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No change to lockdown as Gibraltar records another Covid death on eve of vaccine arrival

Gibraltar recorded another Covid-related death on Friday, as the Chief Minister announced the launch of Gibraltar’s vaccination program early Sunday morning and no change to the lockdown for another seven days.

The latest fatality from Covid-19 - the fifth so far this year and the twelfth since the start of the pandemic – was a man in his early 70s who had no other underlying medical issues at the time of his death.

The man had been admitted into the Covid Critical Care Unit on December 30 after testing positive for the virus but died yesterday as a result of Covid-19 pneumonitis.

The sad news came on the eve of the scheduled arrival of the first shipment of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, which will be delivered by the Royal Air Force – weather permitting - on Saturday evening.

Vaccination will start as from 8am on Sunday morning.

“We are finally at the beginning of the end,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said during a press conference at No.6 Convent Place.

The development with the vaccine, however, came alongside news that lockdown restrictions would remain in place for at least another seven days.

A “major posture incident” was declared last Saturday when Gibraltar went into a 14-day social lockdown, permitting people to leave their homes for work, exercise, shop for essentials, medical appointments or emergencies.

At the time, Mr Picardo said the measure would be reviewed every seven days. On Friday, after consultation with Covid Platinum and Public Health Gibraltar, the decision was taken to make no change for now.

Gibraltar registered 93 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, bringing the total number of active cases to 1,209, with 1,204 residents and five visitors, currently recovering from the virus locally.

Another 53 residents had made a full recovery meanwhile 2,357 were self-isolating.

There are currently 23 patients in the Covid-19 ward; eight patients in the Covid Critical Care Unit, five of whom are on ventilators, and 86 ERS residents who have tested positive for Covid-19.

Despite the grim data, there are early signs that the infection may be reaching its peak.

“We are starting to see a slow downturn of the curve of infections, but not enough,” Mr Picardo said.

“The R number is estimated by Public Health Gibraltar to be 1.14, that is down from 1.5 but it is still above 1.”

“Today the total number of people actively infected with Covid-19 in our community is 1,209.”

“It really is something to consider that over 33% of the total of all detected Covid cases since last Spring in Gibraltar are actually active right now.”

“That means that slightly over the third of cases detected in the past year have been detected in the last fortnight, taken by itself, this alone is highly concerning.”

“It also vindicates the position to impose social lockdown and the earlier measures that we had to adopt.”

The first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will be delivered to the Rock on a UK military cargo plane. Mr Picardo said the dry ice packaging requirements make it impossible for them to be carried by the commercial or private aircraft that can land in Gibraltar.

As lomng as the plane is able to find a weather window to land, the vaccination programme will start on Sunday morning at 5am when the first vaccines will be removed from the freezer, and the first jabs will be administered to frontline hospital staff as from 8am on Sunday.

Shortly after, ERS residents will begin receiving their vaccines, and on Monday morning the community-wide vaccination programme will begin, focused initially on older people above the age of 70.

The site of the former Primary Care Centre in the ICC has been made available to the Government by the Massias family at no charge for three months to allow the vaccination programme to be carried out in the centre of town, with free parking for those attending.

Those over the age of 70 were encouraged to register for the vaccine if the GHA has not already been in touch with them via the GHA website.

Mr Picardo told reporters that under the so-called “single-dose” strategy deployed by the Gibraltar Government, 100% of ERS residents, 80 to 90% of cover for over-70s, all over-80s, and all frontline staff will be vaccinated, with 500 vaccines to be administered a day.

But the strategy – which envisages delaying the second dose for up to 12 weeks as opposed to the three weeks advised by the manufacturers – has divided scientific opinion amid concerns the efficacy of immunity may be impacted.

Earlier this week, the vaccine producers, Pfizer-BioNTech said there was no data to support moves to delay the second dose of the jab, adding that the “safety and efficacy of the vaccine has not been evaluated on different dosing schedule”.

Yesterday Mr Picardo said Gibraltar was following UK guidance and that the strategy was not only safe, but would ensure a larger number of people could be reached with each batch of vaccines.

Mr Picardo said there is a “logistical reality”, adding: “You have got a number of vaccines and a larger number of people who require the vaccine as soon as possible.”

He said a delay in the second dose does not mean that a person “would lose immunity”, rather that it is maintained for a period, and “safely so”, for a period of around 10 to 12 weeks.

“We fully anticipate that we will be able to administer the second dose to those who are most at risk and will have a wider spread of the first dose by not simply sitting on the second dose for three weeks in order to administer it within 21 days to the small number we might otherwise reach,” Mr Picardo said.

“So the science tells us that it is safe, and also logic and operational requirements tells us that this is the best way to provide the widest possible spread of risk reduction to members of our community, and that is why we have taken the decision to do this in this way.”

Mr Picardo said the second supply of vaccines might arrive before the end of the month, adding that Public Health Gibraltar and the GHA have been working with those at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to get the second batch into Gibraltar as soon as possible.

And although the vaccine and the social lockdown is the only way to control the spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, Mr Picardo hoped the restrictions would be in place for as short a period as necessary.

“I hope to be standing here next week saying that we can lift the lockdown, but I cannot tell you I am certain that we will,” he said.

“The vaccine will arrive, we will start the process of vaccination but the vaccine is not a silver bullet, you don’t get the vaccine and that’s it.”

“It takes a while for the immunity to kick in and we need to ensure that we have covered all the people who we need to cover, we then need to see how long before we get the second vaccine, whether the spike of infection is turning down.”

“All of those things you can extrapolate forward from the data we are seeing and say we probably could say we could end the lockdown next week, but I would be lying to you if I could say I am sure that would happen.”

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