Borders

HQ outlined the basics of the proposed changes and explained the rationale for them. The Chief also confirmed that the gov plans to come back to the July sitting of Tynwald, which will be the final sitting of this administration, to unveil a new system which he hopes will be a step closer to the full opening of the borders.

Debate

Speaker Juan Watterson said he was more than happy to support the motion to extend regulations until October but had concerns as to how prepared the Manx public were to move to these changes. This includes the over 2,000 people in the most high risk categories who ‘either can’t or won’t’ have a vaccine. 

He said: ‘I am really worried this is not a journey the Manx public have been on. They have not been involved in these decisions.’ 

Mr Watterson said that while the UK is used to mask wearing and social distancing, Manx people are not and may see any moves to this as a ‘retrograde step’. And he asked whether this was the time to move as opposed to waiting until more people have had both vaccinations.

The Speaker said he hadn’t yet seen the full details of the economic benefit that could come from opening up the borders and wanted further details about the island’s capability to cope with an influx of hospitalisations should the Delta variant take hold on the island.

He added that far from wanting to see the borders closed forever, Mr Watterson wanted to see them open, but was unsure that now is the correct time and said ‘the groundwork has not been laid’ and recommended a two week delay to the June 28 date. 

Onchan MHK Rob Callister said it was ‘good that the Isle of Man is taking small steps towards opening our borders again’. But he too recognised the concerns of those who are unsure about whether it is the right time. However Mr Callister said he needed answers to questions about how the vaccination status of people would be validated and said many residents have concerns about the gov telling residents to use the English NHS app and the security of their records. He also called on the gov to ditch the £30 charge for testing and said that tests should be done at Ronaldsway or the Sea Terminal and outline the testing capacity for each day. 

Mr Callister asked the Chief Minister to confirm what will happen to families who visit the island when both parents have been vaccinated but their children will need testing and what would happen when people have either only had one vaccination or are medically unable to be vaccinated. 

Douglas North MHK Ralph Peake said he would be bringing some clarity to the situation and said the island ‘is ready’ for the gov’s proposed new steps to allow residents and non-residents in provided they have had both vaccines. Mr Peake said that the change for him was when the DHSC CEO said that after two vaccines, people didn’t need to be tested on arrival.

Middle MHK Bill Shimmins also spoke to support the motions and said that differentiating between those who have been jabbed and those who haven’t is ‘becoming the normal’ across the world and was a rational move. He said: ‘We now know that two vaccinations do provide a high level of protection and we also know that there is a much reduced impact on those who have been vaccinated and that is the clear game changer.’ Mr Shimmins said the new regulations would help tackle what he called the ‘ongoing harm’ to various aspects of the island’s community ranging from businesses to the impact on residents’ mental health. And he welcomed the addition of the Republic of Ireland to the list of approved countries. However Mr Shimmins added to those voices who wanted to see changes to the regulations for children and advised the gov to follow the Guernsey model which more closely follows their parents’ vaccine status.

Captain Paul Quine said he received ‘polar opposite’ opinions from many of his constituents. He said that some of them had raised concerns over the creation of a two tier system by denying equal travel rights to people who either can’t or have elected not to have a vaccine. The Douglas South MHK said he and many of his constituents wanted to see a fairer system for travelling to be put in place.

Onchan MHK Julie Edge asked the Chief Minister how many people had applied to come to the island and wanted him to circulate the records of how many people have attended both a day one and day six test and if there had been differences in the results in those tests. Ms Edge also wanted to ensure that proper checks were in place to ensure that people claiming that they have had both doses have definitely had them. Ms Edge said the Chief Minister should confirm how many people over the age of 60 will have had two doses and two weeks by June 28 and wanted to see changes made to ensure that young children wouldn’t have to be tested. She also said that the gov had abandoned its data not dates model and said that while she wanted to see the borders open, the gov must protect the island’s residents above all else.

MLC Kate Lord-Brennan asked why the gov wasn’t still planning to test arrivals and said that the gov should continue to seek to suppress the virus until more people have been double jabbed. She asked whether people could be tested either on arrival or before they travel from the UK as many people coming from the adjacent isles would be more used to regular testing anyway. Mrs Lord-Brennan said she had been asked by parents what would happen if a child tested negative and then ended up going into school and later tested positive. She said it was ‘not 100% clear’ that vaccination would sufficiently protect and help to decrease the spread of the virus. 

The MLC also sought more information about what will happen if there is a rise in cases to either trigger closures or more regulations being put in place. She said: ‘I don’t feel like I know what will happen.’ 

Lib Vannin leader questioned the ongoing use of the resident and non-resident status and said he was ‘struggling’ to see the reasoning behind this given the shift in focus to vaccination status. He said while it is unlikely that someone would want to travel to the island in order to isolate themselves in a hotel, if they do then they should be allowed to do so. He said ‘we used to be tested or isolate but now we’re vax or isolate’ and said the gov was introducing an ‘artificial restriction’. Mr Hooper said he wanted further details about the advice of the Emergency Advisory Group and added to the growing calls for testing to be done at the airport and the Sea Terminal. 

The Ramsey MHK also asked the gov whether it would remove the restrictions come August when all adults should have been double jabbed as there would not be Tynwald in place to scrutinise any planned changes by the gov. He said the gov needs to present a clearer idea about what the island would be doing in the next three months and wanted to know what would happen with 12-18 year olds and whether the island would be vaccinating them. Mr Hooper said the gov’s plans had a ‘gap’ when it came to children and that members and the public needed more clarity about schools and testing for children to ‘ensure that necessary regulations are being taken’ and said that the gov needed to fix the issue where children travelling with their parents would be treated differently and required to either test or isolate and said the requirement for children to be tested could put people off coming to the island. 

Mr Hooper completed his rather forensic analysis of the proposed changes, he said there are ‘all in all a sensible step’ but said the gov needed to come back and help resolve some of the issues identified by members of Tynwald.

Health and Social Care Minister David Ashford said that releasing the regs was ‘always going to be difficult’. He said ‘there is no right balance and no right balance’ between those who want the island to open up and those who think it is too early. He said that every time the gov has made changes, he has seen the split of people who think they are doing the right thing and others who have been highly critical of them. However he said that while at times the gov’s regs have been ‘convoluted’, these new measures are ‘simplifying’ the rules. 

Criticising the international media, Mr Ashford said that the reported drop in efficacy of the vaccines for the Delta variant sounds bad, but it only relates to symptomatic cases, not serious illness. Turning to the issue raised by Ms Edge, Mr Ashford said she had raised the exact point he wanted to make that while the UK press reports a 50% increase in hospitalisations, the actual figures are far lower than they were months ago. 

Mr Ashford said that the hospital will see up to 20 admissions as ‘normal’ and that the gov will be able to use other settings such as Newlands if need be. Addressing the testing of children, he reminded members that the outbreak in March had been driven in the island’s schools so the gov would stick by its policy to test children. He added that the proposed changes were an ‘incremental step’ which would create concern and anxiety for some but said that ‘we need to do this to take the island and to open up our beautiful island forward… in the best risk mitigated way that we can’. 

Garff MHK Daphne Caine said the changes to the border policy was ‘welcome’ for the tourist economy but said that it risks creating a system that favours vaccinated tourists over the island’s younger residents who have not been able to get both doses. Mrs Caine said that like so many others, her inbox was full from people on both sides of the argument. She issued a plea to CoMin to think again about the policies for young people and suggested they could receive a test prior to travelling and asked whether the gov could open a public consultation to get a clear idea of the support on island for these measures.

Like other members, Mrs Caine questioned the gov’s policy around schools and questioned why lateral flow tests would now be used when their accuracy has been questioned both on and off island. 

Claire Christian said she was for the borders reopening and congratulated the gov on the vaccine programme but said she feared that the gov would be failing those who have not been vaccinated. She also called on the gov to encourage the normalisation of the wearing of masks. The Douglas South MHK said: ‘These are small measures that would have a huge impact to protect our residents who haven’t been vaccinated.’ She said the island was ‘deluded’ if it didn’t see short term requirements of mitigation such as masks and distancing would be necessary. 

Douglas Central MHK Chris Thomas further raised concerns about the use of an NHS app for proving vaccine status and quoted Prof Peter Edge who had questioned the legality of the requirements for children travelling with their parents if they have been vaccinated. Mr Thomas said that while the economic reasoning behind opening the borders, he noted that it was a wider issue around recruiting teachers and people to work in our health and social care system. Mr Thomas also praised the way the gov has gone about the steps and for reacting to the evidence that is presented to them.

Education Minister Dr Alex Allinson said the gov has tried to involve members in their working and said that opening up the island after telling people to stay indoors and avoid each other was a difficult sell. However he said that as scientific knowledge has grown, the confidence that ‘this is our way out’ is growing. Dr Allinson said his department would be working to make schools as safe as possible and that he hoped that the island would be able to fully open in the summer. He said if we don’t move forward, the island risks becoming stagnant. 

Douglas East MHK Clare Barber praised the addition of Ireland to the approved countries list but said she had issues with the short time Tynwald members had had to review the document and the issues around children. She said that if CoMin had to come back to Tynwald ahead of its next scheduled sitting, then members would have no issues with this if it led to the best outcome for Manx residents. Mrs Barber said that a large portion of the most at risk people have not yet had their second dose and are ‘understandably scared’. Often one of the more liberal members when criticising the gov’s Covid policy, Mrs Barber said that she finds herself in the weird position of the other side of the coin and said she wanted further details on surveillance vaccination and testing for people travelling to the island. This, she said, would not only give a greater context for our island position, but would also help to reassure those who are fearful of the borders opening. 

Turning to the concerns of residents who either medically can’t be vaccinated, Mrs Barber suggested that a system could be brought in to explain this to ensure that those with a medical reason for their lack of jabs didn’t suffer as a result.

Rob Mercer MLC spoke to point out that there is a maximum number of people who could be tested each day, particularly for new arrivals. 

Chris Robertshaw MHK, in what is his penultimate Tynwald sitting, said that there was ‘change in the mood’ of Tynwald compared to when the measures were outlined to members. He said there was a ‘sense of fear’ in the Chamber but said the gov had to ensure the return of the right of freedom of movement. Mr Robertshaw said he was ‘disappointed’ by the idea that people would be discriminated against based on their vaccine status but said that this step is the way forward as there ‘won’t be a big bang’ that would see the island open up.

Jane Poole-Wilson MLC also rose to build on Mr Robertshaw’s comments that while it is a difficult decision to make, the steps were the right one. Addressing concerns about discrimination, Mrs Poole-Wilson said members had to differentiate between a ‘step along the way and an end policy point’. She added: ‘Faced with the alternative, which is to reduce all movement for all, that is not a palatable step.’ The MLC also called on the gov to look at tweaking some of its regs and said she would be happy to return to Tynwald for an extraordinary sitting if any changes were necessary to ensure the right rules were introduced.

Douglas Central MHK Ann Corlett said she believed she may have been in the minority in having concerns about the proposed steps but this was clearly not the case. She said that the exit framework and the vax rollout are ‘now out of sync’, but that this was an inevitability. Mrs Corlett called on the gov to confirm it was doing all it can to ensure the safety of those most at risk and for the island’s schools and said she wanted to see some element of testing retained. Mrs Corlett said that she is ‘not there yet’ in being convinced that now is the right time and said she wanted assurances from the gov before she would vote to support the measures. She also noted that the gov’s mitigation strategy is ‘not being heard’.

Marlene Maska MLC said the debate had shown the difficulty in finding a balance between those who wanted an open border and those who are scared. She said that this is always going to be risk and that the gov has to open up to give residents as much freedom as possible while mitigating the risk for those most at risk. Turning to a common theme in recent weeks, Mrs Maska said that while she would support the regulations, the gov needs to communicate its policies more clearly.

Infrastructure Minister Tim Baker said while members had talked about the risk of acting, people also need to consider the risk of not acting. He said the ‘easy thing would be to not act’ but said that ‘it is right to move forward’. ‘We know where we are, we know where we’ve been and we have to move forward.’

HQ Reponse

Following the lengthy debate, the Chief Minister said he understood members’ concerns and admitted ‘I am concerned about what we’re doing here’ but that the gov had ‘tried to strike the correct balance’. He said that from June 28, the gov has to strike a balance and would be using all necessary mitigations to ensure it was acting in as safe a way as possible.

Mr Quayle confirmed that the gov will have a ‘range of digital and non digital records’ for people to prove their vaccine status and that following a difficulty with NHS England, he now expects that Manx residents will be able to use this service by the time these measures come into place.

He said that children ‘must be tested’ but that the gov would seek to prioritise testing for those travelling as a family. Addressing the £30 charge, Mr Quayle said that only two of the professional services in the UK and Guernsey were cheaper than the island and the gov had sought to balance the cost to the Treasury. He also said that the gov would work to see whether pre-travel testing would be possible for children.

The Chief Minister said the the gov would look at the rules for children but said for the rest of the school term, testing children was working as a ‘defence mechanism’ for the island’s schools. However, reflecting that the final Tynwald sitting is on July 22 ahead of the summer holidays, Mr Quayle said it was possible that changes could be made at that time. 

Mr Quayle also confirmed that once people have completed their required border checks on either their vaccine or covid status, they will be free to remain on the island for as long as they want in the same way that people had been able to before. And that the gov would be tracking the data to ensure that the island’ health and social care systems wouldn’t come under risk.

A common theme for members was the complexity of some of the regulations and Mr Quayle said that the gov would be returning in July Tynwald to address these issues. He said that the gov ‘hasn’t got everything right’ but that it would seek to improve on the regulations as the summer progresses to ensure the best system for the island. 

Addressing Mrs Christian’s concerns about the wearing of masks in public, Mr Quayle said that the gov wouldn’t be supporting this as he doubted people would come to visit the island if they had to wear a mask for two weeks. This led to a rare moment for those listening in as the Chief Minister detailed the Douglas South MHK nodding that people would while Mr Robertshaw sat to her left shaking his head that they wouldn’t. 

Vote

When it came to the final votes, the regulations were passed with a large, though not unanimous, majority. With one MHK voting against the first set of regulations and four against the second. The full details of which can be found here under June 15 Supplementary Order Paper 1. 

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