A detailed proposal to test all islanders twice over a period of four weeks to identify and eliminate all cases of covid-19 is being considered by Ministers and the island’s leading scientific advisers, Express can reveal.
Brought forward by Chronomics Ltd, the proposal to rapidly rid Jersey of the virus would see all islanders isolate and then take a self-administered PCR test, which would be sent to laboratories in the UK.
Those who receive a negative result would be given a 'passport' to move freely within the community while those who are positive would be asked to isolate.
The company says it has capacity to process 25,000 samples a day and, as such, the whole island could be tested over a single week.
Pictured: The self-administered tests could be delivered to islanders' doors.
The mass-testing programme would help “identify and eliminate all sources of covid infection on the island over a period of four to six weeks”, Chronomics said.
“In combination with the current strict border management – together with some proposed adjustments, this strategy will enable the island to remain covid-free and for business and social life to return to normality.”
The proposal already had the support of Senators Kristina Moore and Steve Pallett and Deputy Steve Luce, who shared it with Dr Ivan Muscat MBE, the Deputy Medical Officer for Health and Dr Patrick Armstrong MBE, the Chair of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell (STAC).
In an email, they wrote: “Within a period of four to six weeks all sources of Covid infection would be identified and eliminated, we would become covid free and our internal economy could resume. With some improvements to our excellent system of border control, we could enable travel in and out of the island to continue.
“In our minds this proposal is compelling and whilst it would come at a cost, the value of freedom for those who have been isolating for so many months, the comfort it would give teachers, parents and other workers who are concerned about the virus would be powerful and of course the economic value returned would quickly pay for the programme.”
The proposal was officially considered by STAC and Competent Authority Ministers at the beginning of this week.
Pictured: Senator Kristina Moore is among the politicians who have presented the proposal to Dr Muscat and Dr Armstrong.
Speaking to Express, Senator Moore said now is a good time to talk about “a change of tack in the covid strategy”.
“Numbers are reducing but there is still quite a lot of the virus circulating in the community,” she said.
“It will take time to fully roll out the vaccine so life will not get back to normal before the end of March, yet some business people are concerned they might not make it to the end of the month.
“The Government is increasing support packages for businesses, but it would be better to enable businesses to be open rather than giving them packages to stay closed.
“This would enable us to achieve elimination in a very short time frame so that business can be fully open, and we can give members of the community the confidence they can circulate within the community, rather than wait for the vaccine.”
She added that she believed the public "would get behind it and really support it as an idea to retake our freedom and an opportunity to return to normality, so that people that have been separated can be reunited and business can reopen - it is something we can all unite around."
Questioned on the matter by Express at last night’s press conference, Chief Minister Senator John Le Fondré – who will have the final say alongside ‘Competent Authority Ministers’ – said a final decision had not been made, but that he would not personally rule out the strategy.
Pictured: The Chief Minister told Express he would not personally rule out the proposal but would be guided by "professional advice" and would issue a formal response before this weekend.
However, he noted that changing course when an ‘end point’ was in sight due to the vaccination programme would be a significant decision to take.
“We are roughly nine weeks away from Easter, to that point of having, roughly, 50,000 people vaccinated. To change your strategy when you’re getting to the end of it, requires careful thought.
“That’s not saying it’s a no but where we are in the process needs to be considered,” he said.
Senator Le Fondré said there could also be practical and ethical issues with the idea of mass testing.
“There, you go into all sorts of problem areas, such as how do you test children? How do you mandate people to be tested? So you would have to look at a law change. There are all sorts of ethical issues about forcing people to have a medical intervention. There are those sorts of territories that you have to consider.”
Ultimately, he said that his decision, which will also take cost into account, would have to be based on what scientific advisers say.
“It comes down to what the professional advice said. I thought there were a number of practical difficulties in the timeframe you are trying to address, and I would assume there was a cost implication on what was being proposed as well. It could be, ‘Yippee, everyone is released and that saves a fortune’ versus ‘what does that achieve and the sums of money involved’.”
He said he expected to be able to provide a response "before the weekend."
Dr Ivan Muscat MBE, who sits on STAC, said in response to a follow-up to Express’s question that the group’s response to the proposal was still "being formulated".
Pictured: Dr Ivan Muscat MBE said STAC was putting together its response to the strategy.
He added, however, that the whole team were already agreed on a strategy of suppressing the virus “for as long as possible whilst vaccination is being deployed.”
It's not the first time an elimination strategy has been raised with decision-makers.
When Jersey's R number dropped below 1 in May - meaning that, at that point, the number of virus cases was petering out - Deputy Jess Perchard brought a proposal to seize the opportunity to eliminate the virus locally.
The St. Saviour representative’s proposal, which came months before commercial travel resumed with border testing, suggested that any elimination strategy should include rapid case detection by widespread testing, continued intensive hygiene promotion, a coordinated communications strategy, “intensive physical distancing that may include various severities of lockdown”, and “border controls with high quality quarantine of those arriving in Jersey."
However, politicians threw out the plan, instead giving their backing to the Government's 'delay, contain, shield' response to the virus crisis.
Pictured: States Members had the opportunity to vote for an elimination strategy in May, but instead gave their backing to the Government's plan.
One of the arguments was been made in favour of pursuing an elimination strategy at the time, and is now rearing its head once again, is that it could be an asset in terms of tourism over the summer.
Earlier this week, Economic Development Minister Senator Lyndon Farnham told States Members that it would be “essential” to organise travel corridors with other small jurisdictions with low number of cases as we head into the summer - something Guernsey set up with the Isle of Man last year, but refused to enter into with Jersey.
“We want to try and attract visitors to Jersey but only if it is safe to do so,” he said. “I think when we look at our neighbouring Channel Islands and the other crown dependencies and perhaps some other regions that have very low levels of covid-19, there are certainly opportunities to do that.
“And, of course, we are also seeing vaccination programmes ramping up in many other countries so I very much hope we will start being able to safely see a return for our visitors, probably towards the middle or to the end of the summer.”
Pictured: Travel corridors will only be successful if Jersey can offer “a safe place for people to travel to”.
Senator Moore however pointed out that travel corridors will only be successful if Jersey can offer “a safe place for people to travel to."
“If people were to do a test 72 hours before they travel and again on arrival and then quarantine, we would be able to control it better,” she said. “It would make Jersey a covid-safe environment to travel to with minimum hassle.”
Currently, all new arrivals at the border are being treated as having arrived from a 'Red' zone, requiring three negative tests and at least 10 days' isolation.
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