Minister Cortes’ Statement - Sunday’s COVID-19 Briefing

Good afternoon and welcome to No 6 Convent Place.

We have been on lockdown now for just under four weeks, those of you over 70 for longer.  This is not what we are used to - and we don’t want to get used to it, especially on a fine day like today, but it is where we are.  Where we have to be.  These are still NOT ordinary times.

Let’s think back just a few weeks to when people were wanting action and expecting lockdown as we saw what was happening in other countries, and as nearby as Spain.  

So it is disappointing to see that some people are not keeping within the law.  Our lockdown has been sympathetic, trying to be understanding, much more so than many other countries.  But sadly there are those who are not respecting it, even now, and are using the ‘reason’ of exercise to go out, not to exercise, but to socialise.  This is NOT allowed.  And it’s not acceptable.  This is against the law and most importantly is playing into the hands of the coronavirus.

Remember, a walk is NOT a picnic.  Stay at home.

Of course it’s not easy and of course it can be stressful.  So it’s important to focus on the positive, to make the best use of what for some may be more spare time.  Perhaps to revisit some old hobby, or start a new one, or catch up on some book you’ve always wanted to read or re-read, or a TV series you remember from years ago.

I’m sure we’re all looking for things to occupy the time, and importantly the mind.

My colleagues in Culture are working hard to keep us all entertained.

Gibraltar Cultural Services continues to work with GAMPA on the cultural online programme which is aired weekly on both their websites and Facebook platforms.  Tomorrow we enter week 5 of the programme that will once again include many cultural activities, programmes and recordings. 

This week will have two special features, Jetstream live at St Michael’s Cave and  Paul Cosquieri’s University Mural. I take this opportunity to thank all my cultural team, GAMPA, The Bulb, Gibmedia and the many cultural entities and individuals who have come on board to support the online programme.

GCS is also already uploading the many cultural archives that have been forwarded to create the new Cultural Archives TV. You may recall we recently launched a new project jointly between GCS and GBC. This new initiative will allow our cultural heritage to be accessible to the community, not just during these trying times, but in the future as well. We have already received footage from various cultural entities including Mount Productions, Transitions Dance Academy, the Gibraltar National Dance Organisation and M.O Productions. I call on the many other cultural organisations to send us their material.  Some of you will know that I have a past in the performing arts and so I have forwarded some of my own material too!

We have also launched a fortnightly drawing, painting and short story competition, aimed at children and young people aged from School Years 3 to 13.  

During lockdown many people seem to have been spending their time creatively on Lego. We are planning an exhibition of Lego to take place after lockdown, so please contact GCS if you’re interested in showing off your work or that of your children. 

Elsewhere in my Ministry, I can report that we have now received an updated analysis of air quality since lockdown.

A press note with details will issue soon. 

Results show that levels of the pollutants studied have decreased throughout Gibraltar.  Those for which we have data so far are Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), combined oxides of Nitrogen (NOx), and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5).  

This improvement in air quality is most likely the result of reduction in traffic, and also construction and ship repair.  There will have been reductions from neighbouring areas across the Bay too, which could also be contributing to these results.

The results are to be expected.  They prove that traffic is probably our main source of diminished air quality, which should encourage us to redouble efforts to deal with this after the current crisis when we start to regain a reviewed normality.  The fact that poor air quality affects respiratory health is particularly significant as this will be key to good health in later years if COVID-19 becomes endemic.  For the moment I guess one consolation of the difficulties we are living through is the fact that we are breathing cleaner air.

I’d now like to say something about the more vulnerable in our society. 

From onset, COVID-19 contingency planning, under the leadership of my colleague Samantha Sacramento as Minister for Civil Contingencies,  has included vulnerable groups within the community in order to assess needs and mitigate associated risks. 

These groups include:

-  All ERS residents 

- Citizens 70+ with limited or no support network in the community

-  Vulnerable children in the community & in care.

-  Adults with disabilities in the community & in care.

-  Others deemed vulnerable by individual assessment.

A multiagency, proactive approach has been adopted coordinated by a Civil Contingency lead dedicated to vulnerable groups. Key departments under this remit include Housing department, ERS and the Care Agency.

As a result, a number of services have been initiated and include ‘meals on wheels’ for those primarily unable to cook, provision of food supplies through dedicated response teams and a temporary homeless shelter at the Garrison Gym with the building facilitated by Europa FC. 

In excess of 3600 telephone calls have been made to vulnerable over 70s and others so far with Gibtelecom support.

Dr Giraldi Home and St Bernadette’s Occupational Centre have also seen an increase in capacity in order to absorb an increase in demand.

We must be really grateful to all those involved in all of this.

And I’d like too take the opportunity to send our best wishes to someone who has done so so much for vulnerable people for many years - Emily Olivero of Clubhouse Gibraltar - HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

I also want to thank the supermarkets and wholesalers for their efforts in keeping social distancing, hard work restocking shelves throughout the night, donating food banks and doing the over 70s deliveries.

And talking of deliveries - thank you to all the delivery drivers who are providing such a service around the Rock:  Hungry Monkey, Rock Heroes, Vepo, and Nom Noms.  Sustaining us through all these weeks.

Before I go on to the daily stats, I want to make some general comments on these.  

A great deal of work is being done on this novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, around the world.  We have our own teams continuously monitoring this research.  

Over the past few days two reports in particular have come to my notice.  One is the EU roadmap towards lifting containment measures, and another is an analysis and model for COVID-19 within the UK Overseas Territories - the OTs - prepared by Public Health England.

The one on the OTs is relevant because of similarities in size and age profile.  Interestingly the projections for Gibraltar produced by Public Health England, assuming we had taken no containment measures, was an expectation of over 300 deaths.  Of course with models you can never tell exactly what would have happened, but fortunately our measures have so far prevented this.  But as I always say, we must not be complacent.

The EU document concentrates on the process to reduce containment, or ‘unlock’ as we call it, and considers what has to be borne in mind before unlocking and how these steps should be taken.

Spain yesterday announced some tentative plans for unlock largely following the EU guidance. 

Our own situation will be informed by what’s happening elsewhere but clearly, as we have done so far, will take into account our particular circumstances.

You will not be surprised to learn that one of the primary concerns of the Government at this stage is of course looking towards our own unlocking.  As you know, Cabinet is meeting at least weekly by computer link, and this will feature greatly in our discussions this week, starting tomorrow morning.  

Many of you will have thought about the next steps, perhaps increasingly so, and will have had different opinions which you’ve discussed in your own homes.  

Rest assured that we are looking at all the considerations and options - based on public health advice, both our own and that of the World Health Organisation, while keeping a close watch on developments elsewhere. 

This isn’t easy.  It’s a huge responsibility.  Like it was to deprive people of their basic freedoms.  I don’t know, but somehow this feels more complex.

And that is because we have to get it right if we are to prevent this deadly virus - I repeat, this DEADLY virus - from getting a hold on us. Remember the news around the world, 800 dying daily in UK alone. We are just as susceptible to the virus in Gibraltar.  We are not being spared by magic, nor because we are special. We must keep it at bay. 

Last week I had the opportunity, together with Paul Balban and Sohail Bhatti, to have a private video conference with Prof David Heymann, a top advisor to the World Health Organisation.  We were able to get a first hand update on the latest WHO thinking as well as to discuss our past actions and possible next steps.  It was very reassuring to find that our position could not be faulted, and how our early action in particular in protecting the elderly has been so effective in saving lives.  

So far as we can all tell, we have kept this virus largely at bay.  If we were suddenly to reverse all the lockdown steps, we would be inviting it in.  Then the horrendous scenarios we have seen in other countries will also be invited in.  And although our tactics have meant that we have had time to prepare, we simply do not want to see that.

And so, despite our frustrations and our anxieties, we have to do this carefully and responsibly.  Trust us, as you have to to now, to do the best possible to ensure that yes, we start on the road to normality but that our community is still protected.

In the meantime, the advice remains.  The virus is lurking.  Give it a chance and it will strike, and strike hard and with vengeance.  So stay at home.  Keep your distance.  Wash your hands.

So now for the numerical information:

A&E

In the 24 hours to 8.30 this morning there were 30 attendances of which only 3 were with COVID symptoms. All were swabbed. Of these three, one admitted to COVID CCU late yesterday. The patient is stable, not ventilated, and the swab result is negative.

Tests

As you can see the recovered cases are almost the same as the total confirmed with only 12 active. 

This is great to see. But PLEASE don’t get complacent.  

We’ve all seen most people doing what they should but also others who are NOT respecting physical social distance. 

This is the opportunity the virus is waiting for. Please please keep to the rules, because they are what the law requires, but because as you know they make sense. 

People WILL DIE if we get a resurgence in cases and it is you out there, not us, who are the ones who can stop it. 

We may have been able, all of us, to turn the wave into a ripple, but remember, the sea goes calm and moves out just before the tsunami strikes.

One thing is clear, and in fact, this is something the we discussed with Prof Heymann of the WHO a few days ago and with which he agreed.  If COVID-19 becomes endemic, and becomes a regular feature of the disease repertoire of our species, like the flu and the cold are, and unless it mutates into a less virulent strain, we will need to learn to live with it.   This means that living into our 70s, 80s, and 90s will be more difficult than it has been in recent decades.  We have to ensure that our over-70s are as fit and healthy as possible in order to be able to overcome COVID-19.  

As someone who is in his early 60s, this is sobering, and worrying.  It’s a call to do something about fitness, weight, and, for those who smoke, about smoking.  We’ve always known it.  Now it’s suddenly become urgent.

For now let’s, please, follow the advice.  Do what our experts - and experts the world over - tell us. 

But make the most of your time, concentrate on the positives, there is light at the end of the tunnel and there is an end to this tunnel. 

We must be patient. And many of us in Gibraltar are showing that patience - the patience that got us through years evacuated and years of a closed border.  

So, to protect the GHA, protect the most vulnerable, to save lives, to help us to be able too get back to some normality sooner rather than later:

STAY HOME.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. 

KEEP SAFE.

TOGETHER WE WILL OVERCOME THIS…but not too close together, eh?

Have a good afternoon - see you soon.