I am pleased to be joined this evening by our Director of Public Health Dr Henrietta Ewart and the Chief Executive of Manx Care Teresa Cope.
As we enter February, Spring is dawning on the horizon, and whilst we can look back on a challenging winter period for our Island from a public health perspective, we can, I believe, look forward to the future with a renewed sense of optimism.
Despite the challenges we faced in December and January – with the identification and then rapid spread of the new Omicron variant – people across our Island once again – quite literally – rolled up their sleeves and did their bit to protect themselves, their loved ones and the wider community.
We saw record numbers of vaccinations delivered in December, ensuring as many people as possible were protected from Omicron when it made its way to our shores. And that herculean effort to get jabs in arms paid off.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the vaccination team who made this possible. Thank you.
Ninety per cent of the Island’s adult population have had two vaccine doses and sixty-five per cent of the adult population have had a booster.
The Omicron wave was the biggest we have seen since the start of the pandemic. At one point we had almost 3,000 active cases. But whilst Omicron spread more rapidly, it was generally milder and our immune systems were better prepared thanks to many having that vaccine protection.
That is not to dismiss the impact of COVID.
Whilst Omicron is generally mild for many, since the start of the pandemic many people have been ill and, sadly, some in our community lost their lives.
An element of risk continues, as we have been reminded this week, with two further COVID related deaths reported. Our sympathies are extended to the families.
Nevertheless with the Omicron wave, the number of deaths and severe illness have been significantly lower than those worrying days in early 2020 as COVID-19 took hold.
I also recognise the impact Omicron has had on businesses, coming during the festive season on which so many hospitality providers depend.
And I recognise the impact the rapid spread had on staffing, with so many people having to isolate at the same time. I know there were pressures in keeping essential services running – from making sure our hospitals and care homes could continue to operate, to ensuring supermarket shelves were stocked.
Despite having had our biggest COVID wave to date, the Island weathered this without a lock-down; schools remained open; our health and care services continued to function; we moved to self-testing and reporting; and we were able to reduce self-isolation times by allowing exit after two negative self-tests 24 hours apart, which cut isolation in half for many.
The decisions that we made before Christmas in terms of moving to self-testing with lateral flow devices and reducing isolation and contact tracing requirements have led the way in terms of country responses to Omicron and these measures were subsequently adopted by neighbouring jurisdictions. I want to thank all of you for the manner in which you adapted to these changes and the responsible manner in which cases were reported and self-isolation undertaken. The community can once again take tremendous pride in what has been achieved.
Much has been learnt since December and the onset of Omicron. There is a sense that the rapid spread of the virus and its relatively limited impact on health and care services, and the low rates of severe illness and death, represent the first real step in COVID-19 becoming a disease that is endemic.
We must now build on this, and set out a clear vision as to how the Island will step away from the rules and regulations that have been necessary to control the virus over the past two years. We will move to once again being free to make our own decisions, informed by clear guidance, particularly for the most vulnerable in society. Move to once again being trusted to do the right thing, at the right time and in the right way.
Before I go into more detail, I would like to hand over to our Director of Public Health, Dr Henrietta Ewart, who will cover what we mean when we talk about a disease being endemic and where we are currently with COVID- 19.
In moving to an endemic approach, we must acknowledge that there will continue to be challenges, and there will still be times when we are all faced with a degree of uncertainty and renewed threats. We must be prepared to deal with those times effectively, efficiently and proportionately.
In considering a move to an endemic approach, the right conditions for change must be present. The Council of Ministers considers there to be five key conditions:
- Our health services are operating normally
- Vaccines remain available and effective
- There are no new variants of concern that may lead to serious consequences
- The situation on the Island is stable
- The situation in the British Isles is stable.
Subject to these five conditions being met, it is the intention of the Council of Ministers to return the Island to normal life on Thursday 31 March.
This gives us time to ensure that as many people as possible are fully vaccinated. In particular those who are clinically vulnerable now being offered a fourth vaccine dose and 5 to 11 year olds with certain health conditions who are now being offered the vaccine.
This change in approach means accepting that the virus is present in our community for the long term. Whilst we will continue to monitor its spread to ensure we understand how it is affecting the Island, we would not look to identify each and every case. We would treat COVID-19 in the same way as other communicable diseases, such as norovirus or flu.
The core public health regulations will be suspended. Our approach will shift to solely guidance and advice, not the force of law.
Our daily reporting dashboard will be reduced and then removed. Our decisions and daily lives will no longer be linked to the number of cases on the Island, although the impact on our health services will continue to be monitored.
At our borders, there will be no travel restrictions and no public health checks on arrival. This is regardless of residency or vaccination status. People will be able to come and go freely from the 31 March. The only requirement will be for travellers to complete a simple travel declaration form ahead of arrival on the Island.
This will be an interim measure as we transition to the new arrangements in case people need to be contacted in the event of a new threat emerging. This will be in place for the shortest time possible.
The only potential restriction that will remain will be the UK’s red list countries. Currently, no countries feature in this list, but any UK restrictions would extend to the Isle of Man if a country were to be added.
Generally, this would be due to a new variant of concern, as we saw with southern African countries in December with the emergence of Omicron.
Some changes to border restrictions in England recently announced by the UK Government will come into force there on 11 February. This relates to non-vaccinated international arrivals, those aged under 18, and other matters. We are currently reviewing these and next week I hope to be in a position to announce any changes to our own border arrangements that will be in place ahead of removing restrictions on 31 March.
On testing – where someone tests positive for COVID-19 they will be encouraged to record their positive test result for surveillance purposes and the advice will be to stay home and rest, as you would with other viral infections.
If you are COVID positive, face coverings will be advised if you have to leave the house but there will be no legal self-isolation requirements. This is about trusting people to be responsible and to do the right thing, as we do all tend to do with other communicable diseases such as flu.
Contact tracing will cease, although people will be encouraged to notify their own close contacts and their employer that they have tested positive.
Advice and guidance
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, advice and guidance will be available to help people make informed decisions. Hands, face, space and fresh air will remain with us, as will the ability to self-test.
I accept that these changes represent a significant shift after almost 24 months of COVID restrictions. I have no doubt that the vast majority in our community will welcome this move, but we must be mindful that some will wish to be more cautious, particularly those who are more vulnerable to disease. We must all continue to be tolerant and understanding. There are those who will continue to wear face coverings and keep their distance after the 31 March, and we must respect this.
We will ensure that appropriate guidance and bespoke advice is available for those most vulnerable in society, identifying those most at risk due to underlying health conditions, so that no one feels excluded or marginalised as a result of this new approach.
Should any of the five conditions that I have listed change, we must be in position to act quickly and proportionately if the situation warrants it.
This could be due to a new variant of concern being identified that poses such a significant threat to public health that our health services once again come under significant and sustained pressure requiring Government to act.
Over the coming weeks we will be preparing communications to fully explain these changes to everyone in our community. Today we are publishing the revised approach I have set out, which will shortly be available online at gov.im/covid19.
The Council of Ministers will continue to monitor the situation and will make a final decision in March on whether the five conditions have been met.
Throughout the pandemic, protecting our vital health and social care services has been paramount. As important as overall case numbers have been, it is the pressure on hospital beds and staffing numbers which has been a key barometer by which we have judged the severity of outbreaks and used to guide our response.
Our vaccination programme has also been of vital importance, and as I set out earlier, ensuring vaccines remain viable and effective is one of the five key conditions for change. COVID vaccination will remain a part of our lives.
I would like to invite Teresa Cope, Chief Executive of Manx Care, to talk a little about the current situation at Noble’s Hospital and the wider health and care service, and to provide an update on the vaccination programme.
It would not be right to look toward the next chapter in our COVID journey without acknowledging the losses and sacrifices made by so many during the pandemic.
It is an event that will be with us for the rest of our lives and talked about for generations to come.
The cost has been great, and as we look to the future, we would do well not to forget the past, remembering those we have lost to this dreadful disease and the lasting pain and sense of loss many families and friends continue to feel.
But despite the challenges and heartache, the pandemic has brought out the very best in us. We have seen our sense of community and commitment to each other shine, pulling together, caring for each other and doing the right things for the greater good.
We should not assume that this pandemic has ended nor that COVID may yet have a sting in its tail BUT the conditions are right to move forward with confidence.
Despite the hurt and tragedy, the people of the Isle of Man can hold their head high and look back, yes with sorrow, but also with pride on what we have been through in the last two years. Thank you.
That is all from me for today, thank you for tuning in and have a good evening.