Blog 29 Mar 20The Isle of Man woke up a different place on Monday morning as the Manx Government announced last Sunday that access to the island would be closed to non-residents from 9am on Monday, in order to help contain the spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19).

This was on the back of three new cases of the Coronavirus that were confirmed on Sunday, which brought the total number of cases to five, but that figure would continue to increase throughout the week.

One of those cases was passed from person to person, which raised further questions around social distancing.

In fact, the Chief Minister, Howard Quayle, MHK urged the people of this island to massively change their behaviour this week around social distancing, and to support the Isle of Man’s response to this pandemic, which is rapidly changing by the hour.

On Monday it was also announced that all regional flights would stop, and at a press conference on Wednesday tea time the Chief Minister went even further when he confirmed that the overnight Ben-my-Chree sailing, due in at 6am on Friday morning would be the last one carrying passengers until further notice, but freight will still be coming in.

The island’s pubs, restaurants and cafes have all been closed, in order to help suppress the spread of the virus, along with most schools that closed on Monday evening until further notice.

All five high schools and nine primary schools with special education needs supports will remain open to provide care for vulnerable children and for those parents that are classed as “key workers” critical to the island’s response.

By Friday morning the Isle of Man was now in “self-isolation” and cut off from the rest of the world, which is incredibly hard to imagine in normal times, but we are not in normal times.

Every single announcement made this week was normally followed up by a stream of emails and messages from concerned residents, and closing the island’s border on Friday certainly generated several heartfelt pleas from families that had loved ones still on holiday or stranded across the world because they were unable to get flights back to the UK and then to the Isle of Man in time.

More on Covid-19 shortly…

As I mentioned last week, the DfE and Treasury Ministers, along with their departmental political members were on standby as various civil servants worked tirelessly over the weekend to put together a series of proposals that the Treasury Minister would announce at 10am on Monday morning.

I went into the office at 12.30 on Saturday for the first meeting, which was held in the King Orry room and I then went back into the office on Sunday afternoon for a second meeting at around 15.00, which went through the financial measures being proposed.

Last Saturday morning, which now seems a lifetime ago, I held my Political Surgery at the Onchan Community Hub, but it was very quiet, which didn’t surprise me given the circumstances.

I finished slightly early and took the opportunity to call in and see a couple of businesses in the village before going into the office.

On Sunday Ellen and I took full advantage of the Cycle 360 cafe still being open for business, along with doing some final bits of shopping in B & Q and Currys before the island finally closed down for at least 12 weeks.

I was in the office just after 7.30am on Monday, but my own calendar and schedule continues to be depleted as any non-urgent meetings or briefings are cancelled, and this includes most non-urgent parliamentary business.

At 8.30am the Treasury Minister, Alf Cannan, MHK unveiled an unprecedented £100 million package to protect as many businesses and jobs as possible over the next 12 weeks. A lot of Tynwald Members dialled into that particular briefing, in order to observe the social isolation guidelines.

I then went into Onchan to attend a couple of meetings relating to the Coronavirus and what support the Government will be making available to small businesses.

At 10am I tuned into the Treasury Minister’s address to the people of this island as he outlined a range of measures that were designed to protect struggling businesses and to retain has many workers as possible through a support payment of up to £280 per week for every full time equivalent staff member over the next 12 weeks.

These payments can also be backdated to cover the March payroll.

A new Covid welfare benefit of £200 per week has also been set up for those who suffer job loss or those that are unable to work as a result of Coronavirus, and those payments will be available from 6th April 2020.

Over the last three years I have shared on a number of occasions my own experience of redundancy at the beginning of 2013, which was a very painful time for Ellen and me, especially when it took a number of years to dig ourselves out of the financial hole that was created by the situation, so I genuinely feel for anyone that has lost their job over the last week or so….

There is also a new loan guarantee scheme through local banks in which the Government is underwriting 80% of new lending to viable businesses, in order to help with cashflow.

VAT payments between March and June can also be deferred without any interest being applied, and anyone finding themselves in difficulty in respect of the Tax and NI payments can ask for the situation to be reviewed.

The initial grant scheme announced last week offering £3,000 payments to businesses in certain sectors has been extended to include the self-employed, and those with only one employee in those same sectors, and it has continued to be widened out to other sectors during this week.

A special £5m fund has also been set up to help businesses such as those in the visitor accommodation sector that cannot trade during the current crisis, but will it be enough to save the island’s tourism sector? That will certainly be the question when we reach the recovery stage.

The utility companies have also been asked to play their part, and have therefore committed not to cut anyone off for non-payment of bills over the next three months.

To put all of this into some form of context, the Treasury Minister warned that the domestic economy on the Isle of Man would fall away over the next three months as people spend less, which would have a direct impact on Government’s own income.

This means that the Manx Government will be paying out in the region of £100 million to £140 million in new measures to protect businesses and jobs, but also suffering a potential loss of income totalling around £200 million in the first three months, and possibly up to £600 million in the first six months.

Despite all of that, it still might not be enough to protect every job or every single business on this island.

As for the rest of Monday, other than attending a personal meeting, the day was spent in the office, but I guess after this week most of my time will be spent at home over the next 12 weeks, just like so many other people.

I also received a call from the Chief Minister on Monday asking if I would become a departmental Member in the Department of Home Affairs with Minister Graham Cregeen, MHK and Clare Barber, MHK , which I was more than happy to accept.

I will however continue with my current roles and responsibilities within the DfE, which are focused on tourism and motorsport. Given the current situation around those sectors at the moment, I definitely don’t want to give up those roles.

On Monday evening I spent an hour or so going through the papers relating to the emergency sitting of Tynwald, together with the normal sitting of the House of Keys, along with trying to answer a continuing stream of messages and phone calls.

As for Tuesday, it was very eerie driving in to the office just after 7am, especially when I didn’t pass a single vehicle on the road or see anyone walking to work or taking their dog for a walk.

I guess I am not the only one that feels that we have woken up in a parallel universe this week…

At 10am there was an emergency sitting of Tynwald that had Statements from the Chief Minister, the Education, Sport and Culture Minister and the Environment, Food and Agriculture Minister.

There were also a number of Motions being presented under the Emergency Powers Act.

I should also mention that Tynwald implemented a new seating order that respected the social distancing guidelines, so no two Members were sat next to each other, which meant that some Members were asked to sit in the public gallery and the media areas – very strange times we live in.

After the Tynwald sitting finished at around 11.30am I returned several missed calls, but I also took the opportunity to go into M & S, which was also a very strange experience but I do applaud the stance being taken.

Only one door was open to the public and only a fixed number of people were allowed inside the store at any given time, and this was being repeated down Strand Street.

I left the office just after 13.00, but once home I still needed to respond to a continuing stream of correspondence and messages throughout the afternoon relating to the Treasury Minister’s announcement on Monday morning.

Every single enquiry was slightly different, and unfortunately there was still a lot of confusion and concern around job losses and how certain schemes fitted around someone’s own personal circumstances, especially relating to self-employed workers.

I also had several inquiries from concerned families trying to bring students back to the island, which was proving very difficult after EasyJet and Aer Lingus stopped all scheduled flights this week.

I even got an enquiry to help a local couple stranded in Melbourne, Australia who are desperately trying to get home before the UK locks down for several weeks.

By the end of Wednesday evening a further 10 cases of Coronavirus had been identified, which brings the island’s total to 23, and that figure would stand at 29 by Friday lunchtime with two people being treated at Noble’s Hospital.

My old routine on Wednesdays was to get into the office before 8am and to prepare for the DfE and PAC Committee meetings, but things are changing….

With meetings being canceled and briefings being held online, I took the opportunity to head out for a walk just before 7am on Wednesday, which involved me parking the car in the Sea Terminal and walking up and down the promenade and then around the quay, which only takes an hour.

I was back home just after 8am and most of the day was spent at the kitchen table trying to help so many constituents and businesses, along with going through various DfE papers ahead of a video conference scheduled later on in the day.

At 17.00 DfE held its Department Meeting via Microsoft “My Team”, which is an excellent video conference facility, and there was no drop in the overall performance during the two-hour meeting.

I finally finished for around 20.30.

Thursday was almost identical to Wednesday as I headed out for a walk and then spent the morning taking calls or answering messages, along with drafting a couple of letter templates.

At 14.00 the Select Committee looking into Fireworks had a meeting online, which lasted less than an hour.

I think on average I took around 5 to 10 calls per hour on Wednesday and Thursday, because there is still some confusion around the Government support schemes.

At 20.00 on Thursday the people of Britain and this island came together to take part in the “Clap for our Carers”, to thank all NHS workers who are tirelessly battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

I saw some wonderful videos online as this island showed its support for frontline workers that care for our people, along with keeping us safe as a community.

Ellen and I were both up and about by 5am on Friday, and while Ellen started work in our spare room, I headed onto the promenade just before 6am to witness a wonderful sunrise as I did my usual walk up and down the promenade.

I do wonder when the island will once again look at the rising sun with the knowledge that this pandemic is behind us all, the Manx economy is once again thriving and unemployment under 1% once more – let’s hope that is before the end of 2020.

From there I went into the office for an hour or so, but I was back home before 8.30am.

The morning was taken up with me sending out some letters, along with trying to get through the papers relating to the emergency sitting of Tynwald that would get underway at 14.30.

At 11.30am there was a DfE video conference, which lasted less than an hour before driving into the office. At 14.30 the emergency Tynwald sitting got underway with a statement from the Chief Minister, which was followed by a series of questions by Members.

The sitting then passed several emergency motions before the sitting finished just before 17.00.

The latest Covid-19 figures unfortunately are alarming, with more than 559,000 cases worldwide and with the death total reaching more than 25,000.

In the UK there are around 14,500 Covid-19 cases and the death total is now around 759, with even PM Boris Johnson and his Health Secretary Matt Hancock succumbing to the virus, but those figures continue to increase daily.

Let’s hope the world can get a grip of this pandemic as quickly as possible.

As for the weekend, I am hoping to get into the garden for a few hours.