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Opposition parties call for clarity over new Covid measures

Johnny Bugeja

Opposition parties have called for more clarity on the new Covid-19 measures introduced by the Government this week, including the compulsory use of face masks in Main Street and its side streets by law.

In a press statement the GSD said any measures introduced should be “consistent, justified and proportionate”, with Together Gibraltar criticising the Government on the “haphazardness of the measures”.

Although TG welcomed the use of use of facemasks in busy areas, the GSD called for the reasoning behind compulsory mask use, adding that public health advice given to the Government should be made public.

GSD Leader Keith Azopardi pointed out that other restrictions implemented previously had curbed the rate of cases without the need to wear masks.

“It is also a fact that the Covid measures announced since the Spring had successfully stemmed the tide to the point that with no compulsory mask wearing, we were able to get to zero cases several times in the early summer,” Mr Azopardi said.

“That effort relied on discipline and voluntary cooperation of people. In very large measure the majority of people are still cooperating in that effort without the need for compulsion.”

The party said it is “not going to argue against public health advice given to the Government which it has not seen”.

The GSD said that it has been supportive of actions to deal with the Covid-19 threat and from the outset suggested a robust testing and contact tracing programme at a time when, it says, the Government was “sceptical” about it.

“Public health advice has been changing and recommendations carry weight but there are no panaceas,” the GSD said.

“At the end there has to be a political judgment call based on the evidence and ensuring that objectives are reasonably and consistently achieved.”

Mr Azopardi added the Government could be more decisive on how it tackles local “hotspots”.

“Over the last few weeks videos have gone viral of the Chatham Counterguard area and conglomerations of people there with little respect for social distancing,” Mr Azopardi said.

“To encourage that the Government should reverse the pedestrianisation of Chatham Counterguard on a temporary basis till the end of the pandemic. Or is it that it does not wish to do so because that pedestrianisation idea is a pet project?”

On Tuesday afternoon, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, announced Covid-19 tests are being carried out on those leaving and entering Gibraltar by the land frontier and the airport.

Mr Picardo said these measures were introduced in order to curb the spread of coronavirus while maintaining the vital air link to the United Kingdom and ensuring the frontier remains open.

Gibraltar remaining on the UK’s travel exemption list without the need to quarantine is “very important” and the GSD will support measures to ensure this is kept open.

Mr Azopardi called for the need in “consistency and fairness in identified objectives”.

He said students should not be “treated differently” to other passengers flying in and out of Gibraltar being offered rapid testing when entering and leaving Gibraltar.

He said the service offered to students should be made available to other passengers as well, adding that at the time they were being “singled out” when people enter Gibraltar from Covid hotspots as well.

Mr Azopardi underscored the need for fairness in this, adding: “There is no reason that students should not be given a free rapid test on arrival which would by-pass the need for any quarantine if negative – in the same way as may be offered to other passengers.”

Edwin Reyes, the GSD’s spokesman for Education, said this situation “simply adds more stress and anxiety on students and parents” who have already had to deal with the delays in grants.

“The application of the rules announced last week was inconsistent already as the student quarantine rules apply to just scholarship holders and not any other student arriving in Gibraltar,” Mr Reyes said.

“There are hundreds of students studying in the United Kingdom and if on Public Health grounds certain restrictions are to be imposed upon their return home, then any necessary regulations must be applied to them in the same way as all other persons coming into Gibraltar from the same point of origin.”

“There is undoubtedly a need to control the rise in Covid cases through proportionate and consistently applied measures,” Mr Azopardi added.

But he said the Chief Minister’s language saying everything must be done to avoid a second lockdown or a curfew was “unjustified” on the present state of things.

“The GHA is now ready and has a Nightingale facility which can quickly be mobilised,” Mr Azopardi said.

“The principal reason why we should contemplate something as radical as a further lockdown now is a surge in cases that sees many hospitalisations and puts strain on the health service. Thankfully that is not the case now and hopefully will never be.”

He said “more radical measures” can be contemplated if things change and the GHA needed assistance again.

TOGETHER GIBRALTAR

Together Gibraltar’s leader, Marlene Hassan Nahon, said the measures taken by the Government are in line with those the party had previously advocated for, and in line with the now extensive and definitive evidence in favour of mask use.

“What we do not quite understand is the seeming haphazardness of the measures, in what seems like an obsession to do things a little bit differently than the rest of the world,” she said.

“We believe there are elements of populism to the way things are been done, trying to pacify sceptics by implementing half measures instead of whole ones, and devising complex policies that are hard to understand, awkward to enforce and extremely difficult to communicate.”

The advising and then mandating masks in some busy areas and not in others a week later is one such example, Ms Hassan Nahon said.

“This is already causing problems for our law enforcement, confusing our citizens, and fuelling a dangerous debate around the adequacy and coherence of our Covid protocols,” she said.

“Many of the territories that have implemented widespread mask use have now developed a culture of mask wearing (which, has existed in some Asian countries now for many years), and have moved on from futile political debates on issues that should solely be decided on using public health criteria.”

“We believe the reluctance to accept mask use is puerile at best, selfish at worst, and that it really is a small price to pay to mitigate the spread.”

“Taking on this relatively small inconvenience in order to protect the more vulnerable among us, when we juxtapose it what we have endured as a people, requires the very unique community spirit which has seen us through the toughest of times in our history.”

Together Gibraltar said mask wearing is a measure that does not have negative health impacts, nor does it affect the economy negatively if implemented wisely, while understanding that it cannot be worn by everyone in the community.

“Yet both GSD and the GSLP/Libs continue to politicise this issue, with Government changing already confusing protocols weekly and the GSD making populist arguments and conflating them with other petty political issues, such as the pedestrianisation of Chatham Counterguard,” Ms Hassan Nahon said.

“Politicians should have understood by now that these issues should be decided by scientists and public health specialists who have the expertise and knowledge to handle the situation, yet they insist on politicising the pandemic.”

“When Mr Azopardi says lockdown measures should be implemented only when the GHA is under pressure he is showing little appreciation for the potential suffering of the affected citizens, healthcare workers on the ground, and most importantly, he is failing to understand fundamental scientific facts - hospitalisations occur weeks after the problem emerges, and measures take several weeks to have an impact.”

“In the meantime, spread occurs exponentially, meaning acting when already under pressure could mean acting too late.”

“The recently released EU common criteria and thresholds for pandemic control state that an area is considered red, and therefore susceptible of implementing drastic measures if the total number of newly notified COVID-19 cases is more than 50 per 100,000 during a 14-day period and the percentage of positive tests from all Covid-19 tests is 3% or more.”

“In the last month we have far exceeded the case threshold. Our numbers show it is time to act firmly to curb the spread, but we need to make sure we damage our economy as little as possible.”

“Mask use is one of the best ways of doing just that.”

“In terms of the talk about general lockdowns, we believe that those decisions should come from our public health authorities, who should be making those calls on the basis of established science, not the political class.”