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Virus crisis declared 'major incident' as cases rise

The Chief Minister on Saturday declared the Covid-19 crisis to be a major incident, activating a mechanism that establishes a cross-agency command structure for frontline agencies as the number of infected cases here continued to creep up.

The decision to declare a major incident was announced by Dr John Cortes, the Minister for Public Health, during the daily 4pm press conference at No.6 Convent Place.

The move comes as the GHA stepped up testing and the number of confirmed active cases increased to 42 on Saturday, although only one is in hospital and the rest are at home recovering.

There have been 56 confirmed cases in total in Gibraltar, of whom 14 have already recovered are already 14, but the number of cases is expected to surge in the coming days and the message, once again, was stark.

Dr Cortes said that while then numbers might suggest “we have been lucky so far” and “it could be” that the measures put in place to flatten the curve of infection are working.

“But it is far too early to say and we must expect that the increases in incidence and in hospitalisation that we are seeing elsewhere are coming to Gibraltar,” he said, adding that the number of positive cases was rising daily.

“Based on virtually every other country, we can expect a surge in hospital admissions, including those needing intensive care, and we can expect deaths in the vulnerable groups, especially the over 70s within the next few weeks.”

“If this, once again, sounds sombre, I cannot apologise.”

“It is my duty as Minister for Public Health to tell you as it is and on the advice I receive from the professionals.”

“We can improve the outcome, and we can beat it, but you must follow advice.”

Dr Cortes said there were currently 220 results pending and that the infection rate of testing in Gibraltar so far hovered at around 30%, meaning a sharp rise in positives can be expected in the coming days even as the number of recovered cases also increases.

The decision to declare a major incident triggers a cross-agency command structure going from operational bronze level, through to senior tactical and strategic commands in silver and gold levels.

In Gibraltar, a fourth level exists above gold, known as platinum, made up of the Governor, the Chief Minister and the Commander British Forces.

It also enables the authorities to rely on the full scope of civil contingencies an provides an established framework with which to coordinate Gibraltar frontline responders, including the Ministry of Defence which is now offering support to the Gibraltar Government.

The impact is focused on the essential services and has no immediate practical terms on the community, although the government has repeatedly stated that it will, in parallel, keep the lockdown regulations under constant review should they need to be tightened.

"This declaration merely formalises many of the command structures which have been so effective throughout the last few weeks," said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

"During that time, we have been in daily contact with the Convent and the Ministry of Defence."

ERS PRECAUTIONS

Dr Cortes said the government was building up to 200 niche-style burial plots in the cemetery to cope with potential deaths in the coming weeks.

But he reinforced the message too that the best strategy to keep that number down was to follow public health instructions, maintain social distance and, wherever possible, stay at home.

He said most people were following those rules but that there were reports too of people gathering in groups in public and not adhering to the instructions.

“A walk,” he said of people leaving their homes for exercise, “is not a picnic.”

Dr Cortes appeared at the press conference alongside Susan Vallejo, manager of the Elderly Residential Services, who sought to reassure the community about the precautionary measurers in place at the elderly residences.

She was speaking a day after new that two staff members of ERS had tested positive for Covid-19.

Mrs Vallejo said there were no cases of the virus in any of the homes, which had stepped up monitoring measures on staff including random temperature tests and heightened infection-control procedures.

Any staff displaying even mild symptoms was immediately sent home and all wore protective clothing while at work.

Mrs Vallejo, who praised the commitment and diligence of her staff, said the homes had been working for weeks to strengthen their precautions, adding: “We knew what was coming.”

Dr Cortes added: “Nurses are trained to stop infection, whether they are asymptomatic or not.”