my colleagues in the Council of Ministers.
Our unity has not, however, been at the expense of scrutiny.
Tynwald has done – and continues to do – its job of holding the Government to account and scrutinising its work. We have weekly sessions and rich debates. Ministers and officers have appeared before the Public Accounts Committee on a weekly basis to explore a variety of issues in more depth. This is a vital part of our parliamentary democracy – all the more so during a time of national emergency.
And as we ease – cautiously - our society and our economy out of the health emergency, we need to find a way to ease ourselves out from the emergency powers we currently have in place.
The powers were brought in for a reason. To deal with a fast moving, unprecedented and lethal threat to our Island.
But as I have said before, these are not powers that I – or my ministerial colleagues – relish. We would like to be able to invite His Excellency to lift the State of Emergency.
However, as Honourable Members know, when that happens, the powers in place will fall. While we are ready for some to fall, others remain important to keep our people safe.
Officers have been working hard to find the best way through this conundrum. And, Mr President, I am sincerely grateful to those Honourable Members who have made suggestions. Government does not have a monopoly on good ideas.
I would like to share the approach I plan to take. I hope Honourable Members will see it for what it is – an offer to work in a transparent and collaborative manner for the good of our Nation.
Following an analysis of our current and future needs, we have identified some powers that we believe could be incorporated into existing Public Health legislation. Other powers however will need a new home. On Monday, the Council of Ministers will consider a draft Continuation Regulations.
Later next week, we will share this draft with Honourable Members in advance of a briefing session on Monday 15 June where we will seek your feedback. Following that consultation, we will review, amend and make the Continuation Regulation. Tynwald will then have an opportunity to review and – I hope - approve.
In order to do so, we will have to seek to extend the current state of emergency and will be inviting His Excellency to do so. However, we very much hope that once we are able to make the Continuation Regulation, we would be able to invite His Excellency to revoke the Proclamation. We would not have to wait until the end of the full extension period to do so.
My undertaking is that we will do all of this with an open mind. We are listening.
Despite the position we find ourselves in today, I cannot over-emphasise the fact that this battle is far from over. There remains no vaccine. No cure. And we do not know how long the virus will remain a global challenge.
Vigilance must be our watchword for some time to come. We must not lower our guard. This means continuing with the basic measures designed to keep us safe: keeping your distance from others and frequent hand washing. These safeguards are as effective as they are simple.
Our knowledge of the virus grows each and every day. We have now started antibody testing. This will provide important data. The global scientific and medical effort to understand and beat this virus is on a scale the likes of which we have never seen.
Here in the Isle of Man we have been able to ease restrictions in recent weeks to reflect the improving situation on our Island – just as we set out in our Stay Safe roadmap.
The path ahead looks clearer every day. And while we have been able to return many aspects of Island life to a semblance of normality – we still have a way to travel.
I appreciate that members have attended several briefings since I last updated this honourable court some ten days ago. However, much has changed during this period, and so I feel it is worthwhile summarising our progress as well as the next steps we intend to take.
We now have, on-Island, the first 5,000 COVID-19 antibody tests. The results will help us to understand how widespread the virus has been on the Island and provide us with metrics such as age, gender and geographic spread. And testing has started.
Unlike the swab test that Honourable Members will be familiar with, antibody testing is a blood test. And not a finger prick test. It requires the drawing of blood. It does not tell us if someone has the virus but instead looks for antibodies that show that someone has previously had COVID-19.
Honourable Members will be aware, however, that the presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that someone is immune from catching COVID-19 again. There is still much we need to learn about this virus.
There are a number of changes to measures that are coming down the road.
From 10th June, those returning to the Island will be able to quarantine themselves at home even if there are people in that household who have not returned with that individual. This is on the basis of everyone in the household agreeing to self-quarantine. This is something that a number of Honourable Members have asked us to consider over recent weeks. We listened. And thanks to our strong results, we have been able to do so.
This will make life easier for those returning to the Island, reuniting loved ones more quickly, and will remove the need - for all but a few - to self-quarantine in a hotel or an alternative empty property.
I have already set out how we have increased the numbers of people who can return to the Island each week, and I am pleased to advise that from 11 June a small number of people will now be allowed to return to the Island by air.
15 June will be a key date for a number of changes to the restrictions currently in place.
The temporary national speed limit – put in place to reduce accidents and the demand these place on our emergency and health services - will increase from 40 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour on 15 June. Again this is because of the positive situation we find ourselves in. The Council of Ministers will further review the temporary national speed limit towards the end of the month with a view to lifting it.
It is the Government’s intention for social distancing to change on 15 June. This will see a switch from the current guidance of keeping two metres apart, to instead adopting the World Health Organisation’s guidance of being “at least one metre apart”. We know that this will make a real difference.
15 June will see all of the Island’s schools reopen as our teaching profession and those who support them make preparations to receive pupils, who are currently attending the fourteen hub schools, beginning on Wednesday 17th June. Schools will then begin to accept pupils from the key transitional year groups – years 2, 6, 10 and 12 before opening up to all remaining year groups.
Some people are telling us that it is too soon. Some people are telling us it is not soon enough. As a reflection of this, attendance will not be compulsory for the remainder of the academic year. Should parents wish to keep their children at home until September, they are free to do so.
From 15 June, nurseries and playgroups will also be able to welcome all children.
We also intend to change the rules for outdoor gatherings on 15 June. This will increase from the current limit of ten people to thirty people.
I know that many in our community will be looking for an easing of restrictions on the number of visitors allowed indoors.
We must be cautious. The evidence shows a significant difference in the risk of transmission of the virus indoors compared to outdoors. For the time being, the rule will remain only two visitors allowed, both of whom must be visiting from the same household. I have indicated it is this Government’s desire to step out of people’s lives as much as possible. This remains the case.
I have said on numerous occasions, the powers to intervene in people’s lives to this degree do not sit easy with me. These restrictions should continue for as short a period as possible and only for as long as absolutely necessary.
I hope to make further announcements on indoor gatherings in the near future and I thank the public for and honourable members for bearing with us.
The Department of Education, Sport and Culture is continuing to work with all sporting bodies to ensure that - as these rules on outdoor gatherings change - sports can resume where possible, as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.
I know, Mr President, many people have been asking about gyms reopening. This has been challenging as COVID-19 is not only spread much more easily indoors, but increased respiration and perspiration from exercise means there is an increased risk of the virus spreading.
I am, however, pleased to say that we have worked with the industry to find a compromise and are continuing to develop guidance which we hope can result in gyms reopening – albeit with restrictions – on 15 June.
Socialising over a meal in a restaurant as well as in bars and pubs is an important part of our community life. I am pleased that from 15 June we are ready for indoor dining to recommence. Guidance is available for the industry on how this can be done safely.
Likewise, hotels can reopen on 15 June. I know the market will be limited and so, challenges will remain. But it is a welcome step in the right direction.
As for bars and public houses, we are hopeful we can remove restrictions on 29th June. But before then, from 15 June, bars and pubs that serve food can reopen in the same manner as restaurants and cafes. This means serving customers a substantive seated meal, with which beverages can of course also be served. I thank the industry for working closely with Government to make this relaxation possible.
The last two updates I have, Mr President, concern the Department of Health and Social Care.
The Department has now published guidelines on visiting people whether in hospital or one of the Department’s many care facilities. I know that things have been very difficult on this understandably emotive topic. I hope these guidelines go some way towards making lives easier whilst continuing to protect both our health and care professionals and, of course, our patients and services users, many of whom will be particularly vulnerable to the virus.
The second point is on those who are classed as being vulnerable and extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 and who, at the start of the outbreak, were written to by the Director of Public Health and the Medical Director advising that they take steps to ‘shield’ themselves from the virus.
The Department is again writing to these individuals with updated guidance which seeks to maintain a level of protection whilst endeavouring to restore some aspects of normality – such as getting out for fresh air and a walk.
I know times have been extremely tough for many of these individuals. Just one of the many sacrifices I alluded to in my opening remarks.
I do appreciate that, given the gap between the extraordinary sittings, I have covered a lot of ground in my statement today.
But, I am sure that Honourable Members will agree that these are positive developments, allowing us to be bold and up our pace in easing restrictions.
The direction of travel I have set out today, is I hope, clear: life is beginning to return to normal – albeit our new Manx normal.
Our society is beginning to resume the activities that are the beating heart of our community and our economy. The rhythm of daily life is retuning, albeit to a slightly different beat.