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CM urges community response to virus as Gib’s Covid-19 cases hit record high

Johnny Bugeja

-Testing to be ramped up, including saliva tests for schools

-New lockdown triggers focus on hospital capacity, not daily statistics

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo on Thursday appealed to the community to “step up” for Gibraltar and ensure compliance with Covid-19 public health rules and guidance, as the number of active cases on the Rock reached a record high of 64.

Mr Picardo urged people to wear masks where necessary, follow strict hygiene protocols and cooperate fully with the contact tracing team to limit the spread of the virus and avoid further restrictions.

But he warned too that the Gibraltar Government would not hesitate to tighten rules further and even lock Gibraltar down if necessary.

“We do not want to proceed to a second lockdown in Gibraltar,” he said during a press conference in No.6 Convent Place.

“We do not even want to get to the stage of a second lockdown of our over-70s in Gibraltar.”

“So please help us by following advice on when to go out and how to interact.”

LOCKDOWN TRIGGERS

On Thursday there were 64 active cases of Covid-19 in Gibraltar, including 63 residents and one visitor.

“That number is higher than at any other time during the spring or early summer,” Mr Picardo said.

“Even when we went into lockdown we had numbers lower than that.”

“But now we better understand this virus and our health authority is better prepared to deal with the virus.”

But while the total number of active cases has remained relatively static for the past fortnight in the mid-50s to mid-60s, the figure is somewhat distorted by the number of daily recoveries, which often conceal double-figure spikes in new cases.

On October 1, for example, there were 14 new cases registered, with another 12 recorded two days later.

Analysis of the figures by the Chronicle shows that between September 24 and October 8, a total of 95 new cases were recorded in Gibraltar, a figure that does not include cross-border workers residing in Spain. During that period, 62 people recovered from the virus.

During the lockdown, a rise of seven or more cases would have triggered a different, tougher response from the authorities.

But Mr Picardo said the approach, like the science surrounding the virus, had since evolved and that authorities would focus primarily on hospital capacity rather than number as the key barometer for deciding whether new restrictions were necessary.

“This is not going to be an exercise of statistically providing a number that will trigger something,” he said.

“If we were to pursue that, we might find ourselves already in lockdown.”

He said a crucial element of the equation was the ability of physicians to respond to the virus more effectively than earlier this year.

There are new drugs that are being used worldwide to treat the most serious cases, for example, and Gibraltar has bolstered its capacity, both in terms of beds and vital equipment such as respirators.

That allows a more flexible approach from the authorities, but only if the community cooperates and adheres to the rules.

“There are different triggers and they are not entirely statistical,” the Chief Minister said.

“If we started to see that our GHA was becoming overwhelmed – and I think that is the key factor – if we saw that happening, then we might have to say once again, the only way that we can deal with this is with a fairly prehistoric response of getting out of the way of the infection by staying in our homes.”

“I do hope that we won’t reach that moment.”

“The number of active cases is going to be much less relevant going forward than the numbers of cases requiring care in the hospital.”

At the moment, 55% of beds in St Bernard’s hospital are occupied, giving a significant cushion before saturation is reached there. Additionally, the mothballed Nightingale facility can be reactivated within days, adding significant additional bed capacity if needed.

There is presently only one person with Covid-19 requiring hospital care, an elderly patient in their late 80s who is recovering well and waiting to be discharged.

“We have a lot more capability than we had in the spring and summer, and we have a lot more knowledge than we had in the spring and summer.”

Factored into that, he added, was resilience to enable the GHA to continue delivering routine healthcare for other illnesses, something which had been impacted during the lockdown period and had caused concern for many people.

“What we want to do is be able to continue operating the health authority in a normal way so that we can continue to provide those treatments,” he said.

SCHOOLS

The Chief Minister also announced plans to ramp up testing, including the introduction of a new saliva test in schools.

Gibraltar is currently testing about 700 people a day and the authorities expect to ramp that up even further to closer to 1,000 a day.

Mr Picardo said Gibraltar was close to carrying out 500% more tests per 100,000 head of population than the UK on a daily basis.

Likewise, the last accurate testing statistics published in Spain for October 3 showed that on that day, by comparison, Gibraltar conducted 1,200% more tests than Spain per 100,000 head of population.

“I don’t say this to gloat or to show off,” Mr Picardo said.

“Covid is not a competition. I say that to give you confidence in our numbers.”

The new school tests will enable authorities to implement a fortnightly cycle of an extra one thousand tests every two weeks in the schools, using a new saliva-based test which is not intrusive and which will be more easily deployable.

While the test is less accurate that the nasal and throat swabs, it will detect any positive asymptomatic cases that are shedding viral loads that can infect others.

Mr Picardo also underscored the need for people to cooperate fully with the contract tracing team to ensure new cases are swiftly ringfenced.

He urged people to “cooperate, cooperate, cooperate” and said “honesty, truthfulness and helpfulness” was vital in any response to the team’s questions.

The restrictions in place in Gibraltar were designed to deliver the controls needed by health officials to stem the spread of the virus, while still allowing people to go about their lives “even if not entirely normally.”

“That is why we have not closed bars or restaurants,” he said.

“We will do so again only if we have no other choice to deliver controls in a more measured way.”

Repeatedly, he stressed that a unified community was vital and that people should ignore conspiracy theories about the Government trying to control the community.

“We have to remain very vigilant,” the Chief Minister said.

“We all have to ensure that we are not a vector for transmission of this disease.”

“That means following the basic rules of hygiene, social distancing and mask wearing.”

“It means getting the flu vaccine so you avoid confusing symptoms, and it means allowing your children to get the flu vaccine for the same reason.”

“It also means helping us with contact tracing. When our Contact Tracing Bureau calls you, please be helpful and truthful.”

“There is no blame in having contracted the virus.”

“It is good to be told you have it or you may have it, so you can take the necessary measures.”

“That’s what can help us to stop the virus at you.”