Today, I will focus less on announcements and breaking news and more on taking stock of what we have been through as an Island, and what we will need to do, together, over the coming months, to make sure that we maintain the favourable position we have created.
Can I start by thanking all Islanders, our public sector staff and my Ministerial and States Assembly colleagues for their support, dedication and resolve during the past six months. We have all worked together to face the challenges that the pandemic has presented to our Island, and we have done well.
But let’s be clear, we are potentially only at the halfway point in our fight against Covid-19. Having the summer to allow us time to prepare ourselves, and rest a little, means we are in a better position than even those in the southern hemisphere who had to implement the strictest forms of lockdown before they entered their winter period.
When the virus first hit our shores back in March, the Council of Ministers, officers from across the Government, key stakeholders, and members of the community and voluntary sectors worked tirelessly, and well into the early hours night after night, making sure that we had the right systems running, the right equipment in place or on order, and the right policies being developed to see us through the emergency phase. This work carried on for many weeks, with colleagues only seeing their families at home for enough time to catch a few hours of sleep, to shower and to change their clothes.
Even this was a luxury when you think about the experience of our healthcare workers. Many of whom went into emergency accommodation, away from their families, in order to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Globally, very little was known about COVID-19. And, as such, we had to plan our worst-case scenarios, and make some big decisions, based on what was happening in places such as northern Italy and the initial modelling that we received. I still remember the Friday evening when we were urgently presented with predictions forecasting the potential deaths of 500 Islanders from Covid-19, and of our healthcare services being overwhelmed if we did nothing. That is why we took the actions necessary at that point, because in Jersey, we do not take undue risks with the health of our Islanders. This is why we were extremely focussed on our actions, rather than just our words.
That is why the Government built the Nightingale Ward, integrated the healthcare system with GPs, established an ethical care framework, set up the PPE hub and ran the largest public health awareness campaign ever seen in the Island. But this is also why, in the future, we need to strengthen our community health services and build a new hospital that will be more hi-tech, deliver more care on-Island, and have more robust infection prevention and control.
I care deeply about this Island and am proud of our collective response to the pandemic. This is the Jersey that looked out for one another, that volunteered with the Parishes to support those at high-risk, and that behaved so diligently that we quickly flatlined our curve.
We are now nearing the end of a summer that saw our testing system ranked the best in Europe. This allowed our shops, restaurants, and hotels to reopen. It allowed Jersey people to return home to the Island and some the chance to get away to visit friends, and family, whilst returning safely to enjoy everything our Island has to offer.
I am delighted that all children are going back to school next week. We based the re-opening of Jersey’s schools on our expert medical advice, and planned it with the support of teachers, support staff, unions and nurseries. Our young people rose to the challenges of lockdown, and it was a particularly challenging experience for those who received exam results this year. It is so important that our children and young people now get the chance to return to the classroom and I wish them well for the upcoming school year.
Coronavirus has presented the most significant challenge to our Island for a generation. Over the last six months, the pandemic has brought much pain, disruption, and anxiety to our homes and workplaces. People have struggled to get their businesses open again, and some people have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Looking forward, there are still two distinct emergencies we face; the risk of a winter healthcare crisis, and the wider global economic downtown.
We also face a further challenge, with the growing evidence that another emergency is forming – that of the delayed, yet incredibly harmful social, mental, and societal consequences of lockdown.
But we are ready for a Covid winter. The Government has been monitoring very closely what’s happening in the southern hemisphere during their winter and we are adapting our services accordingly.
We are looking at how we can protect the freedoms we have regained since April through our safe exit framework and working out how we will be able to avoid a second lockdown and the damage that would do to the health of Islanders and the health of our economy.
Like other places, such as New Zealand, we are likely to see increasing Covid numbers as we go into the winter months. COVID will be present alongside the usual seasonal flu period. So, we will need to respond quickly to these incidents and Islanders will have to adapt at pace to any new advice or restrictions. This will look different to what we did in the spring, because we have more intelligence on the behaviour of the virus and will be supporting Islanders and businesses to adhere even more strictly to Government guidance.
As we move into the autumn and winter, we will be watching carefully for the first signs that Covid is spreading. Our strategy is to stop these cases becoming clusters, and to stop those clusters becoming outbreaks. The time available to do this will be short, so we are already considering early preventative measures that we might take to keep cases low and to avoid clusters forming in the first place.
In the coming weeks, we will be launching another awareness campaign to support Islanders on how to work, socialise and spend time outside their homes in the safest manner possible throughout the autumn and winter. The recent increase in inspection and enforcement will continue to ensure businesses and individuals robustly follow Government guidelines. If people do not follow the rules, we will take strict enforcement activities including, where appropriate and, if necessary, prosecutions.
We will be providing extended guidance to commercial, public, and domestic properties on optimising indoor environments in a way that minimises virus transmission. However, to be blunt, if people do not follow the guidance, and congregate too closely together, for too long, indoors, with no controls in place, they are putting themselves, their families and others at risk.
We will act immediately on evidence of any cluster, closing and ensuring the deep cleaning of any associated premises, and making changes to our public health guidance based on what we continue to learn. This is likely to include further targeted restrictions to stop the same type of cluster happening again where necessary.
As an Island, we have invested a lot in tracking and tracing as one of our main defences. Therefore, even now, it is more important than ever, that if you enter a restaurant or a pub, and you have not been asked for your name and contact details, you should ask them why. This is to protect you, your family, and other Islanders.
In order to facilitate the mass testing of anyone identified in a cluster, and to shorten the turnaround time in giving clarity to people who have been traced, we have further enhanced our testing regime and are getting ready to open our new on-Island testing facility at the Aero Club, which I visited last week. Once this goes live, it will dramatically reduce the times for testing and will be an important tool for us to quickly identify any clusters, if they arise.
Should small clusters lead to a wider outbreak, we will act further. Steps may include changes to travel and working practices, tightening the regional classifications and potentially targeted and local lockdowns. We desperately want to avoid this situation, but it will be better to act firmly and decisively in order to keep people safe and keep children in school and people in work in the weeks and months that follow.
So, in the coming weeks we will be publishing an updated COVID-19 Strategy that sets out these approaches in finer detail.
In the meantime, we are enhancing our winter flu preparations, including how to deploy the flu vaccine, in a safe and as physically distanced approach as possible, to a wider percentage of Islanders than ever before. In line with guidance from Public Health England, we have increased the cohort of people to include all those over 50 as well as children.
For Covid, there is the promise of a vaccine coming out of the study and work at Oxford University.
We will of course be ready to receive and deploy a vaccine as soon as it is ready, and today, I can announce that we will be providing the first vaccine for free to all Islanders. This will be based on a structured, phased pandemic programme that will prioritise hi-risk groups getting the vaccine first.
We have also updated the Activity Risk Guide to help high-risk Islanders to make decisions about how they spend their time outside of the home. These high-risk Islanders will also soon receive a letter from their GP, with an update on how they can return to a level of normality. More details are available on the Government website and, from next week, this information will also be circulated via Parish magazines, through the media, and across Government social media channels.
For those of you travelling and for visitors arriving in Jersey, we will continue to expand our regional risk assessments. Today we have broken down France, the Republic of Ireland, and the UK into smaller regions, much in the same way as we did with listing Madeira separately from mainland Portugal and the Spanish islands separate from their mainland and from one another. This will be effective from Wednesday. Where we have reliable and verified data from a jurisdiction that allows us to geographically refine our assessment, we will do so.
All the regions, and their updated classification will be available on the Government website and we are working with the media, tour operators, and travel partners to make this available to people outside of Jersey.
Longer term, I do not doubt that we will feel the impacts of the pandemic for many years, and maybe even decades to come and we will need to respond to them together. But I also want to be clear with all Islanders; the necessary focus on the emergency response did not mean that we abandoned the core work of Government and our wider obligations over the last few months.
Today, we have published our first ever six-month progress review to the Government Plan. Obviously, some initiatives have been delayed due to resources being diverted to counter the pandemic. But many of the actions undertaken by the Government during the emergency response have resulted in accelerated changes and positive outcomes for Islanders. Decisions were made early to redeploy resources, establish new teams overnight, and devise new ways of working. The pandemic required the Government to think and act differently and we will keep doing so.
This has further accelerated the embedding of the One Government changes, which have been critical in our response to Covid by improving our cooperative working. We will continue to build on these successes to make sure the organisational, digital, and modernisation changes we are introducing continue to make a real difference to how Government works for Islanders.
Ministers and officers have already begun working on next year’s Government Plan, and this will be lodged in a few weeks’ time. Nevertheless, 2021 and beyond will require us to face the fact that the pandemic has seriously impacted the Island’s finances and, in order to address this, we will have to rebalance our current spending priorities by 2024 to keep our economy in the best shape possible.
Let’s be clear, we will need to borrow whilst we stabilise our position from this unprecedented impact. But, in my view, we must ensure we borrow responsibly. We should not be borrowing to fund normal, recurring revenue expenditure (i.e. to fund business as usual activities) – that would not be prudent. Any debt must be repayable within a reasonable time period.
The expert advice is also to maintain our reserves, such as the Rainy-Day Fund, rather than tap into them now. This is in order to protect ourselves for whatever the future holds.
To further help the Island’s economy, we will soon be launching an economic stimulus package which will include a number of short-term measures, such as the £100 voucher scheme. This will be launched in the next two weeks. Islanders will receive a debit-style card which will be able to be spent on-Island in shops, hotels, restaurants and at other attractions.
Longer-term measures have been devised and include recommendations from the Economic Council. Their report will soon be ready for consideration by Ministers and States Assembly Members.
Whilst the pandemic will affect everything we do in the coming months, it will not define us. We need to carry on with daily life, we need to invest in our children’s education and in our wellbeing, we need to support the economy whilst tackling the inequalities that exist from gaps in household income.
Over the next few months, we will bring forward specific actions to enable us to come through the next phase of the pandemic. Further press conferences will be held with Ministers from across the Council, where specific updates can be given.
We are starting to get recognition internationally for the balance we have struck and how safely we have managed our summer season. It's great to see the UK newspaper articles and television stories on what we are doing, and I am extremely proud of the position we are in at this stage.
As we begin our preparations for the autumn and winter, we must constantly remember that whilst we are in a great position and have weathered the virus so far, this is down to the careful measures and practices we took in the spring and early summer.
However, we must not be complacent.
We must remember to follow the advice not just for our own safety but also the safety of our family and for those at high-risk across the Island. Let us maintain our community spirit and community conscience that is a mark of Jersey and that has served us so well so far. If we respect each other and follow the latest guidance we will ensure that next spring, we are still in a good position in which to move Jersey forward, and I am confident that together, we can face the winter months with determination, strength, and compassion.