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A complete failure of vision for transport and the green agenda

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The GSD welcome the full reopening of Line Wall Road. This is a victory for the people of our community and a victory for common sense. Whilst the Government say that they will go back to the drawing board they will also need to learn big lessons from the planning failures that caused widespread public outrage at their incompetent handling of traffic and transport policy.

The Government’s conduct of the intended Line Wall closure and the numerous versions of it that were rolled out over a short period can only be described as a comedy of errors where our people witnessed first-hand the chaotic scenes on our roads for months.

The Government failed to accept reality- we have over 40,000 registered vehicles, an ageing and ill equipped infrastructure, a bottlenecked frontier, a serious lack of real cycling lane and safe alternatives and a rapid loss of parking bays not to mention increased parking charges. For radical solutions to work they have to be well-planned and other support measures such as park and ride and more frequent public transport have to be in place before they are introduced. Serious questions remain as to the capacity and capability of the Government in managing traffic and transport policy for the benefit of all in our community.

Shadow Minister for Transport, Health and the Environment, Elliott Phillips MP said;

“We will not let the Government off the hook for their very poor handling of the Line Wall Road debacle. We will continue to cross examine the Government in Parliament and in the media by asking how much these failures of planning have cost our community. People deserve to know the cost. The Government and Transport Minister Vijay Daryanani especially have shown that they are completely out of touch with the realities of how normal working families move about out City and once they have licked their wounds it is hoped that the Government will finally set out about developing a cohesive strategy which is both environmentally sustainable, effective and consistent”

New Queensway Green Area Makes No Sense Now

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The conversion of a significant parking area on Queensway into a green area causing the removal of a couple of mature eucalyptus trees makes no sense now. The Government intend to convert the ex-Romney huts area into a green area causing the loss of 84 car parking spaces as well as motorcycle bays. Additionally, the proposal is said to include a removal of some existing mature trees along Queensway.

Leader of the Opposition Keith Azopardi said:

“None of this makes sense and is deeply contradictory. How is it consistent with a green Gibraltar to remove eucalyptus trees which have been there for decades? Secondly where are these parking spaces going to be reprovided? We have already seen the loss of significant areas of parking on Queensway. This will just compound the traffic issue. It would make sense to ensure a reprovision before any steps are taken otherwise further traffic issues will be caused.

The solution cannot lie in just getting people to take public transport at a time when Government is urging the public to maintain social distancing and minimise interaction. Necessarily, in practice, people are being discouraged from public transport during the COVID pandemic.

Finally this makes no economic sense at a time of high borrowing to plug funding holes because of COVID and in the run up to the end of the BREXIT transitional period. Government needs to be far more prudent, prioritise and reduce public spending on projects that can wait for a better financial day.”

Shadow Environment Minister Elliott Phillips said:

“Projects like this can only work if they are well-planned and part of an integrated green strategy. The fiasco of bad planning at Line Wall Road should have showed the Government something. They are just setting themselves up for further public discontent because of their haphazard transport and environmental policy.”

Student Support in UK Lockdown

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There should be a framework of support available to our students in the face of increased COVID19 restrictions in the UK.

There are currently hundreds of our university students undergoing studies and temporarily residing across the UK who will now have to face new and exceptional conditions as England goes into a new national lockdown as from this coming Thursday. The GSD suggests there should be a specific Gibraltar Government advice and support hotline, together with a dedicated email address, in order to provide a wide range of financial, physical or mental wellbeing support for any of our students during these ever-evolving times arising out of the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Shadow Education Minister, Edwin Reyes said: “It would go a long way if the Department of Education could offer a dedicated help-line so that students and/or their parents may obtain prompt advice and support in respect of their specific personal needs. This is not just about travel advice or becoming aware of the restrictions around you. The need to support our students goes much deeper than that as some may be feeling the effects of isolation or anxiety during lockdown. Gibraltar has always prided itself upon the successes of our students and therefore, more so in these grim days, we should ensure that our students are offered advice and support in what are ever changing circumstances.

This academic year has already brought additional and exceptional hardship upon Gibraltar’s students enrolled for higher studies in UK Universities. Many of them, suffered delays in receipt of their grants due from the Department of Education. They returned to their chosen Universities based upon advice issued at the time as there was still some in person teaching. During the month of September most Universities were updating their policy on a week by week basis and students could not be guaranteed that they would not miss out on seminars and/or lectures if they remained in Gibraltar. The vast majority will now wish to return homefortheChristmasperiod. TheuncertaintyofavailabilityofflightsfrompopularUKAirportstoGibraltar has also given rise to some stress being endured by students and their respective families. The layering on of a new lockdown in a large part of the UK will only add to that sense of isolation and anxiety in many cases.”

“Fawlty towers style management of traffic and transport”- reopening of Line Wall Road

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“Fawlty towers style management of traffic and transport”- reopening of Line Wall Road

In May the Government announced they would close Line Wall Road without having adequately done public consultation or ensuring that support measures were in place. They announced then that it would close Line Wall Road as from 1 June 2020 to all vehicles save for taxis, buses, deliveries and residents of the area in order to create a “magnificent new public realm for pedestrians and for bicycles’ with the aim of reducing pollution.

In a monumental climb down and after nearly 6 months of utter traffic chaos and widespread public backlash the Line Wall Road policy evolved from a full closure to partial closure to a restricted access to now a reopening of Line Wall Road northbound to cars and north and south bound to all public service vehicles.

The haphazard chronology of the Line Wall Road project is filled with a litany of mistake after mistake more reflective of an episode of Fawlty Towers rather than a carefully planned, well considered and properly executed traffic and transport decision that people deserve and expect. Not once in the Government’s announcement yesterday was the main plank of their 2019 manifesto promise to create a greener and cleaner Gibraltar mentioned- it appears that the green agenda has crashed. The sole emphasis of yesterday’s massive uTurn was the further monitoring of traffic infrastructure and sewage works to the area. The only thing Government have managed to cause for many months is traffic chaos. Many unanswered questions are left by this announcement which does very little to instil confidence that the Government’s policy is anything more than a reactive response to public outcry.

Shadow Minister for Transport, Health and the Environment, Elliott Phillips MP said;

“We have been very critical of the Government’s handling and management of their closure plans of this major arterial road because it represented very poor planning. We asked the Government to pause, reflect and if need be go back to the drawing board and engage in constructive dialogue with all stakeholders. The Chief Minister and the Transport Minister have presided over traffic chaos with many in our community seriously questioning the ability of the Government to properly manage transport and traffic policy.”

New COVID Measures Should be Consistent & Proportionate

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New COVID Measures Should be Consistent & Proportionate

28 October 2020

Measures introduced to combat the COVID19 pandemic should be consistent, justified and proportionate. As is known the GSD has been supportive of action to deal with the COVID threat from the outset suggesting a comprehensive and robust testing and contact tracing programme when at the time the Government were sceptical about it and the public health advice the Public Health Director was giving was that contact tracing should be abandoned in Gibraltar. Public health advice has been changing and recommendations carry weight but there are no panaceas. At the end there has to be a political judgment call based on the evidence and ensuring that objectives are reasonably and consistently achieved.

The Leader of the Opposition Keith Azopardi said:

“For example the Chief Minister said yesterday that because there had been an increase of 71 positive cases in a week [20-27 October] and low mask wearing it was now necessary to introduce compulsory mask wearing in certain areas. But that ignores the fact that in the previous seven days [13-20 October] there had been an increase of 109 cases and that therefore there had been a 35% decrease in new cases compared to the previous week even when there was no compulsory mask use in most of the town area. So if the trend is on the decrease why now and citing public health advice? Why has the public health advice changed from the 20 October when he announced 31 new positives in one day. Yesterday there were 9 new positives and today there have only been three new positives.

It is also a fact that the COVID measures announced since the Spring had successfully stemmed the tide to the point that with no compulsory mask wearing, we were able to get to zero cases several times in the early summer. That effort relied on discipline and voluntary cooperation of people. In very large measure the majority of people are still cooperating in that effort without the need for compulsion.

The GSD is not going to argue against public health advice given to the Government which it has not seen. It should be made public so people can understand the basis of the changing public health advice and why this is justified in this way when there are hardly large crowds in Line Wall, Engineer Lane or Governor’s Street. Additionally, if the objective is to deal with people hotspots then the Government could deal with those that do exist more decisively. Over the last few weeks videos have gone viral of the Chatham Counterguard area and conglomerations of people there with little respect for social distancing. To encourage that the Government should reverse the pedestrianisation of Chatham Counterguard on a temporary basis till the end of the pandemic. Or is it that it does not wish to do so because that pedestrianisation idea is a pet project?

Maintaining the airbridge with the UK without the need to quarantine on arrival in the UK is very important and we support measures introduced to ensure this is kept open. But here again there is a need for consistency and fairness in identified objectives. The Chief Minister spoke of looking at the introduction of testing when flying out and offering rapid but non-compulsory testing on disembarkation or the alternative [if the test is refused on arrival] of a [possible] quarantine. Our students should not be treated differently. Last week the Government announced that students had to take a compulsory test on arrival, quarantine for 5 days and then take another test. At the time they were being singled out as no-one else arriving into Gibraltar by air or via the land frontier was to be tested despite the fact that the UK and Spain are also COVID hot-spots. We are not suggesting there should be compulsory testing for every person entering Gibraltar but the scheme needs to be fair. There is no reason that students should not be given a free rapid test on arrival which would by-pass the need for any quarantine if negative – in the same way as may be offered to other passengers.

There is undoubtedly a need to control the rise in COVID cases through proportionate and consistently applied measures. There has been an increase in cases in many places in Europe which no doubt is also a contributory factor to the flow of virus cases. The Chief Minister used language yesterday that the measures he announced were necessary to avoid a further lockdown or a “curfew.” That language was unjustified on the present state of things. We do not know why the Chief Minister used the word “curfew” days after the Spanish Government used the same term in introducing an overnight curfew there.

In Spring one of the key reasons for the lockdown was the need to give time to the Health Service to prepare to deal with large numbers of cases that could strain its resources. The GHA is now ready and has a nightingale facility which can quickly be mobilised. The principal reason why we should contemplate something as radical as a further lockdown now is a surge in cases that sees many hospitalisations and puts strain on the health service. Thankfully that is not the case now and hopefully will never be.

The relatively low level of hospitalisations has been maintained – even now. If things were to change and the GHA needed assistance again then, of course, there should be more radical measures contemplated. But we are far removed from that scenario today. We appreciate that this is a fast-moving panorama but it is no different to the last few months and matters can be kept in active review.”

On the issue of students Shadow Education Minister Edwin Reyes said:

“If a student flies out on 20th December, which is the earliest possible date in order to be home and celebrate Christmas with their families, then by having to quarantine for five days they may be missing Christmas with some of their family which is the whole purpose of their short visit back home. This situation simply adds more stress and anxiety upon students and parents alike who this term have already suffered the consequences of delays in the processing of grants and which resulted in placing many families through financial difficulties. The application of the rules announced last week was inconsistent already as the student quarantine rules apply to just scholarship holders and not any other student arriving in Gibraltar.

There are hundreds of students studying in the United Kingdom and if on Public Health grounds certain restrictions are to be imposed upon their return home, then any necessary regulations must be applied to them in the same way as all other persons coming into Gibraltar from the same point of origin. The Covid19 virus carries possible potential consequences for all, it does not act differently upon Students who happen to be Gibraltar Government scholarship beneficiaries. The introduction of any restrictive regulations must be rational, fair and also based upon common sense, it should not be selective only upon students.”

GSD PUT FORWARD MOTION ON HARMFUL AND INTRUSIVE TAX TREATY TAX TREATY

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The Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, has presented a Motion to Parliament that the Tax Treaty signed with Spain is “intrusive and harmful” and that it should be replaced with a neutral and fair treaty based on the OECD Model tax treaty.

Mr Azopardi said: “the GSD position on the Tax Treaty signed with Spain is well-known. We think this is a deal that is bad for Gibraltarians and bad for business. It is intrusive and harmful. It is a disincentive for inward investment and it treats Gibraltarians who return home from Spain unfairly and as if they were still Spanish tax residents for four years.

There has not been an opportunity to properly debate this Treaty that was entered into with the Gibraltar Government’s consent without showing it first to Parliament here and in breach of Mr Picardo’s commitment to the Opposition.

This Motion will now allow our Parliament to finally debate this Treaty in a full and proper way. We have no doubt that this deal with Spain was a bad deal for Gibraltar and we look forward to the debate so we can set this out in detail.”

Community Care Changes Raise Questions as to Finances

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The GSD has analysed the press release by the Directors of Gibraltar Community Care Limited (“GCC”), in response to the GSD’s request for a statement, explaining the changes to the Community Officer Scheme entitlements. Although the directors state that the changes are as a result of a study as to “the fair application of payments made by GCC in keeping with its Charitable objectives” it begs the question as to whether its finances are now being stretched.

Roy Clinton the GSD Shadow Minster for Public Finance observed:

“We have for a number of years now been seeking information and asking questions about Community Care and the investment of its cash reserves so as to ensure the current level of benefits are sustainable. Whereas the last audited accounts of GCC for 30 June 2018 show it made a standalone loss of £5.8 million this was more than compensated by the £6 million profit made by its subsidiary. Payments to Community Officers cost GCC £4.7 million in 2018 almost a quarter of all benefit payments. The question now arises as to how much does GCC expect to save annually from the changes introduced which are worth a maximum of around £6,000 per Community Officer.

The Directors must accept that although operating as an independent charity they have a moral duty to the community to signal well in advance any changes to benefits and to slowly phase them in so that retirees can manage their finances, most of whom do not enjoy six figure pensions. The number of current Community Officers enjoying “six figure pensions” is of public interest and should be disclosed if that is being used to justify the changes.

The sudden cuts to the Community Officer benefit this year thus invariably raises the question as to whether GCC’s finances have suffered a recent significant investment loss, or has the Government signalled to the Directors that they will be reducing the level of funding from the public purse in future? Gibraltar’s pensioners need reassurance and a clear answer from GCC and the Government.”

Novel Coronavirus Outbreak

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The GSD notes that the British Government have declared the Coronavirus a “serious and imminent threat to public health” and their intention to introduce regulations to deal with the spread of the virus. The UK will be strengthening its laws to keep individuals in supported isolation for their own safety and that of the British public if health professionals consider that there is a risk of spreading the virus to other members of the public. The World Health Organisation Director General also said yesterday that: “for now it’s only a spark…We call on all countries to use the window of opportunity to prevent a bigger fire” This points to the urgent need of a public health strategy to deal with any case in Gibraltar which in a confined space and with intensely urban areas can spread quickly. An area for possible isolation needs to be identified now as part of that strategy which is removed from heavily populated areas

The GSD calls on the Government to reassure the public and confirm it has in place advanced plans to isolate and contain the spread of the virus in Gibraltar. Shadow Minister for Health Elliott Phillips MP said: “Whilst the Government have responded to our previous call for increased information to be provided to members of the public they have not disclosed what measures they have put in place to isolate and contain suspected and confirmed cases” Mr Phillips went on to say: “We must now accept that the serious and imminent risk to public health in Britain presented by the spread of the virus outside China’s borders coupled with the two week incubation period of the virus will at some stage impact on our community”. The Government must now specifically state what facilities are at our disposal for the supported isolation of suspected and confirmed cases of the virus on our shores.

GSD PROPOSE SELECT COMMITTEE ON MENTAL HEALTH

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The Leader of the Opposition Keith Azopardi has today written to the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Together Gibraltar Leader Marlene Hassan-Nahon to propose that Parliament should establish a cross-party Select Committee on Mental Health to report on such improvements to mental health provision in Gibraltar which it considers should be made

The issue of mental health and mental well-being is a big issue for this community. There should be a cross-party effort where we all strive to improve support and resources in mental health to ensure people are well looked after.

At the last meeting of Parliament, the Government confirmed that nearly 4000 people had been prescribed anti- depressants and anti-psychotics in 2019. Those statistics are of course only reflective of the public health services and do not reveal the statistics derived from the private medical sector. The complete picture could be more serious. This is only one manifestation of issues giving rise to concern. It is important to understand whether anything can be done to increase support in this area or to address causes.

NGOs and professionals working in the field do a sterling job but we think the time has come for us to take a holistic and cross-party approach to this key area.

Mr Azopardi said:

“We hope that other political leaders will support this GSD initiative and back the call for a cross-party effort in this area. A Select Committee could then take evidence from professionals and persons affected to hear their personal experiences of current services and views on how to improve this crucial area. Rather than detract from any work that the GHA or Government may itself be doing to improve public services any work done by the Select Committee on Mental Health will complement such work. The Committee can take a wide-ranging approach to this area and consider causes as well as consequences. This is not just about the services that should be there to support sufferers after the event. We also need to focus on creating a better lifestyle environment to minimise any external factors that contribute negatively to mental well-being. As a society the sooner we carry out this in-depth work the better.“

LACK OF ADEQUATE EVACUATION PROCEDURES IN SCHOOLS

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At the December 2019 Meeting of Parliament the Hon Edwin Reyes, Opposition Shadow Minister for Education, asked the Minister to confirm that all emergency evacuation procedures in respect of new school buildings had been fully established and agreed upon by all pertinent authorities.

The reply given by Government was that they confirmed “each new school has an established fire safety management plan which includes emergency evacuation procedures. These have been devised in close consultation with the GFRS and the Head Teachers who are responsible for implementing the plans.”

It has come to the GSD Opposition’s notice that the fire alarm was set off at Westside School last week and that in implementing the evacuation procedures total chaos ensued. As a direct consequence of the situation which emerged Teaching Staff at Westside have expressed serious concerns, in particular identifying that the evacuation route and muster point proved unsafe and too congested and therefore resulted in jeopardising the safety of students. Furthermore, there were other serious issues with registers and the co-ordination of the event.

The GSD calls upon the Minister for Education to issue an immediate public statement explaining to parents, and the public at large, why, as this incident showed, there was a lack of adequate and safe evacuation procedures at the new schools. The GSD calls upon Government to provide explanations which parents deserve together with details of what immediate actions have been taken to ensure a repetition of the levels of confusion experienced by teachers and pupils, resulting in inacceptable outcomes, are never experienced again