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Govt relaxes Covid measures as Gibraltar records zero resident cases

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and the Minister for Health Samantha Sacramento. Pic: Johnny Bugeja

Gibraltar on Thursday recorded no active resident cases for the first time in nine months.

The development was revealed by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo as he announced plans to ease Covid-19 restrictions on mask wearing and social gatherings.

Mr Picardo was joined by the Minister for Health Samantha Sacramento at No.6 Convent Place for a press conference detailing the relaxation of restrictions.

But even as he set out the changes and despite the positive news, Mr Picardo stressed that prudence remained key to unlocking the Rock and returning to normality.

Despite Gibraltar’s population being Covid-free, two cases detected in non-residents and two visitors remain active. Both visitors are currently in isolation locally.

Likewise, St Bernard’s Hospital has been Covid-free since March 21, with no Covid patients in the Critical Care Unit or in the Covid ward.

“Now, given the absence of active cases in our community, but mindful of the rising numbers of infections in Europe, our gradual and prudent relaxation of restrictions can happily continue,” Mr Picardo told reporters.

“But we will continue only carefully and prudently.”

“We will ensure that our decisions today are not driven by populism or political expediency, but by science and data.”

“Because we all want to conclude Operation Freedom with the relaxation of restrictions in full.”

“But as we do so, we must be responsible in achieving that return to our hard-fought constitutional freedoms so that we can all benefit from them in a sustainable way.”

Mr Picardo reiterated the need for care when relaxing restrictions, adding that the Government does not want to reopen only to then have to impose another lockdown.

“I have said throughout the past year that we would not maintain restrictions on civil liberties for a moment longer than is necessary,” he said.

“We consider our constitutional freedoms sacred.”

“And we have carefully balanced those freedoms against the public health advice to enable us to protect life above all else.”

“Today, we have to be mindful that we are Covid-free in Gibraltar, but also that we are seeing a surge in most of the rest of Europe.”

The easing of restrictions comes as Gibraltar is at the tail end of its adult vaccination programme.

Eight priority groups have all been inoculated with the last group currently being vaccinated being non-resident workers.

Ms Sacramento announced 85% of the population as a whole have been vaccinated, which includes 98% of the population over the age of 60.

“All in all, our vaccination programme has been a seamless programme which has been possible not only by the involvement of the vaccination teams but also the whole of Gibraltar for the benefit of our Rock,” she said.

She singled out Professor Ian Cumming, the UK Ambassador for Health to the Overseas Territories, who led the vaccination planning in Gibraltar.

Ms Sacramento also confirmed restrictions for those visiting Elderly Residential Services and St Bernard’s Hospital would remain in place, despite calls for the authorities to allow visiting access for people who have not been vaccinated.

The high uptake in the vaccination programme has meant Gibraltar can gradually unlock.

As from April 16, there will be no restrictions on public gatherings meaning the freedom of assembly will be unaffected by Covid rules.

Any events in public places will be subject to the same pre-pandemic rules.

“That means that events will require the usual notification and permits and for now, may also require public health advice and some additional requirements,” Mr Picardo said.

“For example, it is likely that large events will require a negative Covid test for those participating.”

“This arises from the advice provided to the Government that it is the continued surveillance of the presence or absence of the virus in our community that will keep our continued, prudent, return to socialising possible.”

He added the test, trace and isolate strategy remains a vital part of controlling the spread of Covid-19 in Gibraltar.

But socialising is also precious, Mr Picardo said.

As from Monday, there will be no restrictions on the numbers of people who can sit together at a table in a catering establishment.

Also, as from the Monday, people who have been fully vaccinated and identified as
contacts of any new positive cases will be deemed “casual contacts” and will no longer be required to self-isolate.

Mr Picardo said too that mask wearing restrictions would be eased with immediate effect.

Masks are no longer needed in any public outdoor space but will continue to be obligatory inside retail shops and on public transport.

Mr Picardo explained that masks will be needed in these indoor areas as these are tight spaces likely to be visited by those who are unvaccinated.

There will no longer be a requirement for patrons to wear masks inside restaurants, gyms and other internal spaces, and catering staff will be required to wear only a single mask for now.

The rules for catering staff will be in place until May 1, when every catering member of staff who has received a double dose of vaccination will be able to dispense with the wearing of a mask.

“The wearing of masks in schools will also continue for now, but if figures remain as they are, they are also likely to be removed in coming weeks,” Mr Picardo said.

“We will, of course however, consult with the Teacher’s Union in this respect before a final decision is made on masks in schools.”

Mr Picardo told reporters restrictions would be reimposed if the GHA saw increased Covid hospitalisations.

If positive cases rise but hospitalisations remain low, then the restrictions would likely be more relaxed than previously.

BEAT

Mr Picardo recognised the stress the pandemic has caused local businesses and announced the support packages would continue in the second quarter of 2021.

Businesses that are currently participating in the BEAT scheme will receive percentages of support based on the average payment that they received in April and May of last year: 30% to be paid for April 2021, 20% to be paid for May 2021, and a final payment of 10% to be paid for June 2021.

For businesses in heavily affected sectors additional support will be reviewed on a month-by-month basis.

These BEAT measures will continue alongside the following measures, that will also remain in place:

- A 100% waiver of payment of rates for the wholesale, retail, hotel, bar and restaurant sectors between April 1, 2021 and June 30, 2021.
- For all other sectors an additional 25% early rates payment discount between April 1 and June 30, 2021 (except for supermarkets and pharmacies).
- A continued waiver of rates for void properties.
- No rental increases to Government commercial tenants between April 1 and June 30, 2021.
- The continuation of the import duty waiver scheme for businesses extended to April 30 and to be reviewed again on a monthly basis.
- The continued waiver of work permit and registration and administrative fees which is extended to June 30, 2021.
- The continued moratorium on Insolvency claims which will also be extended for the same period.
- The extension of the Bank Guarantee Scheme to enable lending to Covid related distressed businesses to June 30, 2021.

TRAVEL CORRIDOR

Mr Picardo said the UK and Gibraltar are in talks to reinstate a travel corridor that could see British tourists able to visit the Rock without the need to quarantine on arrival.

“We want to see Gibraltar be top of the list for a greenlight on a travel corridor,” Mr Picardo said.

“We are doing a lot of work to ensure the United Kingdom has all the information it needs both from a public health level of the effect of the vaccination programme in Gibraltar, which they have enabled from the supply of vaccines to Gibraltar.”

“Also, from the point of view of ensuring that Gibraltar is seen as entirely safe for those who wish to travel to Gibraltar and easy to travel back from into the United Kingdom without the need for quarantining.”

He added this is a decision for the UK Government, but Gibraltar is doing all it can to ensure UK ministers and officials are fully informed.

“These are things that will come but are not current at the moment,” he said.

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