The battle against covid – and the Government’s need to intervene in islanders' lives – won’t be over until there is treatment, according to the island’s top pandemic medic.
Despite covid case numbers surging to 81, with more than half of islanders fully vaccinated and no one in hospital with the virus for three months, the Chief Minister yesterday said islanders were heading towards a “summer of freedom”, with the lifting of Jersey’s final covid restrictions mere “weeks’ away”.
But that doesn’t mean we’re at the finish line, according to Dr Ivan Muscat MBE.
Asked by Express at what point STAC would be able to recommend that dealing with covid becomes a matter of personal responsibility for islanders, rather than Government intervention, he said the criteria was some way off being met.
"The virus isn’t static, it moves, it mutates…There will be new mutations coming along invariably because that is the nature of the virus,” he explained.
Video: Yesterday's press conference.
“And so we will need to adapt to those mutations, but we hope that with further developments in vaccination, which cover variants as we go along and other measures like in particular the availability of treatment.
“So, the four pillars for managing infection - diagnosis, infection control or [Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions], vaccination, they’re in hand - but the fourth pillar, treatment, is not yet available to us.
“Once that becomes available to us - and there are drugs in the phase 3 trials at the moment - then we will be in an even stronger position to manage it and to relegate covid to a background infection.”
Dr Muscat added: “We do need to be vigilant, we just don’t know enough about the virus to say we can now sit back and relax."
The confirmation will not be welcomed by the nearly 400 islanders who have signed a petition calling for the Government to “give us back our freedoms” and allow the island to “life with covid-19” by removing all laws.
“We have done all that has been asked. We were told that we would protect the vulnerable - this has been done. We were told to get vaccinated - this has been done. The borders are open but our freedoms are still not returned. Time to STOP this time to live with it - MOVE on - this cannot continue,” the petition, which has been shared by former Senator Jim Perchard, reads.
This doesn't stop until we say it does https://t.co/3jkC8HF6bs— Jim Perchard (@JLPerchard) June 22, 2021
It has been reported that the UK Government is planning to drop laws around masks, which are already no longer legally required in most public areas in Jersey, and distancing in favour of a ‘personal responsibility’ approach on 19 July.
Dr Muscat’s warning that the island was not yet out of the woods came during a press conference in which Ministers confirmed:
Government officials told Express that they would be continuing check-ups on isolating individuals to ensure that no one has wrongly left quarantine following yesterday’s announcement.
Questions were raised about the uncertainty over the reopening of nightclubs and stand-up drinking in pubs after these were pushed back during the conference, but Economic Development Minister Senator Lyndon Farnham expressed confidence about the “clear pathway” to lifting these restrictions and went on to emphasise the financial support Government has put in place throughout the pandemic to “ensure islanders’ jobs and livelihoods were protected.”
To further support businesses, Express asked how he would like to see the remaining £20.4m in the Government’s Fiscal Stimulus Fund – a money pot to restart the economy - used.
On Twitter, Digital Jersey CEO Tony Moretta had raised the prospect of a new Innovation Fund.
However, Senator Farnham urged “caution”, saying: “To be clear… that’s [£20.4m] less that we would have to borrow, so there’s a subtle difference there.
“I think given the financial challenges we’re facing coming out of the pandemic, it’s unwise to borrow without having a really good idea what you want to borrow for and there are a lot of ideas going around at the moment.”
Joking that it was “the most prudent answer you’ll hear from the Minister for ED in a very long time”, the Chief Minister said he agreed.
Senator Le Fondré continued: “I have to say we’ve all got areas where we think there could be improvement, I’m quite keen in getting some more money into regeneration for St. Helier, I’d like to see some more money into… areas, and I’d very much like to see some more money going into tech.
“…We’ve got to keep focus about what we’d love to do and the nice-to-haves, and the fundamentals are the more we add onto the bottom line, the more ultimately that we are borrowing, and we are trying to get that balance between supporting everybody that we have done and, I’ll use the word, ‘a prudent financial outcome’ in the context of the amount we’ve had to actually borrow and spend to get the island where we are today.”
He declined to state how much the Government had borrowed from its £500m covid loan so far when asked by Express in a follow-up question, but did reveal that it was “significantly not as much as we were originally projecting - and I’m talking tens of millions of pounds lower, not a million pounds lower.”
Elsewhere in the conference, he confirmed to Express that the Government was still planning to charge for covid-19 testing in future, having considered a £36 charge per test back in March.
He said how much and when this change would happen had not be decided, but that he was keen to ensure it was affordable so that businesses in hard-hit sectors like hospitality were not adversely affected and families would not have to pay hundreds to go on holiday.
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