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COMMENT: States' Gatland explanation poses more questions than it answers

COMMENT: States' Gatland explanation poses more questions than it answers

Monday 05 April 2021

COMMENT: States' Gatland explanation poses more questions than it answers


It would be a sporting success and likely provide an economic boost if the British & Irish Lions were to set up camp here this summer. However, there are difficult questions that need to be answered about the “special permission" allowing a rugby coach to visit Guernsey when islanders have been bound by severe travel restrictions for over a year...

"Saturday’s announcement that Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland had spent two days in the island was, on the face of it, massive, jaw-dropping news.

Opportunities such as the one presented by hosting the Lions ahead of a high-profile, globally-renowned summer series against rugby’s world champions are rare - an unexpected product of Covid-19 circumstances.

For the Channel Islands, the national story broken by the Telegraph last week did a good job of thrusting our covid-free position into the spotlight. 

However, mainstream news has a short memory. Even if Guernsey were to host the Lions for a few days in June, it's not like we would be hosting a match. The world will, in all likelihood, forget about Guernsey's place in this story just as quickly as it digested the news in the first place. 

People in Guernsey, however, will not forget what they have been through in the last 12 months. Islanders have lived for over a year with punitive, 14-day travel restrictions, with emergency legislation drawn up to punish people breaking those restrictions. 

For around 10 weeks this year, ‘non-essential’ travel was completely banned - an 'essential' move that has never been seen before in peacetime.

Because of these restrictions, islanders have missed unmissable and unrepeatable family experiences and life events, all in the name of public safety and the oft-repeated mantra ‘Guernsey Together’.

And on two occasions, each lasting months, people in Guernsey have been hit with “sharp, hard” lockdowns, punishable by the full force of the law.

Guernsey’s response to the pandemic, especially in the second wave, has been unnuanced. It has been about hard lines defining what can and cannot be done. See, as an example, legislation that made mask-wearing mandatory indoors, when masks were not even advised by Public Health during 2020’s first wave. 

So, for many, the emergence of flexibility and, in the States’ own words, "special permission:, for Mr Gatland’s flying visit has created, at the very least, a perception of bias. At worst, it looks like an exclusive group of decision-makers re-writing the rules at their own wont.

In short, it has raised more questions than it has answered. 

For example, how many times has this "special permission" been granted before?

Whose right is it to decide what is a "justifiable need" for travel and what is not? Is this applied to all people equally, regardless of their celebrity status?

Would this information about Mr Gatland's visit ever have been published if questions were not being asked by journalists still willing to ask them?

And at what point does the opportunity cost (a possible Lions training camp) become more important than the public health response that has been consistent throughout this pandemic?

Screenshot_2021-04-04_at_21.32.34.png

Pictured: Essential travel permits were introduced in January and lifted just over two months' later. They were designed to stop "unnecessary travel" and took a strict approach in forbidding any travel - even with 14-day isolation - that was not deemed to be absolutely critical. 

A States’ press release on Saturday said that: "As part of the initial talks Mr Gatland was given special permission to visit the island, alone and under very tight restrictions put in place by the Director of Public Health."

Meanwhile, Chief Executive Paul Whitfield is quoted as saying: "As everyone in our community knows we take the border restrictions very seriously, it is one of the reasons we have been so successful in managing the pandemic, but we have also built flexibility into the system to support where there is a specific need.

"We have seen this in the way we have controlled, monitored and tested essential visitors to the island and we’re grateful to Mr Gatland for understanding the need for us to put strict measures in place for him to be able to visit.

And a quote attributed to Dr Nicola Brink stated that: “This was a short visit over two days that was very tightly controlled, so we were comfortable it could be done safely.

“This is a process we have used many times during our management of the pandemic where there has been a justifiable need for someone to visit the island but not complete the full self-isolation requirements.”

So, which is it? A special arrangement tailored to Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland's "needs", or a process that has been rolled out many times before? Was Mr Gatland an "essential visitor", or was he an exceptional case benefitting from exceptional treatment? The two cannot simply be assimilated into one. 

The public deserves to know what the definition is for “justifiable need”. If there is a special exemption that can be granted to someone because of their public profile and hypothetical economic stimulus, whose call is that, and how many times has this been granted out of sight?

Try telling someone that rugby is more important than family life, when the Bailiwick's entire Covid-19 strategy has been geared around preserving it. After all both lockdowns have been extremely hard. We all know there is a significant, in some cases life-altering mental health cost to successive lockdowns. We also shudder to think of the financial cost.

What makes it all the more concerning is that we do not know and are unlikely to ever have knowledge of what caused Guernsey to be plunged back into lockdown in the first place on 23 January. 

I - and I am sure many others - would like to see the Lions in Guernsey this summer. However, it would be hard to find anyone willing to call a rugby coach's scouting mission a matter of “need”, least of all our Director of Public Health."

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