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Lockdown restrictions likely until end of January, Picardo tells Parliament

Lockdown restrictions in Gibraltar have been extended for another week, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo announced in Parliament on Friday, as he warned the measures would likely be in place until the end of the month.

Mr Picardo’s statement came as the Covid-19 death toll in Gibraltar increased to 30, with another five deaths confirmed on Friday.

In Parliament, MPs held a minute’s silence in memory of all those who have died due to Covid-19, before banging their desks loudly in support of Gibraltar’s frontline workers.

The solemn event underscored the grip this virus has had on the community despite measures to stem the spread of infection gradually taking effect.

Gibraltar’s R-rate - the figure used to calculate the rate of infection - has dropped from 1.51 on January 2 to 0.77, but this is still not low enough to see restrictions loosened, the Chief Minister said.

A dip in active cases to 967 from 1000 cannot undo the month-long surge and its sombre aftermath, he added.

Positive cases in Elderly Residential Services have continued to rise to 131 and there are currently 50 in patients at St Bernard’s Hospital, 39 in Covid wards and 11 in the Critical Care Unit.

Nine people are currently being ventilated.

In total, 160 people have been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 since the spring.

In ERS, Mr Picardo warned, the situation is “worse than awful” as 40% of residents have been infected.

“The curve of infections is coming down, but it is still far, far too high for us to safely release the restrictions,” he said.

“I must tell the community that the restrictions are likely to be renewed again in seven days’ time.”

“I do not take that for granted. We will not renew the restrictions if we are able to loosen them of course, but we would be unlikely to be able to do so.”

Mr Picardo said February 1 is a “more realistic date” on which Gibraltar “might start to see the lifting of restrictions.”

“If we can lift restrictions next week, of course we will do so,” he said.

“But it will be the number of infections that will determine that.”

He added restrictions would be lifted gradually and safely.

“I believe we may see that, as we lift lockdown, we may have to maintain a curfew, for example,” Mr Picardo said.

“We may also have to maintain some restrictions in other respects.”

“I do not discard the potential now of a territorial restriction on movement other than for work or for medical emergencies.”

He later clarified that he meant restrictions on crossing the border.

Frontline services continue to battle the pandemic, but Covid-19 has “impaired” them too, Parliament was told.

Mr Picardo described how the Gibraltar Health Authority and the Royal Gibraltar Police continued to suffer “a casualty rate” in excess of 10% in each of people in isolation or positive with Covid-19.

Schools, the Chief Minister added, would likely continue to be closed past the initial tentative opening date of January 25.

“I also do not believe it would be possible for us to commit to reopening schools by Monday, January 25, although that will of course continue to be our aim,” he said.

“We will continue to work with teachers in order to ensure when our schools do return, they return in a way that is safe for our teachers and our pupils.”

Mr Picardo said it is “more likely” that schools will be able to reopen on Monday, February 1.

Teachers at St Martin’s School will be the first teachers to be vaccinated, but until schools reopen those with special needs will be provided additional facilities locally.

The re-opening of the catering industry would also be further delayed and Mr Picardo will be engaging with the Gibraltar Catering Association in the coming days.

The vaccination campaign has brought a sign of relief to this pandemic and Mr Picardo revealed 4,188 people have received the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Of these, 1,255 are frontline GHA staff, 28 are GHA patients, 437 are ERS staff, 152 are ERS patients, 2,339 are over 70’s and 17 are patients in Ocean Views.

But the effects of the vaccine will not be fully felt until the second dose is received.

When questioned by Leader of the Opposition Keith Azopardi, Mr Picardo said the next shipment of vaccines is expected before the end of the month.

“We have visibility to a further period of delivery after that, which enables us to plan very clearly how we will be administering those doses in that period but I don’t want to make that statement public now,” Mr Picardo said.

Mr Picardo added that no doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been wasted.

“Until the vaccine is in our bodies and has had time to take effect, our people remain at risk and our ability to deliver services remains at risk,” he said.

“For that reason, Mr Speaker, we have agreed in Covid Platinum today that the correct way to continue to see a downturn in the numbers of infections recorded daily is to continue with the restrictions on mobility for a further seven days.”

“We are seeing a downturn, but the growth is still there.”

Mr Azopardi questioned the Chief Minister on ERS cases, the lifting of restrictions, vaccinations, new strains and why the GHA’s former Director of Public Health Dr Vijay Kumar has been appointed in an acting role.

Mr Picardo clarified that Dr Sohail Bhatti had not had any time off over the past year and needed a break after a grueling work schedule.

Mr Azopardi said his party agreed with the decision to extend the lockdown and praised the efforts of frontline workers and volunteers.

“We think that they are doing an invaluable job, work and service to this community by everyone pulling together,” Mr Azopardi said.

“Indeed, we also associate ourselves with the sentiment of the Chief Minister, that it is not only the essential workers, and indeed the volunteers, but we all need to pull together as a community to ensure compliance of public health advice to make sure we get Gibraltar through this.”

Leader of Together Gibraltar, Marlene Hassan Nahon, said she supported the lockdown extension but was “extremely concerned” about the current situation at St Bernard’s Hospital and in ERS.

“We do understand that now might not be the moment to engage in discussions about how we have actually got here but to actually all work together to make things better,” Ms Hassan Nahon said.

“However, with an overstretched hospital, a full CCU and almost 1,000 active cases in the community and over 100 cases of difficult prognosis in our ERS, I would seek clarification as to what plans are in place to stop our health care systems from being overwhelmed.”

Mr Picardo replied the lockdown and vaccination campaign were key to stopping the spread and will work to reduce the strain on healthcare services.

This post was updated at 20.37.

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