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Boris Johnson pledges UK’s ‘full support’ as Gibraltar prepares for rise in coronavirus cases

The UK will “fully support” Gibraltar as it prepares for an “inevitable” increase in the number of people contracting Covid-19 over the coming weeks and months, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said after discussing the issue with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday.

Mr Picardo said the UK would assist Gibraltar to procure “without delay” any pharmaceuticals or vaccines developed to fight the coronavirus, and could even provide support with medical personnel or equipment should that become necessary.

The discussion came as Gibraltar and the UK, in common with governments around the world, stepped up measures to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus as the number of people infected in the UK, Spain and other European countries continued to rise.

Mr Picardo met Mr Johnson in No.10 Downing Street during a break in a busy schedule of meetings with Foreign Office officials to discuss a wide agenda ranging from coronavirus to Brexit and the bilateral relationship between Gibraltar and the UK.

As part of the Brexit negotiations, Gibraltar had already discussed with the UK procuring many of its pharmaceuticals through the National Health Service, effectively tapping into the economies of scale offered by the UK’s public health infrastructure.

“We want to ensure that, as we see treatments that might assist patients with Covid-19 or indeed once the vaccine is developed, that Gibraltar should not find itself at the back of the queue in procuring vaccines as happened in the past,” Mr Picardo told the Chronicle.

“We want to be able to have that vaccine available to patients in the GHA as soon as it is available to patients in the NHS.”

Mr Picardo said the Prime Minister was “immediately supportive”.

“Whatever Gibraltar needs it will get,” Mr Johnson said, according to the Chief Minister’s account of the meeting.

Officials in Gibraltar will now prepare a list of items that it may need in addition to the resources that it already has or is able to procure commercially.

“I think it's important that people understand that Gibraltar will not seek to have given to it that which we can commercially obtain for ourselves,” Mr Picardo said.

“We will only be seeking to have the UK provide to us, at whatever cost may be determined, that which we cannot procure for ourselves.”

“We are not looking for a handout. We're looking for proper assistance.”

Mr Picardo said the precautionary measures being taken in Gibraltar were not aimed at stopping the spread of the virus, “because that is impossible”, but at slowing it down to avoid any spikes in demand for healthcare that could overwhelm the GHA.

He stressed that for most people, Covid-19 was a relatively mild illness with a good recovery rate. But he added that every possible step must be taken to protect the most vulnerable, in particular the elderly.

“We have to ensure that if they catch it, we are able to treat it and give them the full force of our intensive care in order to have the best chance of saving their lives,” he said.

The Chief Minister said there was “no question” of either Gibraltar or Spain imposing restrictions at the border, adding that Gibraltarian health authorities were in close contact with both their Spanish and UK counterparts.

The context to this is that while Gibraltar has so far managed to contain the virus, with just one single case reported to date, the expectation is that soon, “the virus will be very widely among us”.

The key aim of the government’s strategy is that the numbers should increase slowly and in a manner that enables the GHA to focus on the serious cases that require medical intervention, which will only be a small percentage of the total.

“I want to be clear,” Mr Picardo said.

“It is inevitable that the virus will come to Gibraltar and that lots of people will get it.”

“The numbers suggest upwards of 80 percent.”

“But the fact that 80 percent get it is not failure. It's about how quickly they get it and it's about ensuring a curve of infections, rather than a spike of infections.”

“And I want to do everything I can to slow it down because what I have seen happening in Italy and in China, and which I think we will soon see happening elsewhere, is heartbreaking.”

“If there are things we can do to slow this down, which do not put our doctors in a situation where they have to triage people's lives and determine who lives or dies, then I think the political responsibility is to ensure that the GHA has the resources it needs and to follow the advice of the public health experts to try and slow things down.”

In parallel, the Gibraltar Government will also take measures to help Gibraltar’s economy function as normally as possible.

For that reason, schools will remain open, lessening the impact on elderly carers and enabling parents, many of whom work in the public sector and essential services, to continue life as normally as possible.

“The right decision, after very careful consideration, seems to be to keep the schools open,” Mr Picardo said.

“We will continually review that decision, but at the moment, that is the decision that we have made and we maintain.”

The Chief Minister also said he would announce a package of measures in a ministerial statement on Monday aimed at helping businesses ride out the economic impact of dealing with the virus.

“My ministerial statement on Monday will not just deal with the issues that relate to the virus itself, but it will be a mini budget for business and how we deal with these issues,” he told the Chronicle.

“We are hearing the concerns of business and we ourselves have identified areas where we think the government can help.”