Infectious diseases expert Dr Autilia Newton stands in as Director of Public Health
Dr Autilia Newton, an expert on infectious diseases, will be standing in as Director of Public Health until the end of August following the departure of Dr Sohail Bhatti from the role.
Dr Bhatti’s contract was not renewed, with the Gibraltar Government saying it hoped to the ‘localise’ the role in the medium term.
For now though, the position will be filled by Dr Newton, who has taken leave from her normal role as Director of Public Health England’s public health programme for the Overseas Territories including Gibraltar.
Dr Newton is a specialist in infectious diseases and health protection, which is a sub-specialty of Public Health, and brings a wealth of experience to the role.
She has worked in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak and in Indonesia providing emergency aid after the 2004 Tsunami.
Dr Newton joins the Gibraltar team as a locum in communicable disease control until the end of the month.
"I do have quite a big knowledge on Gibraltar and the health situation," Dr Newton said.
Dr Newton was last in Gibraltar in 2017 for a conference at the invitation of Dr Vijay Kumar, who was the Director of Public Health at the time.
Now, four years on she joins, the team in Gibraltar at a crucial time, albeit briefly.
The interim role had initially been earmarked for Dr Natalie Wright, a Public Health specialist who had worked in Gibraltar for some time leading the Contact Tracing Bureau.
But Dr Wright had been offered another role within Public Health England where she works and was unable to provide immediate cover in Gibraltar, hence the appointment of Dr Newton on a temporary basis.
The government has not yet publicly confirmed who will take up the role after Dr Newton’s interim contract ends in August.
Yesterday, Dr Newton told the Chronicle that Gibraltar is one of the best organised British Overseas Territories, largely due to the high uptake of the Covid vaccine and the monitoring system in place.
“You've got a surveillance system now for Covid which is very advanced, you've got a good team there,” she said.
She added Gibraltar is in a very good position to tackle the pandemic, highlighting the “enormous capacity” of a testing strategy able to handle 2,000 tests a day.
"I'm very impressed by the team," she said.
But, she added, the only way out of the pandemic for Gibraltar and the rest of the world was through vaccination.
Dr Newton described how many people around the world thought that achieving a high vaccine coverage would result in eradication of the disease.
But eradication has only happened once for smallpox, a very different disease to Covid, Dr Newton explained.
"For Covid we are talking elimination," she said.
"With elimination, what it means is you put all your efforts in vaccine coverage, you keep up your surveillance system and your public health measures of control, and you control."
"So when somebody brings in the virus, you identify the people as soon as possible and you stop the spreading as soon as possible."
She said countries like Gibraltar that have gone down the route of elimination have fared better than those opting for mitigation, which involves no contact tracing or isolation and focuses on treating the unwell.
"Elimination does not mean eradication," she said.
For Dr Newton, vaccination is the key to emerging from the pandemic.
"The message has to be very clear here,” she said.
“We have got very good vaccination coverage and we need to keep it up and to continue because the vaccine is the only way out of this pandemic."
"At the moment the variants which are around are being tested against the two main vaccines, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and the vaccines are very effective.”
"The Covid vaccine is an exceptionally good vaccine because if you look at all the vaccines in general, a vaccine is considered pretty good if it provides at least 80% protection."
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine protects over 95%, although people can still test positive even with double jabs.
She described how the Delta variant is more aggressive than the original strain.
"People shouldn't get worried that the vaccine is not working because some people are testing positive even if they have been vaccinated," she said.
"That's normal because you can have about 10% who do not respond to the vaccine. What the vaccine does is protect 100% from death and serious disease and, so far, this is what we have seen."
"Most of the deaths you see are people unvaccinated or people who are quite frail."
A booster vaccine, she said, will most likely only need to be administered to those in need such as the elderly and vulnerable.
She added the mixing of vaccines - meaning if someone has had two Pfizer vaccine’s this is followed by other type for a booster - has been shown to be effective.
"The more you reduce the pool of unvaccinated people, the more you reduce the risk of a big outbreak," she said.
Dr Newton is set to retire at the end of September and is currently on leave from her Public Health England role in order to work in Gibraltar.
She made it clear she is not in Gibraltar on behalf of Public Health England but rather on the request of the Gibraltar Government.