21st March 2022
This week Gibraltar will mark two years since the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. But even as the Rock gradually returns to normality, the Director of Public Health has a clear message: Don’t throw away your masks just yet.
In the space of two years, Gibraltar has seen its streets come to a standstill as the community locked down and curfews were imposed amid periodic surges in cases and a heart wrenching toll on human life.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proved a steep learning curve for Gibraltar and Public Health professionals, who prior to the pandemic never believed a lockdown would ever be implemented.
Locally measures are constantly under review, and the Director of Public Health, Dr Helen Carter, is expecting 2022 to be a year of fewer restrictions coupled with “ripples and waves” of Covid.
But despite the optimistic outlook on the year ahead, where large public events could return, Gibraltarians should still remain cautious, she said.
Looking east to China, where the pandemic began, major cities like Hong Kong, Shenzen and Shanghai have recently seen a surge and restrictions reimposed, with the concern being this too could happen to Europe.
"I think we're going to have ripples and waves of infection, resulting on peoples change of behaviour,” Dr Carter said.
“We might well see some shifting in terms of our variants."
"The optimist in me would love to say that we won't have any more new variants and that we just learn to ride the wave and learn to all live with Covid."
"Clearly we're all looking at China at the moment and seeing what's happening in Hong Kong, we're trying to understand why and what's happened there."
"This is why the World Health Organization is stressing that it is really important countries do not become complacent, do not stop your surveillance and your ongoing surveillance of cases, we still do need to understand what's happening."
Hence the advice on masks.
The requirement to wear masks has been lifted in most settings other than healthcare and public transport facilities, and at the moment there are no plans to ease those measures further.
The use of masks locally is dependent on case load, whether vaccine immunity wanes or not, and the number of hospitalisations.
"In terms of outside the hospital wards, it all depends on whether we end up with another new variant that emerges somewhere in the world," Dr Carter said.
"One thing we've learnt a lot about is our interventions that work and mask wearing is one of those interventions that we can have in our armory and we can use in the future if we need to."
"As much as we've removed the legal requirement for people not to have to wear masks in supermarkets, if you yourself are vulnerable, I would encourage you to continue with mask wearing."
"It is now down to personal choice rather than legislation."
LATERAL FLOW TESTS
A key aspect of Gibraltar’s Covid-19 response has been its thorough testing, which Dr Carter said could soon move to a self-testing model.
She said Gibraltar will “absolutely” be retaining some PCR testing, but the viability of the Drive Through facility at MidTown coach park is currently under review.
"In terms of the wider population and the need for drive through in future that is all being looked at, and we are going to be moving far more to a Lateral Flow self-testing model, but further announcements will be coming in the next couple of weeks to clarify that arrangement where the public can get their Lateral Flow Test and PCR test if they need to," Dr Carter said.
She added the Government is looking at the possibility of allowing LFTs to be self-administered at home.
Currently LFTs need to be purchased in a pharmacy where a professional will administer the test.
Hindsight is 2020, and Dr Carter said Gibraltar will be analysing its pandemic response to understand the efficacy of restrictions.
Globally, she said, the public health workforce needs to be bolstered.
"Before this pandemic we never thought we could do [a lockdown]," she said.
"I was involved in pandemic flu planning for many years and lockdowns were never really considered in terms of something that would ever be implemented."
"Globally we now know we can, but they are a very, very blunt tool that has its gains but has negative effects on people’s mental wellbeing and the economy, and wider issues on children and their education being disrupted, and remote learning."
"I think it's also looking at the positives, we have learnt we can do it."
"Something like this comes with disruptive innovation, it makes innovation leap forward, it made us think about remote working and how we can do that."
"It made us think about vaccine technology and its relevance and the speed. Pre-pandemic it took a good two years to develop new vaccines, now they are thinking they can do it in 100 days."
Dr Carter said Gibraltar's pandemic plan will likely be drafted this year alongside Civil Contingencies, which would provide a guideline for future pandemics.
A public inquiry into Gibraltar's handling of the pandemic is also set to be held and from this a plan of lessons learnt from Covid-19 would be drafted.
"Although we have coronavirus now, there will be other diseases in the future and how better do we prepare ourselves, all of us, in terms of dealing with that,” she said.
She described how Covid-19 has fundamentally shaped her career.
"People always say you have one pandemic in your career, I've had two," she said.
"The 2009 swine flu pandemic that was very mild compared to this, but I think it gave me the opportunity in the UK of national and political level exposure, that then enabled me to come to Gibraltar and deal with the complexities, challenges and uniqueness here."
"I think if I hadn't had that experience with a pandemic I wouldn't be here in Gibraltar."
For Dr Carter, the biggest challenge throughout the pandemic has been personal resilience and long hours.
"It's been a huge personal journey of growth," she said.