Review finds coronavirus deaths in Jersey 'could have been so much worse'

  • Phil Wellbrook looks back on Jersey's response to the coronavirus pandemic

An independent review into the way Jersey's government responded to the coronavirus pandemic found that overall, officials "did a good job" but said some things could have been handled better.

The panel concluded that Jersey's public health laws were "badly out of date" and "not fit for purpose", making 16 recommendations for the island's government to better cope with future public health emergencies. They included:

  • Improving emergency planning, and exchanging ideas with other jurisdictions

  • A better understanding of Jersey's population, including which people are most vulnerable and how to support them

  • Appointing a Chief Scientist to monitor potential threats and convene new groups of scientific advisors (like STAC) for each any new crisis that arises

  • Focusing on long-term solutions rather than "short-term, over-optimistic fixes"

The panel's report largely praised the way Jersey's Ministers acted, including bringing in restrictions.

They said that if the government hadn't intervened, the number of people who died in Jersey "could have been so much worse".

Panel members (L-R): Professor Maggie Rae, Sir Derek Myers, Sir Richard Gozney Credit: Independent COVID-19 Review Panel

But the way the government communicated was criticised, saying in times of crisis, the public has very high expectations for Ministers to communicate "early, continuously, effectively and with humility."

The panel added that there is a "widespread acceptance" that those expectations "were not met".

It said while "it is hard for any government to admit mistakes, show uncertainty, or open up about awkward choices", it's vital to ensure public confidence in the decisions being made.

The panel also found that during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government prolonged uncertainty by being too slow to introduce a "scientific expert voice" to public briefings.

Jersey's Deputy Medical Officer of Health, Dr Ivan Muscat MBE, later began attending press conferences to field scientific questions from reporters.

Deputy Medical Officer of Health, Dr Ivan Muscat, became a public face of Jersey's covid response. Credit: ITV Channel

Sir Derek Myers chaired the panel. He said while "nothing can bring back" those islanders who sadly died after contracting Covid-19, there are lessons the government can learn:

"We believe our report can however help any Government of Jersey to be better prepared; make better decisions and communicate better in any further comparable future crisis."

The review found no evidence about the potential harmful effects of the pandemic on children’s education, stating: "Schools worked hard to ensure the children of key workers could still attend."

However, it does report that "some teachers are complaining of burn-out" which "needs greater attention."

The panel believes Jersey's Government underestimated the pandemic's length and were over-optimistic, finding short-term fixes rather than more ironclad solutions.

It also says that the Government needs to avoid appearing like they're in a "bunker mentality", with some senior figures believing they should welcome outside help in a crisis:

"Jersey has many talented and resourceful residents and recruits great staff, but it can be overwhelmed and needs to think about ‘mutual aid’ arrangements to provide resilience in prolonged emergencies."It was also noted that collaboration with key sectors like pharmacies seemed under-considered and that emergency planning needs to be overhauled, as the adapted model worked but may not have done because it was not planned and rehearsed well enough.

John Le Fondré said the government learned and grew throughout the pandemic, and the approach it took evolved over the months. Credit: ITV Channel Television

Jersey's Former Chief Minister, John Le Fondré, who held the position throughout the pandemic told ITV: "Overall, the island as a community came out very well, and as an individual and as Chief Minister, I'm actually quite proud of those achievements, even though it was difficult."

When asked about the panel's comments on issues with the government's communication, Le Fondré said: "At the beginning it was difficult, we were in a position where data and information changed, and the difficulty was getting information out there.

"The report seems to imply that this was more of a minority view, but no doubt the communications department will take on the comments and I hope we never have to face something like that again."