Govt and Opposition stand together as Gibraltar extends lockdown, but maps out exit strategy
The Gibraltar Government will extend the lockdown provisions when they expire on Thursday, even while moving to ease restrictions wherever possible against the backdrop of a sustained decline in the rate of infection on the Rock.
The move was announced by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo during a lengthy press conference in which, in a highly unusual development, he appeared “shoulder to shoulder” alongside the Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, signalling a united political front as Gibraltar faces up to a “life and death” crisis and its wide-ranging impact on this community.
Standing behind lecterns adorned with a government crest and their respective titles, both men underscored the importance of politicians working together in a mature, progressive manner.
Speaking in turn, they both championed a break from the usual personalised negativity of much political discourse here, to replace it with a positive approach in the interests of the community.
The briefing came as the number of active cases in Gibraltar remained static for a fifth consecutive day at 132, with 120 cases already recovered and none of the active cases in hospital.
Mr Picardo said the figures pointed to the success of the lockdown and Gibraltar’s adherence to it, but acknowledged it was now also vital to find ways to release those restrictions in a controlled and measured manner.
The decision to extend the general social lockdown was taken unanimously at a Cabinet meeting attended by Mr Azopardi, who together with other opposition MPs has participated in many government Covid-19 briefings and planning meetings, feeding in to decisions taken at No.6 Convent Place on a range of issues.
The decision will be reviewed every Monday and will be adapted if necessary to developments over the coming days and weeks, including ratcheting up again any relaxation of the restrictions.
The Chief Minister said the low numbers of positive cases in Gibraltar suggest “we may have caught wave zero”, meaning that Gibraltar may have flattened the spread of Covid-19 even before the virus had a chance to spread here in a first wave of infection.
"The thing that is clear is that the slowdown of the virus opens up the possibility that we can start to very slowly unlock also,” Mr Picardo said.
“We have therefore additionally agreed that the slowing of the virus has been effective enough for us to start to pursue a strategy to carefully, slowly and prudently exit from lockdown.”
“This will be complex and multifaceted.”
Mr Picardo said that in order to ensure “clarity and visibility”, his government will prepare a written exit strategy for Gibraltar, but cautioned this would be an evolving document “with many moving parts” and subject to change.
The Chief Minister revealed that the Director of Public Health, Dr Sohail Bhatti, had advised that four conditions should be met before commenced a phased process of release from lockdown.
- That the number of Covid-19 cases should be rising at less than six per day;
- That the number of Covid-19 admissions to hospital should be less than three per day;
- That there are less than two cases of Covid- 19 on ventilators in the intensive care unit;
- That no more than 25% of cases are in the over 70s.
All the conditions, Mr Picardo said, have been met, allowing the government to consider starting “a very gradual unlocking process”.
One of the first relief measures to be approved in the coming days - Mr Picardo stressed that nothing had changed yet - will relate to the over 70s, who are currently in complete lockdown but will soon be allowed to leave home for short periods of exercise.
He said the measure was to enable older members of the community to exercise, not socialise, much the same as applies to everyone else.
And he warned that this did not mean the end of the lockdown or the reasons that justify it.
“It is very likely that if you are over 70, lockdown will continue for many more weeks and I want to be upfront about that with you now,” Mr Picardo said.
“We are imposing a lock down for your own protection and for the protection of the resources of the GHA.”
And he added: “This exception must not be used to avoid the rest of the spirit of the regulations affecting our over 70s.”
“Remember that our main target in slowing the spread of Covid-19 is to save your lives.”
“It is that stark and it is that simple.”
“Our success to date is no guarantee of continued success.”
Mr Picardo said the government would also explore allowing more businesses to re-open as from May 1, “but with strict conditions”.
He was thinking primarily of sectors such as construction and retail, adding that more details would be released in the coming days.
The Chief Minister cautioned too that there was no clear road map for releasing Gibraltar from lockdown, and that external factors including developments in Spain could impact on decision-making here once frontier traffic picks up again.
Not only that, relaxation of the restrictions did not mean they would not be tightened again further if need be, although different conditions would apply should it become necessary to take that decision.
“We have to experiment,” Mr Picardo said.
“This is a process and we do not have all the answers. No one does.”“But we are asking all the right questions to get to the right conclusions.”
“We will only know in the future whether what we are going to do as we start to unlock is the best and right approach.”
Mr Picardo thanked Mr Azopardi for the Opposition’s support, adding that politics would return in due course to adversarial mechanisms of parliamentary democracy.
He said Parliament would likely reconvene in late May or June and that while he hoped future exchanges would be as robust as always, he believed they would be “less personalised” because of the Covid-19 experience.
“As we move forward we have a chance to do something very positive in the political fray as we do in all areas of post pandemic life in Gibraltar,” he said.
“I think it is important, as we go forward, that we should take the opportunity to deliver to Gibraltar a highly functioning democracy that leaves behind it the more personalised aspects of the debate.”
Mr Azopardi said the Opposition’s support for the government in its response to the Covid-19 crisis existed in tandem to its well-documented disagreements, “some stark”.
But he said this was a time of “national crisis” where the primary focus must be on saving lives, and that his shadow Cabinet had been unanimous in its backing of a positive, proactive approach.
“This is the time for political courage, to do the hard things and take the hard decisions together for the greater good of our people,” Mr Azopardi said.
“The magnitude of the challenge when we were called upon to make that choice had the potential to affect many lives as well as to destabilise our way of life.”
“We were and remain clear that it is the time to work together to get us through all this.”
“It is the time to jointly ensure Gibraltar’s economic and social sustainability while we also protect lives.”
“A strong Opposition is one that recognises the need to work together and has the courage to do so effectively at the same time retaining its political integrity and continuing to ask the tough questions that our community requires at this critical time.”
Mr Azopardi, who said he respected the confidentiality of the Cabinet discussion but had not signed any document formally binding him to it, welcomed the government's positive response to suggestions and input from Opposition MPs working alongside ministers and officials in various different areas.
He said he had supported both the implementation of the lockdown and the decision to explore how to exit from it gradually based on public health advice.
But he cautioned too on the need for constant review and said the community must be ready for some restrictions to be reimposed once lifted if there is a significant spike in cases.
“The period ahead is still critical,” Mr Azopardi said.
“It is important not to lift restrictions too early, however much we want those to go away.”
“If we act too quickly there could be a second wave.”
“And it is important to remember that the fires that have raged in each country started with just one spark."