EXTENSION OF LOCKDOWN MEASURES
Good evening Turks and Caicos. It’s the Governor. I’m following on from the Premier’s 6 o’clock address. Myself and the Premier are doing what we are asking you to do - social distancing – so we are recording this from different locations and indeed we were in different locations today for Cabinet.
We thought it important though, that you hear the same message from both of us, said in our different ways, and this decision is important enough that it anyway bears repetition.
I’d start by saying that while in one sense, this was a significant decision to make in Cabinet, in another it was very straight forward because the facts, presented by the Minster of Health and his officials, took us to the conclusion we are both presenting this evening.
WHATS THE PRESENT POSITION:
On 23rd March TCI announced its first case of COVID-19. That date – 23rd March is important because, if you like, it acts for us as ‘day zero’ allowing us to model ourselves against others who have already been through this.
You will recall we moved quickly and by the 26th March we had imposed a curfew and a further 24 hours later we were in lockdown. Schools had already closed and flights were suspended.
TCI now has a total of 9 confirmed cases with 13 tests outstanding. We expect those tests to return to us imminently so these numbers could change, overnight, and if the modelling we were presented with today is accurate, they well might.
Within this positive group of 9 we can so far identify particular clusters of cases and a small number of lone cases, although that may change. Generally speaking these are not 9 random people but the infection is presently, more often than not, found in groups.
One confirmed case has very regrettably passed away – he had underlying causes – and another has left the country. Of the remaining seven confirmed cases, one is hospitalized and six have mild symptoms and are not presently placing a significant strain on our Hospital. We wish them all well. We want them all to come through this, with us, knowing each and every one of them has TCI’s full support.
With this as background the order of business, today, was to determine whether we should relax the emergency regulations Cabinet put in place, that expire as Tuesday turns to Wednesday this week. In doing that, and understanding the impact this has on the lives and livelihood of so many on the Islands, we focused on public health, and it was health that led the debate.
Let me first therefore, in my own words, try and tell you what I heard in Cabinet and which I believe guided our decisions today.
The key fact is that TCI is still finding new cases and our health professionals have also identified ‘local transmission’. We are not catching this from those who have been abroad or who are foreigners, we are catching this now from each other, even if we’ve stayed in the Islands. We also have had no positive case yet, that shows a person in TCI is clear from infection. All this suggests there is a reservoir of the active virus on TCI.
That means there are people – maybe you – maybe your neighbor – maybe me - could be infected, without them knowing it, and are spreading the virus in the community. Lifting the restrictions now, in these circumstances, would undo all that’s so far has been achieved. So bottom line up front – we are going to extend.
SO WHAT’S BEEN ACHIEVED SO FAR?
What I’ve so far said sounds bleak so, as balance, I want to tell you what the medical professionals believe you have achieved, so far, so you know your sacrifice even to date was worth it.
What the models are telling us is that, in the worst case, if we had done nothing back on the 23rd March, and had the virus gripped us like it’s gripped others, we could in the future be facing over 760 severe cases, over 320 critical cases requiring intensive care, and a staggering 236 deaths.
But because of what you did, so long as we continue to do what we have been doing, that is not going to happen. We are being told, by international experts that because TCI went hard and went early we are not going to face the national trauma that others are now facing. We have also bought ourselves time to build further medical capacity – something the Minister of Health is firmly fixed on.
Medical professionals know social distancing has an impact starting around day 10. It then takes a further 10 days to have a significant impact. That’s true even with populations that have been less disciplined than we have been. Our compliance rate is very high which increases our odds of a good outcome considerably.
This means that in a couple of more days we will already have had a significant impact on the spread. We are, if you will, starting to get properly on top of the problem even if we haven’t yet finished it off or indeed reached the moment when most countries find they are most vulnerable. At the moment we are winning.
At this point, because which week you are on in terms of the progress of this pandemic is important, it’s worth saying again that our first confirmed case was on Monday 23rd so this Monday we will be entering the start of so called “week four”. IT may be of course the virus was on the Island some time well before this but you have to start with a fact and not an assumption.
In large populations it seems it takes eight weeks before the spread starts to fall. But in smaller populations, with aggressive social distancing, the belief is that with these sorts of measures – rigorously imposed – the spread might start to fall in around week’s five to six.
But the key point, the inflection point – the moment when we might reasonably expect a significant increase in cases - comes around this time - week four to five.
Therefore if TCI follows the normal trends the next two weeks are when we are particularly vulnerable. Science suggests, as far as science presently can, that we are starting to approach the point when we should expect more cases – perhaps far more cases - to test positive than we have been used to.
We say that now so you are prepared, you don’t lose faith in what we are all doing (it would be far worse if we were not) and also you don’t let your guard down. We may have flattened the curve, but there is still a curve and we are still climbing it.
The good news is that I’m being told by experts that the number of positive cases at this point are relatively small and also – compared to many – well controlled – and the actions we have all been taking have helped turn around a situation from one that could have entirely overwhelmed us, into something our health professionals now have a fighting chance of tackling – not through cure but through care. But the Minister of Health is best placed to talk to this given his leadership of it.
WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO:
The first is we are not going to panic or knee-jerk. There are three things that allow us to stay steady. The first is you. The overwhelming majority of you have been magnificent. We are the envy of many – including my own home country the UK – in how much we’ve come together and embraced this. There are very few in the region, either, that can match our solidarity on this not because it’s been forced but because it’s been embraced. My personal thanks to every political leader, religious leader, community and secular leader and role models of all different types, in all your different forms and across many different age ranges - who have stood up and lent your moral support to this national effort.
Second, we continue to be in front of the problem. We are going to maintain that. Where you see other countries in the region bringing in over the top draconian measures, or using over-the-top rhetoric, it’s because they initially went late and soft. We don’t need to copy them. We absolutely don’t want this to feel like punishment, it needs your active buy in and support.
Third, what we have, that others don’t in the region, and few do globally, is a well regulated system of seeking exemption. That has dramatically reduced the numbers able to move and when they are moving limiting it to particular times. My thanks again to the amazing response we had from those essential services who worked so positively with us to keep the numbers they needed to the lowest possible number. Only 5% or so of the population has an exemption and as I say, that isn’t a free pass but very tightly controlled.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN IN TERMS OF WHAT WE ARE GOING TO DO?
The result of all of that is that we will be continuing with all the regulations we have had in place, to date, until 6am on 4th May. Schools will also stay closed at least until then. In other words we will continue, steadily, as we are.
With one exception, those of you running essential services with agreed exemptions, and the vast majority of you who have now developed a new pattern of life – curfew at night – lockdown during the day – will see very little change. Again the vast majority of you had got this but for the avoidance of doubt we have now made it law that there can only be one adult per family at the supermarket; if you have to be accompanied because of a care issue please write in for an exemption.
The one significant change we are making, and for the same reason we gave over the Easter period, will be that we will be closing supermarkets and other businesses, not utterly vital to the islands life support, on a Wednesday and a Sunday. That will give respite, and the ability to regroup, to our front line, 24/7, law enforcement officers. We do that because they need to hold the lockdown and curfew and also we do not want them exhausted, and the criminals well rested, when we lift in May.
Daily physical exercise remains as it was save that we’ve made it explicit that water sports, including kite boarding and paddle boarding are not permitted. I should say those really committed to these sports locally have been very responsible in this regard, we just wanted to make it clear to the tiny minority who were not.
Looking outside our borders will absolutely keep our borders shut to inward passenger travel until at least 4th May. Those wishing to leave the Islands still may, and we will - over the next week - be setting up a system whereby if you do wish to leave, you can register so demand can be gauged which should generate affordable flights.
Our Cruise Port will be shut to cruise liners until June 30th (although in some ways this is covered because the US ban stretches far further forward than this).
Our medical professionals have also briefed us that inter-island travel brings, with it, the risk of introducing the virus to all of the islands, some of whom have elderly populations and where medical care is less sophisticated than Provo or Grand Turk. So inter-island travel now is restricted only to the most essential travel. You will in short need an exemption.
We will continue to keep these dates and restrictions under review, but as we announce these today our strong hope – that with far more data to hand and better capability in play we can start to take off these restrictions in early May, while still keeping in place protections for the most vulnerable. When we do, we will remove the restrictions in a phased way – much as they were initially implemented – so there isn’t a violent shift from one set of protocols to another.
Forgive my length of explanation. But I believe you deserve it; we are all asking a great deal of each other so we all need access to the same advice, understand why we are doing what we are doing, but also – crucially – understand that what we’ve all done, so far, has been beyond worth it.
The last two and a half weeks have saved us from the very worst ravages that this epidemic could have brought. We may not have reached the highest number of infectious cases yet – but we should be getting close. And we’ve bought ourselves some time to not only dramatically reduce the numbers that might have overwhelmed our hospitals but also some time for those hospitals to increase their capacity to manage a problem that has probably not yet reached its peak.
You couldn’t have done more TCI – now it’s a case of us all holding our nerve and holding the line we’ve all drawn in the sand. Science tells us cases will increase before they fall away. But we’ve got it and we are much stronger today than we were three weeks ago, and that’s the position the Premier, myself, the Cabinet and the country intends to hold.
Good night TCI.