Elimination or containment?

TODAY I have a huge question to pose. Is it better to eliminate the coronavirus in Guernsey at the price of long-term restrictions on external travel links, or would it be better to try to contain it while re-establishing links with the outside world?

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In the past some people have suggested a ‘Channel Islands Federation’ or even joining the two bailiwicks via an under-sea tunnel. Leaving aside any practical or cost difficulties, one of the biggest problems with working as a single territory is the very different approach Jersey and Guernsey tend to adopt on many major issues. We took different sides during the English Civil War and have been going our own ways ever since.

What has any of this got to do with the question I’ve posed? Well, it may not be immediately apparent, but I think the two bailiwicks have very different philosophical approaches to their coronavirus responses too. This will become more and more apparent as we move through our respective plans for exiting lockdown.

In Guernsey the latest mantra is that there is a real prospect of eliminating Covid-19 in the bailiwick. Hurrah! I am not being sarcastic here, that is indeed amazingly good news. Congratulations to all concerned, primarily the population of the island.

What this should mean is an ability to return to almost normal life within a bailiwick-wide bubble, which seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. The downside is that to maintain that happy state of affairs will require strict controls on external travel for a long time to come. Clearly both Aurigny and Condor are working on the assumption that such restrictions will last at least until the end of the summer. And after that?

The approach in Jersey is very different. There, political leaders have poured cold water on the idea of eliminating the virus locally. Instead they are opening up their economy slightly faster than Guernsey, putting in place expensive extra hospital capacity and warning of an inevitable uptick in positive cases as the lockdown unwinds. Although they haven’t said so explicitly yet, I presume that an aspect of that very different path will also include an earlier relaxation on external travel too. That will throw a very sharp spotlight on the different approaches of the two islands.

Of course there is no right or wrong here and both approaches will have their supporters and detractors in both islands.

Imagine this scene come August.

In Guernsey there hasn’t been a case of Covid-19 for months. No positive cases, no active cases, no deaths. We’re all free to live our lives pretty much as normal. We can work, schools are expected to operate as normal after the holidays, we can eat out in restaurants and drink in pubs, have our hair cut and even travel freely – within the bailiwick.

What we can’t do is travel externally, for three reasons. Firstly, there are hardly any operational air or sea links. Secondly, we are still being advised against all but essential travel. Thirdly, anybody arriving in Guernsey from outside the bailiwick is obliged to self-isolate for 14 days.

Now let our imagination wander slightly south to Jersey. Our Caesarean cousins have been slightly less successful in eliminating the virus. In fact they haven’t even tried to do this, relying instead on a policy of containment. Every week they get some positive test results and each time they do they require the person involved to isolate and then trace and test their contacts. Sadly deaths from Covid-19 also continue, albeit at a low level. Jersey’s health service can cope – it is within capacity.

Unlike Guernsey, our sister isle decided to open up external travel in June. They have a joint travel bubble with the UK. People can go on holiday to those countries which are open for tourism but have to pay to be tested on their return. They allow tourists into Jersey on the same basis. Perhaps more importantly, business travel becomes possible again.

Of course Jersey is paying a public health cost for this opening up of their external links. People continue to sicken and a few to die. But they can cope and they think it is a price worth paying while warning throughout that if the virus starts to spike again then they will have to return to lockdown.

As I say, I think the two very different approaches will have their advocates and their critics. Which is best – elimination or containment? I suspect the balance of views between the two will change over time.

Early doors, Guernsey’s approach will look far superior. No more virus, no more deaths, and the restrictions on external travel will feel very light to a community who until recently had to stay at home for 22 hours a day, only going out for essential supplies or exercise.

Will it still feel that way as the weeks and months roll by? No face-to-face contact with friends and relatives in the UK. We can’t visit them and they can’t visit us. All existing holiday plans cancelled with fresh ones having to be made for vacations in Alderney or Sark. They are both beautiful places for a break, but still.

No ability for local businesses to network directly with key people outside of Guernsey other than via remote conferencing. It’s useful but it has its limits. Guernsey students wondering whether to return to – or take up new places – at UK universities.

It is an interesting dilemma and what seems like a better approach in Guernsey right now might just seem slightly more tarnished and open to criticism as time goes on.

Scenario B is where Jersey’s more relaxed approach, instead of containing the virus, leads to a second spike and a fresh lockdown. Suddenly the more cautious Guernsey policy will look far superior.

Of course the ideal would be Scenario C, where there is a very big reduction in Covid-19 cases in the UK and elsewhere, allowing Guernsey to open up too while still keeping the risk of reintroduction to a minimum.

Sadly we certainly can’t count on that and if it doesn’t happen there will be some big philosophical questions to answer – and I am still not clear who will be addressing them on Guernsey’s behalf. They need answering soon, not in three months’ time. So will it be the Civil Contingencies Authority? Or Health & Social Care? Or Policy & Resources? Or a new advisory committee? Or the States of Guernsey themselves?

It is such a huge issue that in principle I really feel it should be the latter, although I admit I dread the fractious three-day debate and the dozen nuanced amendments from deputies who are sure they have the insight to provide the perfect balance between public health, economic recovery and the rights of citizens to live their lives as they see fit.

Despite this prospect, the potential impact on Guernsey for a long time to come is so big that the only bodies who can really decide these things are the States themselves or an executive body they elect to oversee recovery from the pandemic.

The prospect of such an ad hoc States committee now seems to be fading for some reason. Personally I regret that, as I thought it would be a pragmatic and efficient response to a unique emergency, but so be it. Instead cue the seminal Covid-19 debate on the floor of the Assembly because certainly no other States committee has the mandate to make these decisions on Guernsey’s behalf.

We shall see. There are many twists and turns to come and, to be fair, our top politician has so far handled himself very well in response to the crisis, so good luck to him going forward – he certainly won’t be able to please everyone in this coming phase, but that is politics.

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