CORONAVIRUS

A post-Covid laboratory called Gibraltar

After vaccinating more than 70% of its population, the British Overseas Territory located in the south of Spain has become one of the first places in the world to ease restrictions such as outdoor mask-wearing

The recent wedding of Krisanne Lia and Fabian Mauro in Gibraltar, where masks are no longer obligatory outside.
The recent wedding of Krisanne Lia and Fabian Mauro in Gibraltar, where masks are no longer obligatory outside.PACO PUENTES / EL PAÍS

Krisanne Lia and Fabian Mauro have wanted to get married since the start of this year, just when the coronavirus pandemic was at its worst in Gibraltar with 1,317 positive cases on January 8 alone. Two months and 4,273 positive cases later, the newlyweds are posing in Commonwealth Park for a photo with family and friends, without masks on and without worrying about social distancing.

The 16 people in the photo have all been vaccinated, as have 72% of the British Overseas Territory’s population of more than 33,700. Lia and Mauro tied the knot on the same day that Gibraltar became one of the first territories in the world to ease restrictions after achieving a vaccination rollout that should allow for herd immunity, albeit with a dash of uncertainty that comes with being a laboratory for post-Covid normality.

On March 26, just as the couple wed, “the Rock,” as Gibraltar is widely known, dispensed with curfews and extended opening hours in the hospitality sector, with alcohol being served until 2am. From March 28, masks were only mandatory indoors, after their use was first relaxed in less crowded streets from March 1. “It’s a relief, although it’s a bit scary,” says Lia, 31. “I think it’s good if people are careful.”

Juan Jesús Arenas, a Spaniard who works in Gibraltar, removes his mask in the British Overseas Territory.
Juan Jesús Arenas, a Spaniard who works in Gibraltar, removes his mask in the British Overseas Territory.PACO PUENTES / EL PAÍS

Like Lia, Gibraltarians are torn between relief and caution as they return to some semblance of normality, aware of their proximity to Spain, where barely 5.3% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This figure seems tiny compared to the 72% in Gibraltar, which is located on the southern tip of the Spanish peninsula and borders the Andalusia region.

When the Rock began its vaccination campaign in January with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, they faced the challenge of vaccinating an estimated adult population of around 27,200 people, according to the latest statistics. A week prior to Lia and Mauro’s wedding, 24,331 people were already fully protected with two shots and 2,506 had received one shot and were pending the second. Now Gibraltar is focusing its efforts on vaccinating the 14,669 people living in Spain who cross the border every day to work in the British Overseas Territory, 9,484 of whom are Spanish. Of these, 2,371 are already fully vaccinated and 1,736 have received their first shot.

Passers-by on a street in Gibraltar after the obligatory outdoor use of masks was lifted.
Passers-by on a street in Gibraltar after the obligatory outdoor use of masks was lifted. PACO PUENTES / EL PAÍS

Juan Jesús Arenas, a self-employed construction worker, is one of those living in Spain who has signed up. “I think I will get it next week,” he says. “If we wait for Spain...,” he says, in reference to the slower roll out in his home country.

Once Arenas receives his two shots, he will become one of the vaccinated residents of neighboring Spanish city La Línea de la Concepción. His wife, meanwhile, is still waiting for her vaccine despite belonging to a high-risk demographic. With a fourth wave on the horizon in Spain, the contrast between the vaccine roll out is nowhere starker than at the border. Many of those crossing strip off their masks as soon as they set foot on the Rock. “You can take it off here,” says cab driver Mustafa Aouhar. “We are returning to normality bit by bit. I hope nothing happens, life goes on.”

Immunologist Matilde Cañelles from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) understands the paradox between Gibraltar and the surrounding territory. “It is because of the difference in the vaccination roll out,” she says. “In Europe we are stuck and there’s no reason why they should wait for us.”

People on the streets of Gibraltar late last month.
People on the streets of Gibraltar late last month. PACO PUENTES / EL PAÍS

She does, however, highlight the risk for Spaniards who go to the Rock, because although most Gibraltarians are vaccinated, there were still 11 active Covid-19 cases at the time of publication of this article. The Andalusian regional government has even proposed PCR tests be required at the border. The Gibraltarian authorities have not taken up the suggestion and point out that the more-contagious variant of the coronavirus first discovered in England has only been detected in half of the cases tested between December 2020 and February 2021, adding that flights operating between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom continue to be limited to Gibraltar or Spanish residents with mandatory PCR testing required. They also stress that their opening-up strategy depends on the progress of the pandemic and the possible incidence of new variants.

These issues aside, the varying speeds of vaccination and de-escalation between such interconnected territories as Gibraltar and Spain have “exceptional” research value, according to the Gibraltarian authorities. The GHA (Gibraltar Health Authority) and PHG (Public Health Gibraltar) are already analyzing the scenario, one in which five cases of post-vaccination transmission are being studied.

At the end of the day, the new post-Covid normality is under the microscope. “They do the experiment, we’ll see how it goes,” Cañelles says. “Whatever happens, we will be able to compile information.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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