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Gibraltar launches Operation Freedom thanks to vaccine success

The British overseas territory at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea is on track to have vaccinated all residents over 16 by the end of March.

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People cross the Gibraltar airport runway towards the border crossing with Spain, backdropped by the Gibraltar Rock, in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

People cross the Gibraltar airport runway towards the border crossing with Spain, backdropped by the Gibraltar Rock, in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

People cross the Gibraltar airport runway towards the border crossing with Spain, backdropped by the Gibraltar Rock, in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Gibraltar is emerging from a two-month lockdown with the help of a successful vaccination rollout.

The narrow British overseas territory stretching between Spain and the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea is emerging from a devastating virus surge.

Covid-19 has killed 93 people, nearly all of them in January and February this year, and infected more than 4,000 of its 33,000 residents.

But the compact, high-density geography that is blamed – together with new virus variants – for the surge of infections has also been key to Gibraltar’s successful vaccination campaign, with word-of-mouth facilitating the rollout.

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Schoolchildren walk past a Covid-19 information sign in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Schoolchildren walk past a Covid-19 information sign in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

AP/PA Images

Schoolchildren walk past a Covid-19 information sign in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

The recent easing of restrictions also owes much to the steady delivery of jabs from the UK.

By the end of March, Gibraltar is on track to have completely vaccinated all residents over 16 and its vast imported workforce, health minister Samantha Sacramento told the Associated Press.

That is more than 40,000 people.

Only 3.5% have so far rejected the vaccine.

But Gibraltar’s struggle to regain normality is only just starting.

It still faces the many challenges of reopening in a globalised world with unequal access to vaccines and new virus variants emerging.

Ms Sacramento has been working on contingency plans, including topping up vaccinations with a booster.

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Gibraltar health minister Samantha Sacramento at her office (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Gibraltar health minister Samantha Sacramento at her office (Bernat Armangue/AP)

AP/PA Images

Gibraltar health minister Samantha Sacramento at her office (Bernat Armangue/AP)

“Being vaccinated is absolutely no carte blanche to then behave without any restrictions. But then, we also have to go back to being a little bit more human, being able to breathe fresh air,” the minister said.

“It’s Operation Freedom, but with caution,” she added.

Finding that balance can be tricky for a territory linked to both Spain and the UK.

As a British territory, Gibraltar has received five vaccine consignments from London, mostly the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.

A handful of AstraZeneca shots have also been reserved for those possibly vulnerable to severe allergic reactions.

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Two elderly women walk past a souvenir shop (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Two elderly women walk past a souvenir shop (Bernat Armangue/AP)

AP/PA Images

Two elderly women walk past a souvenir shop (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Expanding Gibraltar’s limited flights with the UK, which is also rolling out vaccinations at high speed, could in theory be done by mandating tests and quarantines upon entry.

But the contagious virus variant first found in Britain has been a source of concern.

In Spain, restrictions have tamed an end-of-the-year coronavirus surge that strained public hospitals.

But, like much of the European Union, Spain is struggling with a slow vaccine rollout that hopes to immunise 33 million residents, or 70% of its population.

Most Gibraltarians are eager to travel.

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(PA Graphics)

(PA Graphics)

Press Association Images

(PA Graphics)

With an area of only 6.7 square kilometres – a territory only a little bigger than the Vatican and Monaco, most of it dominated by the imposing presence of its famous Rock – Gibraltar can sometimes feel claustrophobic.

“I’ve been on the Rock now for a couple of months, without having stepped foot on Spain. That’s a big part of our lives, going across the border, visiting new cities each weekend. That’s what I’m looking forward to most,” said Christian Segovia, a 24-year-old engineer who works at a shipping company.

With more than 15,000 people fully vaccinated and an additional 11,000 awaiting their second dose, people in their 20s are now being called in for their first shots.

Non-Gibraltarians who come in to work in healthcare or other frontline jobs are already vaccinated, and authorities are now trying to inoculate all the remaining trans-border workers.

Vanesa Olivero commutes every day, crossing on foot the airport landing strip that separates Gibraltar from Spain’s La Linea de la Concepcion.

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A health worker checks the temperature of a man at the vaccination centre in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

A health worker checks the temperature of a man at the vaccination centre in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

AP/PA Images

A health worker checks the temperature of a man at the vaccination centre in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Some 15,000 workers were making the same trip before the pandemic, but the numbers are lower now because tourism remains closed.

The 40-year-old, who sells tobacco and spirits in one of Gibraltar’s many duty-free shops, says she cannot wait to get her shots because facing customers puts her at risk.

She suffers from asthma, has two daughters and older relatives to take care of.

“Just tell me where and when and I’ll present both of my arms,” joked Ms Olivero.

“I want all this to be over, to return to normality, to be able to give a hug, to give a kiss, to go for some drinks with friends.”

Gibraltar has issued vaccination cards to people who get their second shot.

It is also developing an app storing vaccine data and test results that authorities want to link with other platforms elsewhere to revive international travel.

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A woman sits outside a bar in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

A woman sits outside a bar in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

AP/PA Images

A woman sits outside a bar in Gibraltar (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Critics, though, say such passports discriminate against those unable to access vaccines, especially in poorer countries.

Gino Jimenez, president of Gibraltar’s Catering Association, harbours some doubts but welcomes the app if that helps bring back foreign tourists.

His restaurant, a popular local hangout for breakfast and lunch, is following health guidelines to draw back those who “are still testing the waters to see if it’s safe to go out”.

“We are a very close, very sociable community. And there’s nothing like sitting around the table having a cup of coffee and talking,” said Mr Jimenez, who is lobbying the government to quickly vaccinate the nearly 2,000 employees of restaurants and pubs, most of them Spaniards.

Waiters wear two masks, tables are reserved for a maximum of six and there are no afternoon alcohol sales.

After reopening schools, pushing back the night-time curfew from 10pm to midnight and lifting mandatory mask-wearing in low-density, non-commercial areas, the next big thing The Rock is looking forward to is Gibraltar’s football match against the Netherlands on March 30.

The World Cup qualifier will be a test for the resumption of mass events, allowing 50% stadium capacity and requiring fans to prove immunity.

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Magnets for sale at a souvenir shop (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Magnets for sale at a souvenir shop (Bernat Armangue/AP)

AP/PA Images

Magnets for sale at a souvenir shop (Bernat Armangue/AP)

While they wait, Gibraltarians are enjoying their new normality.

At the Chatham Counterguard, an 18th-century defensive bastion now turned into a strip of pubs and restaurants, a dozen teammates of the Collegians Gibraltar Hockey Team celebrate over pints their first training session since November.

“This is what normality is … to be able to get a beer with your own people,” said Adrian Hernandez, 51.

“God, did I miss this!”

PA


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