‘Shaken to the core’, CM mourns ‘worst loss of life in a century’ and warns death toll will rise
The Covid-19 crisis has left Gibraltar facing “the worst loss of life in over 100 years”, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said on Monday, as he warned the death toll from the virus had reached 45 and would likely climb higher.
During a sombre press conference at No.6 Convent Place, Mr Picardo said he was "shaken to the core" by the knowledge that in the 72 hours since he made a statement to Parliament on Covid-19 last Friday, 21 Gibraltarians had succumbed to the virus.
He said frontline services including the Elderly Resident Services, where an outbreak has claimed the lives of many elderly residents, were facing “unprecedented” pressure.
But although many of those who have died in recent days were elderly, the Chief Minister said Covid-19 did not discriminate and people from all age groups had been admitted to hospital.
He implored the community to adhere to the Covid regulations and avoid complacency, even though the latest data pointed a downturn in the spread of infection.
“Gibraltrar has not experienced such loss of life in such a short time since the 1951 explosion of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ammunition ship the Bedenham,” the Chief Minister said.
“Now, 38 Gibraltarians have died in the last 18 days since the start of the year.”
“This is now the worst loss of life of Gibraltarians in over 100 years.”
“Even in war, we have never lost so many in such a short time.”
“Not since the so-called Spanish flu have we seen so many succumb to one disease within days.”
There are now 128 active cases of Covid-19 in ERS, where staff are under immense pressure as they work to care for their elderly residents.
Mr Picardo said the disease is believed to have initially entered ERS “both through visitors” before the lockdown and through members of staff who “inadvertently affected their precious residents".
“The much more virulent strain has been impossible to stop at the door as effectively as we did in the first wave,” he told reporters.
The Chief Minister made no attempt to soften the terrible gravity of the situation at ERS.
“I believe we will see more deaths amongst the frail elderly at ERS,” he said.
“But you should rest assured that everything possible will be done to save the lives of all of them, however advanced they may be in age.”
The Chief Minister acknowledged that many people were rightly seeking to understand how the virus had spread through ERS.
Mr Picardo said the public inquiry announced by the Gibraltar Government at the outset of the public health crisis last year would in time help find answers and learn lessons about every step and decision taken, not just in respect of ERS but of all aspects of Gibraltar's response to Covid-19.
But he said now was a time to focus energies on supporting health workers in their efforts to keep residents safe.
“What I can tell you is that every single member of the staff of ERS at every level have given their all for the residents of ERS,” he said.
“They feel the loss of each of them as if they were losing a member of their very own families.”
“These deaths have impacted them very greatly.”
Mr Picardo expressed "deep, deep gratitude" on behalf of the community to all the workers at ERS for their efforts.
He stressed too that while many of the deaths were at ERS, the impact of Covid-19 was being across all areas and ages of the community.
The battle against Covid-19, he said, “is not just at ERS”.
There are currently nine people in the hospital's critical care unit, eight of them ventilated, and there are 34 patients in the Covid wards.
On Monday, 42 new infections were detected, bringing the number of active cases to 681 as 151 people were also registered as recovered from the virus.
Another 1463 people remained in self-isolation and there were 36 test results pending.
The Chief Minister spoke about the strain on mortuary capacity, which “is now very low’, adding that the large number of deaths in such a short period had impacted on burials, placing huge demands on staff at the cemetery and funeral directors.
Limitations on funeral attendances and delays in burial times were making this “a difficult, difficult time”, Mr Picardo said, adding: “Logistically, we are doing everything we can to permit families to grieve in the most appropriate way possible.”
“This is now a health crisis without equal in our history,” he said.
“We have lost more Gibraltarian lives in the days since the start of the year than we have to any one affliction in that time in the past 100 years.”
“The remarkable extra virulence of the strains amongst us now is taking an impossible toll.”
Despite the sadness of his announcement and visibly shaken as he delivered his stark message, Mr Picardo also issued a call for unity in the face of the challenges that lay ahead.
And he called on the community to stick strictly to the Covid rules as the best step to get Gibraltar through the public health crisis, adding there would be a time for collective mourning in due course.
“We must brace ourselves to see the numbers of those lost to Covid-19 in our community steadily increase,” Mr Picardo said.
“For that reason, although now is a time of sadness, now is not yet a time for national mourning.”
“That time will come, and, together, mourn we will.”
“Now is a time for collective action to defeat this virus, a time to turn our sadness into unity and determination.”
Mr Picardo said that in time, Gibraltar would hold an interfaith service to remember all those lost during this pandemic.
And he had a message of hope too, albeit tempered by the tragic news of the weekend.
The Chief Minister said the vaccination program that was already under way would continue in the coming days with the arrival of a second batch of 4,875 vaccines on Wednesday.
People should trust in science and the protection it would afford as a way of “turning the tide” of the pandemic.
He used that announcement to ask people to exercise care about the information they trusted on Covid-19 and vaccines, urging them to heed only official sources and the established media.
“I know that hope will not save those who have already been lost. Hope will not bring back our loved ones,” the Chief Minister said.
“But it is hope that will keep alive the dream of a future in which we lose no more of our people to this deadly virus.”
“And until we have turned the tide, we must continue united in our defensive posture against this virus.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Our reporters are working round-the-clock to bring you the latest news on Gibraltar and the Covid-19 crisis. All our coverage on this critical issue is available free outside the paywall. If you find it useful, please help us reach more people by sharing our journalism. And if you want to support our work further, please consider subscribing to the digital version of our daily newspaper and all our premium online content. You can subscribe via our website or for iOS devices via the iTunes store. Thank you.