In an exclusive interview with Reach Alcance, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo discussed the reasons for the success of Gibraltar’s COVID19 response to date, the global recession and how this will affect the average Gibraltarian, how the pandemic has demonstrated the strong relationship between Gibraltar and Spain, and the vision to build a prosperous, post-Brexit future for Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar.
Gibraltar’s COVID19 Response: “My fundamental obligation is to protect the integrity and security if the lives of the people who make up this community. Everything else is secondary.”
“When I was informed of the global situation… it was one of those moments when you feel your emotions in the pit of your stomach”, the Chief Minister said, reflecting on the start of the pandemic. “The thought of those numbers of deaths in that short period of time in Gibraltar is something which will never leave me.”
To date, Gibraltar has maintained low levels of active cases of COVID19 within the community, and zero deaths.
Gibraltar is now on its 9th consecutive day with no active cases.
“We’ve had 176 people get COVID19 and none of them have had any serious consequences from it, and none of them have lost their lives.” The Chief Minister explained, “this is key for us; to keep on top of clusters as they emerge, to keep the numbers down so that there’s less of a chance for somebody in the vulnerable category falling ill.”
This includes Gibraltarians and cross-frontier workers, and World Health Organization officials have congratulated Gibraltar for its so-far successful management of the virus, stating that “a great deal can be learnt from Gibraltar’s approach to the pandemic.”
So, what is it that has set Gibraltar apart from other European countries, where the negative effects of the virus appear, in some cases, to have been devastating?
Fabian Picardo explained that this was down to confining the over 70’s before the general lockdown came into effect:
“We’re the only nation in Europe, that I have seen, who took a step to confine over 70’s before we took a step to confine the general population – I think that that was key in controlling the spread of the virus.”
“They were kept away from the danger that the virus represents and therefore their lives were saved – it’s that simple.”
The Chief Minister admitted that the decision to confine this segment of the population, which saw the Gibraltarian over 70s confined to their homes between March and late April, was not an easy one to make.
“These are the people who built the community that we enjoy today, and to tell them that they could not go outside to enjoy the Gibraltar which they have built; that they could not see their loved ones and families; children and grandchildren – that was a very difficult decision.”
“I built a broad base coalition with the opposition and other groups, and the important thing therefore was to take that step early.”
“Ideologically, I am a civil libertarian. I am here to fight for the people’s civil liberties and for their right to move freely around Gibraltar… and there I was, finding myself as the Chief Minister in post the day that those regulations to confine people had to be signed.”
Fabian Picardo Does Not Believe the WHO’s Advice Has Been Contradictory
A major topic of debate since the beginning of the pandemic has been as to whether the World Health Organization’s advice has been contradictory and confusing.
When asking the Chief Minister whether he thought this to be the case, his answer was, simply put, “no”.
“I think it is unfair to say that the WHO, or any government, including the Government of Gibraltar, had changed position simply because it had changed its mind during the start of the pandemic to date … I think it was the natural evolution of our understanding of the virus.”
Fabian Picardo went on to explain that this is the first time in history in which scientific medical advancements and the spread of information happens instantaneously, and therefore positions change as medical understanding evolves:
“I think this is probably the only time that we have seen a virus develop in a) the scientific age and the understanding that we have and b) the social media age. So, where something might have developed over weeks, and you might have had comments developing over months, you now have scientific medical advances being made in days, which is then reported within minutes.”
“So you might in very good faith take a position, because Harvard, Yale and the University of California take a position, and 30 days later Oxford, Cambridge and the Imperial College may have observed something different and you take that position because that then seems to be based on a broader study.”
The Recession: Chief Minister says recession in Gibraltar will be “least acute” compared with the rest of the world
A recession is defined by two consecutive quarters of negative growth.
On the 16th of June, the Chief Minister said that Gibraltar will be facing a recession. Reach Alcance asked what this recession will mean for the average Gibraltarian’s way of life.
“I think that the important thing is always to be prudent in the approach one takes to household spending, but to understand that Gibraltar’s prosperity is unlikely to be affected in the medium to long term.”
“What we’re going to do is extend the sort of measures that we introduced during the period of the pandemic beyond this quarter and we will be making announcements on what it is that we’re going to do: support the catering industry, the tourist industry, the retail industry all the industries that have been exposed greatly to the effects of the pandemic, meaning that there aren’t going to be any tourists on our streets for the next 12 months probably.”
“This is likely to be a short term bump in the road, which the whole world is going to go through, and I think Gibraltar will be the place that it is least acute and therefore you can continue to have the confidence that big investments that you might make in your life, like the purchase of a home, should not be in any way be affected by the moment through the whole world is going to transition.”
Job Protection for all Workers in Gibraltar
“The government is going to do everything possible to ensure that the average Gibraltarian is not affected. The numbers of people employed in Gibraltar are now at 30,000 – so if there are going to be job losses, I make no apology for wanting to ensure that we protect jobs in the economy in a way that some people might think is drastic”, the Chief Minister told Reach.
“In the same was as we did during the pandemic where we ensured that all those who were in jobs in Gibraltar that were not going to be able to operate because the Government had closed them down, would have the payment of the minimum wage without deduction of PAYE or social insurance paid to them, wherever they were resident.”
“That meant that anybody coming to Gibraltar to work every morning, cross-frontier workers, as much as any Gibraltarian employees, had their salaries paid.”
“And we paid an average of 70% of the amount that we invested in that to cross-frontier workers.”
COVID19 Demonstrates Strong Relationship Between Gibraltar & Spain
“I think we have actually in this period demonstrated how strong our institutional relationships are becoming and how unbreakable our personal human relationships are.”
The Chief Minister stated that he is “very confident” that the COVID19 pandemic has served to demonstrate the that the relationship between Gibraltar and Spain “is a strong one”, noting that tough restrictions on the frontier were not imposed by either side.
“Where in other times the COVID19 period could have been used as an excuse to implement tougher restrictions at the frontier, we’ve seen almost no restrictions at the frontier.”
“We’ve seen how Gibraltar has been ready to pay the minimum wage not just to our own people but also to our cross-frontier workers. We’ve demonstrated our solidarity to the people of Spain in terms of losses of life that there have been there and with the economic support that we have put out there…
“Therefore, I think we have actually in this period demonstrated how strong our institutional relationships are becoming and how unbreakable our personal human relationships are.”
Picardo Calls for Improvement of Economic and Personal Cross-Frontier Relationship Between Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar in Lead-Up to Brexit
“I think that the pandemic has demonstrated that Brexit is really an economic issue to resolve at a political level. We have now faced together a physical existential issue like COVID, which has made Brexit almost pale in significance. But… Brexit it back, and its back with a ticking clock towards the end of the year.”
“We’ve spent 30 odd years with an open frontier, working with our backs to each other, despite successive governments of Gibraltar wanting to work with the economies of the Campo de Gibraltar.”
“If all we did before the end of the year was to start working together to promote Gibraltar, The Campo de Gibraltar, the Bay of Gibraltar, the industrial facilities here, the services available here, and join up all the economic attributes that we have here, we would multiply our output by such a measure that the recession would disappear by the end of the next year.”
“I am hopeful that that will happen, well, I’m not naïve, but I have spent 8 and a half years working to make that happen, and I’m not going to stop now.”
Making the voices of Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar heard beyond Spain
The Chief Minister said that the close relationships with La Línea and its mayor, the Mancomunidad de Municipios, the Junta of Andalucía and other Spanish ministries will “help us to ensure that the arguments that Gibraltar and the people of the Campo de Gibraltar are making are heard beyond the immediate area of our geography, and in the European capitals where these arguments have to be heard and understood, if we’re going to make progress.”