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Govt eases lockdown restrictions after ‘coldest, cruellest and deadliest month’

Lockdown restrictions will be partially eased as from Monday, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said on Friday, even as he confirmed another three deaths and implored people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary.

Speaking at the weekly press conference in No.6 Convent Place, Mr Picardo said the rate of infection had decreased significantly in parallel to a massive rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to frontline workers and the most vulnerable.

As of Friday, some 12,860 people had been jabbed with their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and another shipment of over 8,000 doses was expected to arrive on Saturday on an RAF flight.

But despite the positive signs, the Chief Minister said there was no room for complacency.

He urged the community to adhere strictly to public health guidance until the vaccination programme has had sufficient time to provide full protection to frontline workers and the most vulnerable.

To hammer home that point, Mr Picardo noted that with the three deaths announced on Friday, some 14 people had died in the last week alone from Covid-related causes, bringing the death toll since the start of the pandemic to 73.

All but seven of those people died since the start of the year. January, Mr Picardo said, had proved to be “…the coldest, cruellest and deadliest month in the past one hundred years of our collective history as a people.”

“That is just devastating,” the Chief Minister said.

“There is no other way to describe that death toll.”

“This is undoubtedly the highest toll in lives arising from one cause in such a short period ever in our history.”

“I confess that I am, like so many of you, distraught at the monumental loss of life we have suffered in this time.”

Mr Picardo announced that he will bring a motion to Parliament for a permanent monument to those who died during the pandemic, repeating too an earlier commitment to hold a multi-denominational service in their memory.

“This loss of life cannot ever be forgotten,” he said.

In the latest update on Covid-19 data, the government said on Friday that just 14 new cases had been detected in the preceding 24-hour period, 11 of them residents.

The total number of active cases is now down to 369 and the rate of infection is below R0.5, showing “a downward trend”.

There are eight people in the critical care unit, all of them ventilated and some deteriorating, as well as 29 patients in the Covid wards at St Bernard’s Hospital, where the GHA has scaled back its posture from Black to Red.

In the Elderly Residential Services, there are 29 people still positive, of whom three were said to be deteriorating.

Mr Picardo said the inquiry into the handling of the pandemic would help establish how the virus entered ERS facilities, but stressed this was not about apportioning blame.

He had nothing but fulsome praise for the staff at ERS, who he said had put themselves :at great risk” to care for the most vulnerable in this community, and had gone “above and beyond” what was expected of them.

“Their efforts have been extraordinary at every level,” the Chief Minister said.

“Truly extraordinary. I know that is how everyone in our community feels.”

LOCKDOWN EASED

Against the backdrop of the slowdown in the rate of infection, and with the caveat that the public health advice remains unchanged, the Gibraltar Government will as from February 1 start to ease current restrictions.

Mr Picardo said the aim was to avoid situations where large numbers of people could congregate, while lifting some of the current restrictions on non-essential businesses and activities.

As from Monday:

- People under the age of 70 will be able to leave their homes, although the “strong advice” is to stay indoors and work from home where possible, leaving only for exercise or essential reasons;

- A curfew will remain in place from 10pm to 6am to avoid nocturnal gatherings;

- Citizens over the age of 70 will be required by law to remain at home for the next 14 days. The only exceptions for the over 70s will be medical appointments, work, shopping for essentials and an hour of exercise;

- Golden Hour will be reintroduced to afford a safe environment for the over-70s to exercise;

- Non-essential shops, gyms and beauty salons will be able to operate, subject to restrictions, from Monday to Friday, but will have to close at the weekend when accumulations of people on Main Street are normal;

- Gyms and sports clubs that open will be subject to controls and permits issued by the Director of Public Health as was the case last year;

- Wearing of masks everywhere will remain mandatory;

- The Upper Rock will remain closed to traffic but open to ramblers, while children’s parks will remain closed;
- No more than two households should gather;

- The number of people able to gather in a public place will be set at eight;

- Places of worship will be able to open for prayer and worship but only in respect of numbers previously approved by the Civil Contingency Office, and always observing the strictest rules of social distancing and wearing of masks as well as hand-sanitising protocols.

The measures will be reviewed in seven days and eased further if possible.

Mr Picardo said the restrictions on the over-70s sought to limit the possibility for infection before they had received their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“By requiring our over 70s to stay at home other than for limited purposes, we are ensuring they get the maximum protection of the precious vaccine,” he said.

“If we do not observe this, there is a risk that persons who have already had even the second dose of the vaccine will be infected as they do not have the maximum immunity developed in their bodies.”

On the decision to keep schools closed, Mr Picardo said this was largely down to confirmation that sufficient vaccines would be available to ensure all vulnerable and frontline workers could receive their second dose within three weeks of the first.

That, he said, had shifted the risk assessment conducted by public health officials who felt it was wiser to minimise risk by ensuring as many as possible had received their double-dose of the vaccine prior to the return to the classrooms.

The message underlying the Chief Minister’s comments on Friday was one of caution as he urged people to observe “the spirit as much as the letter” of the new regulations easing the lockdown.

“Gibraltar remains in a major incident posture,” he said.

“The reduction in numbers has come about only as a result of the implementation of the lockdown we have just gone through.”

“If we start to behave now as if it is all over, we will throw away the hard work that we have done.”

“So please be extra vigilant now.”

“Assume everyone you meet outside of your home has Covid in the way that you approach them, even your best friends.”

“Let us be extra cautious for the next three weeks as we give our most vulnerable and our frontliners that extra chance to build up the maximum immunity.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Our reporters are working round-the-clock to bring you the latest news on Gibraltar and the Covid-19 crisis. All our coverage on this critical issue is available free outside the paywall. If you find it useful, please help us reach more people by sharing our journalism. And if you want to support our work further, please consider subscribing to the digital version of our daily newspaper and all our premium online content. You can subscribe via our website or for iOS devices via the iTunes store. Thank you.

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