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FOCUS: How the economy v health travel battle played out…

FOCUS: How the economy v health travel battle played out…

Tuesday 26 January 2021

FOCUS: How the economy v health travel battle played out…

Tuesday 26 January 2021

New STAC minutes have revealed the battle that played out behind the scenes as the Government’s scientific advisers were pushed to agree a relaxation of travel restrictions in the name of the economy.

As summer drew to a close and the island ventured into covid autumn, the Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell was asked to consider whether the traffic light travel system criteria could be loosened.

The argument put to them was two-fold: that Jersey’s future air links were threatened by ongoing restrictions, and that the overall economy - particularly the finance sector - was heavily reliant on the success of that connectivity. 

If connectivity was not maintained, the group were warned that companies could leave the island and the industry could suffer an impact “worse than the recession of 2008” - though no concrete evidence was presented of this.

But cases were steadily rising again in the UK, building towards a second wave, and Jersey’s experts - including top pandemic medic Dr Ivan Muscat, as Express previously reported - were reluctant to support weakening travel restrictions at this pivotal moment.

Express explains how those discussions played out, blow-by-blow…

On 16 September, STAC was informed of a meeting of the 'Competent Authority Ministers', who had "voiced concerns that the Island ran the risk of isolating itself" as a result of the isolation requirements of the traffic light quarantine system in place at the time.

The Ministers had therefore asked their policy officers to prepare a paper laying out different options for them to consider that would help further open up travel.

That paper was presented to STAC members, who were quick to voice their own fears.

The Medical Officer for Health - then Dr Susan Turnbull - was clear that "as winter approached, it was envisaged that things would worsen" and added that "it was not the role of the Cell to provide Ministers with advice to bolster the travel industry."

Dr Susan Turnbull

Pictured: Then Medical Officer for Health, Dr Susan Turnbull, appeared to be strongly against any change.

STAC's Independent Epidemiology Adviser said it was "not possible to estimate what impact covid-19 would have in the UK over the coming three or four weeks" and expressed a preference to "maintain the status quo" until a "clearer picture could be obtained".

The Government's Chief Economic Adviser Nick Vaughan responded by appealing to the panel to consider the impact on the finance industry.

Minutes state he told the panel that "it was important for the companies to have a physical presence in the Island and if those routes disappeared, this could cause uncertainty, which might lead to decisions being delayed and some businesses deciding to, potentially, relocate. The Cell was cautioned against underestimating the importance of transport links for that sector and of Jersey appearing to be 'open for business'."

He went on to argue that "the ability for firms to develop new business and maintain relationships were key to this" and that, while finance "could probably endure restrictions for a period of three months", "six months would be problematic and significant and could result in wholesale changes, with other jurisdictions potentially being favoured over Jersey."

But Dr Ivan Muscat MBE appeared to be unswayed, instead stressing the importance of the moment.

He said the island "had a choice between the proactive introduction of mitigation factors, to keep the levels of the virus as low as possible, or allowing more COVID-19 to enter the Island, which would, of itself, cause restrictions" and argued that "a failure to proactively take steps to mitigate the effects of the virus could lead to a loss of public confidence in Government and a reluctance by Islanders to accept any subsequent mitigations," he argued, adding that the vaccine was on the horizon.


Pictured: Dr Ivan Muscat stressed that the island was at a pivotal moment and shouldn't risk bringing in more cases.

One proposal put to STAC was for a 'light amber' category for countries and regions where there were between 25 and 60 cases per 100,000 population, where arrivals would only isolate until a 'Day 0' negative PCR test.

'Dark amber' would be for between 60 and 120 and and work in the same way as 'amber' at the time, with tests on Day 0 and Day 5.

In Dr Muscat's view, the proposal "would permit a significant number of cases of the virus to enter Jersey, particularly if people were arriving from countries / regions which were towards the high end of 'light amber' and, as a consequence, this posed a risk to islanders."

He therefore concluded that it would be "inappropriate" to change measures at this time.

STAC Chair Patrick Armstrong MBE indicated that members were "concerned that there was no accurate way to scale the risk posed by any proposed relaxation at the borders", and noted that every positive traveller case had at least 10 direct contacts.


Pictured: Patrick Armstrong noted every positive case had at least 10 direct contacts.

Dr Turnbull added that many felt the island was already "too 'open'", highlighting that "a portion of the population was still shielding and, in her opinion, any relaxation of the borders would not have a positive outcome."

The Independent Adviser also noted that "he had not heard a compelling argument around the economic risk posed if no change" was made to the borders.

The Associate Medical Director for Primary Prevention said, if anything, travel restrictions should be made "more robust" in preparation for the arrival of the vaccine.

Environmental Health's consultant on STAC said changing travel rules would be "dangerous", as it was already "challenging to control the current situation". He noted that the team were encountering "increasing instances of non-compliance" with current guidelines. One example was a wedding party where 120 people had attended.

The following week on 21 September, STAC were asked to "revisit" the topic of travel - this time with Jersey Finance's CEO and the Ports of Jersey CEO in attendance.

Despite having heard STAC's view on the matter, Ministers remained anxious about the impact on the island's future connectivity, following discussions with Ports' CEO Matt Thomas.

The Government's Director of Strategic Policy, Planning and Performance reminded STAC that the States Assembly had agreed to a strategy of keeping cases of the virus at "very low levels" and balancing restrictions and the harms they cause to islanders.

He argued that "the retention of connectivity with the UK was key to achieving that balance", adding: "In the rapidly changing situation, policy decisions might impact on the decisions made by commercial travel providers and in order for informed choices to be taken, it was important to analyse the risks on both sides."

Mr Armstrong said that the emphasis should be on considering "how to allow people who were required to support the economy and finance into the island in a safe way."

Dr Turnbull expressed fears that, if the UK entered lockdown again, "it was possible that Jersey could become an attractive destination, with the associated risks posed by importing the virus."

However, the Government's Communications Director assured that he was working with Visit Jersey to "ensure that the island was not perceived as a 'quarantine haven'".

The Chief Economic Adviser circulated a report entitled Economic implications for Jersey of restricting external travel', which had been prepared earlier during the pandemic.

"In that paper, it was stated that a decision to maintain travel restrictions into the autumn would start to have a significant negative impact on the financial services industry and that the greatest long term risk to the Island would be the permanent loss of travel connectivity, which would cause structural harm to the economy," the minutes read.

Mr Vaughan also suggested that the economic value of the people that continue to travel "would be greater than average", and, echoing his warning in the last meeting, "cautioned against underestimating the economic impact of restrictions."

Jersey Finance's CEO Joe Moynihan then presented to the panel, saying "the retention of connectivity was a confidence booster for the industry".


Pictured: Jersey Finance CEO Joe Moynihan said seeing clients in person was better for closing important deals.

He said it was "extremely difficult to quantify the value of maintaining travel links", but went on to provide anecdotal evidence of their benefit.

Mr Moynihan said that those operating in the private client sector were "aware that deals could not be closed unless clients were able to travel to the island", and later noted that he was aware that some partners from law firms had been able to travel off Island and secure good deals and that ability had differentiated Jersey from other jurisdictions."

"An increasing number of fund managers were headquartered in Jersey and, as global businesses, they needed the ability to travel in order to meet with international clients. It was acknowledged that some had access to private jets, rather than flying with commercial airlines, but it was important for the sector to ensure that the Island did not return to a state of lockdown, because confidence, both on and off-island was crucial.

"From a business perspective, it would be problematic if people were required to self-isolate until they received a negative day 5 PCR test, but if self-isolation was deemed necessary until a negative day zero test was received, this would be less of an issue, particularly if the results could be obtained within 12 hours. For the industry, it was key to retain the connectivity with London, irrespective of the number of flights each day. With respect to the model which had been adopted by Guernsey – a business tunnel – the theory sounded good, but, anecdotally, the questionnaire that people were required to complete was so detailed that some firms had decided not to use the facility."

Ports of Jersey's CEO then went on to explain the impact of travel restrictions on airlines.

Mr Thomas said that they needed to be 75% full to be financial viable, and would not make any money under 65%.

"In order to fill a plane, a combination of business travellers, tourists and people visiting family and friends was required and if one of these elements of the 'three-legged stool' was absent, passenger numbers would drop below 65 per cent. During July and August there had been an improving situation, but recently the load factors had declined and, during the week of 20th September, had averaged 53 per cent," he elaborated.


Pictured: Ports of Jersey's CEO said airlines could not make money on flights under 65% full.

Having heard the arguments, the Independent Epidemiology Adviser said retaining the current policy would be "consistent, proportionate and sensible". He said that there was little strong evidence that the situation was different in competing jurisdictions such as Monaco, Cayman, Luxembourg or Guernsey and that "he was of the view that the airlines would reduce the frequency of their flights to Jersey during the winter, but still continue to fly, thereby maintaining the trust of the finance industry."

The Associate Medical Director for Primary Prevention and Intervention, then chipped in to question where the evidence was of any negative impacts on the finance industry.

He "indicated that he had seen "definitive medical facts around the increasing risk posed by the covid-19 pandemic, but had been provided with no clear details – in monetary terms – of the impact that retaining the current categorisation would have on the finance sector.

Jersey Finance's Mr Moynihan said it was "impossible" to provide that information.

He was followed by the Chief Economic Adviser, who nonetheless predicted that the impact would be "absolutely awful" and "worse than the recession of 2008".

Mr Vaughan went on to say that the "loss of island connectivity would compound the effects of the downturn brought about by covid-19. It was likely that the economy would not spring back quickly, profits would not be made, employees would not be paid and businesses would close. The longer the economy struggled, the more likely it would be to stall and then it would be challenging to reinvigorate it at a later juncture."

Assessing the medical impact of any potential rise in cases, Dr Turnbull noted that "Jersey had finite health care resources because it was not in a position where it could draft in additional health staff, or transport patients to another hospital. She suggested that if the point was reached where it was necessary to employ the intensive care beds in the Nightingale Wing, this would be perceived as a sign of failure."

Once again, Dr Muscat concluded by reminding all in attendance at the meeting that "the Island had a choice between pre-emptive mitigation and having actions forced upon it by the virus. In the latter case, people would lose confidence in the Government and there would be increased cases of COVID-19 in the Island as the resultant outcome. Moreover, as Winter approached, the risk of transmission would increase, as would the severity of the infection."

On 28 September, minutes record that Ministers had reached a "compromise" with STAC on travel restrictions.

"Ministers had suggested that not to relax the restrictions would endanger the economy, so a compromise position had been reached. Green would increase to 50, but anyone arriving from an area so designated would be required to undertake PCR tests at days zero and 5 and once it was possible to obtain the results of the test in 12 hours, they would be required to self-isolate until they had received a negative result from the first test. In addition, increased testing within the community would be introduced and the number of cases of covid-19 entering at the borders would be carefully scrutinised on a weekly basis, to ensure that rapid action could be taken to mitigate the impact if and when required."

STAC's concerns did not dissipate in the following weeks, however.

At the time, 'green' zone arrivals were still allowed to move freely around the island before receiving the results of their first border test - something a proposition by Deputy Inna Gardiner was aiming to stop.

On 5 October, one week ahead of a new travel regime being introduced, Dr Turnbull "opined that the Cell's firm advice had been to maintain the top level of Green at 25 [cases per 100,000]."

"The political decision to extend it to 50 now gave her and colleagues good reason to be very concerned about a potential influx of cases. 24 hours was not a significant length of time, but anyone who had the virus had the potential to spread it during that period. The issue centred not just on the inconvenience caused to the passenger, but the wider risk to the community.

While the Director General of Home Affairs had assured that public health messaging would be stepped up, the Cell still noted that "each inbound traveller had, on average, 10 direct contacts, all of which would have to self-isolate for 2 weeks in the event of the traveller testing positive for covid-19 and that any establishment, which they had visited, would require deep cleaning, which was an expensive undertaking."

Dr Muscat suggested that it would be helpful to remind travellers "to avoid 'super spreading' sites such as pubs and restaurants and to limit their contacts until such time as they had received a negative day 5 result."

The minutes continue: "With regard to the level of risk, he stated that Statistics Jersey had calculated that there would be a small reduction by introducing self-isolation until the first test. However, as the numbers of cases of the virus increased, that reduction would become more significant. Because the border testing system was not capturing approximately 50 per cent of positive cases, which was the Island's 'biggest Achilles heel', it was important that it was underpinned by an elaborate testing and tracing system. He informed the Cell that the tracing team would be gradually extending its searches backwards to identify contacts within the previous 7 days."

They add: "In an ideal world - had the Cell's advice been followed in respect of the recategorisation of Green areas - there would be a reduced threat from not requiring people to self-isolate until the results of their first test. It would be a political decision to implement the new policy, but the Cell's advice was that it should be brought into force on or before 12th October, irrespective of whether the turnaround time for test results was at 12 hours."

Read more Express analysis from the latest collection of STAC minutes…

Top pandemic medic disagreed with Ministers' travel relaxations

Government didn’t seek scientific advice on initial Christmas guidance

Scientific advisers raised concerns weeks ahead of care home covid spike

Revealed: Ministers' bid to reopen hospitality in December

“More testing does not mean more people being tested”

Fears over sales crowds contributed to non-essential retail closure

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Comments on this story express the views of the commentator only, not Bailiwick Publishing. We are unable to guarantee the accuracy of any of those comments.

Once your comment has been submitted, it won’t appear immediately. There is no need to submit it more than once. Comments are published at the discretion of Bailiwick Publishing, and will include your username.

Posted by Anna W on
As always with the States it’s all about the money and how the island might be perceived outside the island as opposed to what’s best for the people of Jersey.
Posted by Keith Marsh on
So it was not just Minister's who were putting Money before Lives.
Those senior Civil Servants / Advisors must now be removed from power and allowed time to consider their position. { in other words Resign or wait and get sacked.}
Posted by Scott Mills on
The gov over here love giving it the ol' Big un, trying to compete with the big boys in the World. It's always been about money, always has and always be on the island. The greed over here is well above fagan's tactics. Remember they do not really care about us, they only care about us doing exactly what they want us to do. Give it time, and continue on like this, I believe the masses will stand up and say right enough is enough, we getting on with our lives now.
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