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Gibraltar receives largest vaccine shipment to date, enters ‘crucial point’ in Covid ‘battle’

Johnny Bugeja

By Eyleen Gomez and Gabriella Peralta

The fourth consignment of the eagerly anticipated Pfizer/Biotech Covid-19 vaccine arrived safely on the Rock at 6.45pm Monday evening, the largest shipment to date.

The Royal Air Force 400M Atlas was carrying around 12,000 doses of the vaccine as well as auxiliary kit including needles.

Each vial of the vaccine contains five doses in theory. In practice, however, careful extraction using specific needles allows for six doses from each vial, meaning the latest shipment should finally provide around 14,000 jabs.

The aircraft landed smoothly despite windy conditions and was unloaded within minutes.

By 7.35pm, its precious cargo was safely en route under police escort to freezers at St Bernard’s Hospital ready for the next stage in Gibraltar’s vaccination programme.

The Gibraltar Government said yesterday that 13,499 people had now received their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

A further 5,573 had already received their second jab, mostly in the older and vulnerable groups, and those in frontline healthcare.

But the good news of the arrival of the latest batch of vaccines was laced with sadness as the Gibraltar Government this weekend confirmed three more deaths linked to the virus, even as the number of active cases in the community continued to decrease.

Gibraltar’s Covid-19 death toll stood at 83 on Monday.

“It is with great sadness that we confirm the news of three further losses of life within our community,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said.

“My deepest sympathies go out to their families and friends.”

“Gibraltar continues to see a downward trend in active cases, but we are at a crucial point where we must not let down our guard.”

“For now, our prudent actions are still our strongest defence against the worst effects of Covid-19.”

The deceased were two women and a man, all aged between 75 and 90 years old.

All three had underlying conditions and passed away from Covid-19 over the weekend.

Gibraltar is still reeling from the sharp rise in cases following the festive period, with Monday’s 114 active cases being the lowest number since December 17 when there were 94.

On Monday, five new cases were identified and 26 people recovered.

There were also three positives in the Elderly Residential Services – the lowest number in weeks - and another 11 in the Covid-19 Ward, as well as 10 in the Critical Care Unit.

Since the pandemic began, 166,201 tests have been carried out, of which 505 were carried out over the past 24 hours.

Of the five new resident cases in Gibraltar on Monday, four were close contacts of existing active cases.

MILITARY PRECISION

As soon as the aircraft landed, its engines shut down and ground power was supplied.

As the aircraft’s doors opened, a member of the crew signalled to Warrant Officer Greg Saunders that he could approach the aircraft.

WO Saunders is responsible for the vaccines being unloaded from the aircraft, with a team consisting of two RAF movers and two civilian contractors that work with him full time.

“On board, I will speak with the air loadmaster and he will hand the load over to me,” he said.

“Initially, that will be the paperwork, which will be the general declaration for the crew onboard and all the freight manifests and passenger manifest."

Then came the cargo itself.

He liaised with the on-board team leader to establish the unloading sequence as the vaccine itself cannot be transported on the ramp of the A400M because it is so fragile.

“That will all be transferred onto our Atlas transfer loader, which is a large piece of machinery designed to convey the pallets from the aircraft into our hangar,” said WO Saunders.

“When it is in the hangar, our large forklift truck takes the pallets off the loader and loads them to the floor where we strip the cargo nets off.”

The vaccines and the auxiliary equipment were then transferred to a waiting refrigerated vehicle supplied by the Royal Gibraltar Regiment.

“There is quite a lot tonight, this is the biggest delivery so far,” said WO Saunders.

“There is probably about 650kg of equipment arriving.”

WO Saunders and his team are used to dealing with cargo from military aircraft and this is their fourth vaccine arrival.

But despite its importance to this community, he was deadpan about the operation: “Freight is freight.”

“We handle it all in the same way, in a general sense,” he said.

“Some items have special handling characteristics. This stuff, despite us hearing of the low storage temperatures for it, how it has been packed in the UK and transported out here, does not require any special handling from us other than to be careful not to drop it, be careful not to cause any damage.”

“But we treat all of the equipment that we receive with the same due diligence and good handling practices."

He is aware, nonetheless, that the eyes of Gibraltar are on him and his team, and this was most apparent when the first shipment of vaccines arrived on the Rock on January 9.

“We weren’t aware there were people in the car park with cameras,” he said.

“We are very conscientious that it is a very high-profile event and we are being watched.”

“[But] does it create any undue pressure on us? No."

“Over the course of my career that spans nearly 30 years, I have been involved in some high-profile stuff so, once you start working, you tend to forget that the media are there.”

Receiving the vaccine in the hangar and ready to transport it was Captain Richard Dagger from the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, together with a team of four.

The vaccines were transported in a refrigerated vehicle.

“It is just a short drive to the hospital,” Capt Dagger said.

“Our guys are not responsible for the unloading at either end, they are responsible for the transportation."

“We generally have a team of two guys who have been delivering it for the last three occasions [as] we have had to support the Covid response.”

“But, tonight, we have got four chaps just to add to that resilience. They make sure it is delivered safely.”

Also at RAF headquarters overseeing the arrival of the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine was the Commander of British Forces Gibraltar, Commodore Steve Dainton.

“It is important we are a part of this,” he said.

“I get a real sense that we are all in this fight together.”

“It’s a fight against a terrible pandemic that has really affected everybody’s life, so to be part of that battle against the virus is really important.”

He noted that it has been a real team effort to get the vaccines into the arms of Gibraltar’s residents and cross-frontier workers.

“With the FCDO, the Gibraltar Government, the Gibraltar Health Authority and the MoD, both here and back in the UK, all working together in tandem to get the vaccines down here to allow us to start hopefully getting back to a degree of normality,” he said.

Cmdre Dainton said he believed everyone involved felt the pressure of having to get the “battle” going in the right direction.

“And I talk about battle because it feels like a battle,” he said.

“Very sadly, we have lost a number of people in that battle here and I think in a community like Gibraltar, we feel that even more.”

“And we [British Forces Gibraltar] feel part of Gibraltar, we are part of Gibraltar.”

“So, it is really important for us to be part of the battle against this and to really hope that we can give people hope as we bring the vaccines in.”

The arrival of vaccines seems to coincide with unfavourable weather on the Rock, a coincidence that did not go unnoticed by Commodore Dainton.

“It seems every time we have a vaccine flight, the weather takes a turn for the worse,” he said.

“But the RAF are hugely professional and we saw tonight that that landing was as smooth as you like, very, very professional, the way that they dealt with the whole issue of this.”

“As with all the people involved in the chain, right the way down from where the vaccine is produced to those getting it into people’s arms.”

“It has been a real, good, professional team effort.”

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