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Warnings to restaurants put spotlight on dangers of complacency in ‘new normal’

The Gibraltar Government has sent 19 warning letters to restaurants that have breached the terms of public health permits issued as part of the Unlock the Rock strategy, with some establishments at risk of having their permits suspended or revoked.

The figures were revealed by the Minister for Public Health, Dr John Cortes, as he warned of the dangers of not acting cautiously even as Gibraltar progresses through the stages of unlocking with currently zero active cases of Covid-19.

Dr Cortes said that while the majority of individuals and businesses have self-regulated appropriately and acted responsibly, others had not.

And he added that the Government had not ruled out making the wearing of masks in public places compulsory, nor the resumption of full lockdown if necessary.

“Life must return to normal as much as possible but not at the risk of a serious outbreak and certainly not at the risk to the lives of the most vulnerable in our caring society,” he said.

Dr Cortes was speaking during the Gibraltar Government’s weekly Covid-19 briefing in which he addressed a broad range of issues relating to the pandemic, including the Government’s latest advice on the use of masks and the process of contact tracing.

This comes as the number of confirmed cases of the virus in Gibraltar remains at zero, making the Rock the only country which is not an island to have no active cases.

“We are for the moment in a good place,” he said, adding that there was a “great deal of interest” in Gibraltar’s situation from the World Health Organisation, and that Gibraltar has been encouraged to share its story in this respect.

Despite this, Dr Cortes said Gibraltar cannot let its guard down and called on individuals to take responsibility for their actions amid the ongoing pandemic.

Highlighting resurgences of Covid-19 in China and elsewhere - there were clusters closer to home in Algeciras and other cities in the neighbouring Spanish province of Cadiz - he said the virus will exploit any opportunity it is given.

“We need to remain conscious of this as we continue to resume our normal lives,” he said.

Dr Cortes was critical too of calls for the pace of unlocking to be speeded up, a reference to the GSD which last week urged the government to review the process.

“Are they serious?” he asked, highlighting the global death toll of almost half a million people as a result of Covid-19.

“We still have to act with great caution, it is not a reasonable or legitimate point of view to think otherwise. It is indeed dangerous and irresponsible to do so.”

“It is still out there and as we unlock and return increasingly to past normality, it can still be back and it can still kill,” he said.

But as normality creeps back in, Dr Cortes said the emphasis is now on citizens acting responsibly and self-regulating.

This includes washing hands regularly, using hand sanitisers and wearing masks where social distancing is difficult.

The Director of Public Health, Dr Sohail Bhatti, is now advising that masks be worn in crowded locations even in the open, such as on Main Street when it is busy.

Asked by reporters whether the Government was considering making the wearing of masks in public places compulsory, as is the case in many countries including Spain, Dr Cortes said: “I can’t rule it out but I can’t rule it in either.”

Gibraltar is now in stage four of the Government’s Unlock the Rock lockdown exit strategy and with it comes the assumption of more and more responsibilities as individual citizens, Dr Cortes said.

Whilst most restaurants, for example, had acted responsibly and within the guidelines since reopening, some had not.

Some 19 warning letters have been issued to establishments which had contravened the terms of the permits issued under phase three of the exit strategy and these will be followed up, Dr Cortes said.

“This last Friday the situation was monitored jointly by the Environmental Agency and by the RGP,” he said.

“Happily, most establishments were cooperative and compliant and therefore responsible.”

“A few were considered not to be and in these cases suspension or revocation of permits is being considered by the Director of Public Health.”

As from Monday, bars are now able to open too although customers will only be served if they are sitting at pre-booked tables.

A key component of the Government’s strategy moving forward is contact tracing and having launched the ‘Beat Covid Gibraltar’ contact tracing app last week, it had been downloaded by 3,000 people already.

Dr Cortes said the app would need to be downloaded by 60% of the population in order to be effective.