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Is Gibraltar a glimpse into the future for vaccination-leading UK?

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Gibraltar, a densely populated narrow peninsula at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, is emerging from a two-month lockdown with the help of a successful vaccination rollout.
Gibraltar, a densely populated narrow peninsula at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, is emerging from a two-month lockdown with the help of a successful vaccination rollout.   -   Copyright  Bernat Armangue/AP
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Gibraltar, the tiny British territory on Spain’s south coast, was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic this winter - but it has now become one of the most open places in Europe.

With its population densely packed in, and frequent movement of people over the border from Spain, COVID-19 infected 4,000 of its 33,000 residents, killing 93.

The small but packed population that made coronavirus so dangerous there, has also helped with the rollout of its vaccination campaign, with the government expecting to have vaccinated all residents over the age of 16 by the end of this month.

Its successful vaccination campaign is largely down to the shipments of Pfizer-BioNTech jabs from the UK.

This has meant a recent easing of restrictions - and could be a preview of what the UK will be hoping to see when a high enough percentage of its 66 million residents has been immunised.

'The fact that we were out during the evening seemed so surreal.'

Citizens of Gibraltar can now enjoy meals out - with alcohol - with more friends. A curfew runs from midnight to 5 am, but could be fully lifted on 25 March if numbers stay low.

“I booked a table immediately for dinner at the Piccadilly Gardens,” civil servant Jared Negron tells Euronews.

“I obviously went to dine with my social bubble. The food, atmosphere and the fact that we were out during the evening seemed so surreal."

He says he is hoping for a “good and COVID-free summer” there, with plenty of vaccinated tourists to boost the economy.

Currently, Gibraltar's citizens or residents can enter, along with those who have proof of work in the region - but there are strict health checks, especially for those who have been in an at-risk country, who are required to quarantine.

This could all be set to change soon, however, as the territory looks forward to the return of tourism, a key industry.

With few restrictions currently remaining in place, artist Makedonda Shutova is looking forward to another being lifted: "The additional step I'd like to take is to stop wearing a mask. I miss people's beautiful faces and smiles. Most of the masks are only the fabric with any filters there and I don't think they have any effect, especially in the hot weather."

Another civil servant, Stuart Greene, told Euronews he had been out with his family to enjoy a meal, then shopped in town.

“Other than wearing masks when shopping in town, it felt like we were almost back to normal,” he says.

Bernat Armangue/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
A woman sits outside a bar, in Gibraltar, Thursday, March 4, 2021.Bernat Armangue/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

'Operation freedom'

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.

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

"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 in an office atop the local hospital.

“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.

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 immunising 33 million residents, or 70% of its population.

Most Gibraltarians are eager to travel. 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 over 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 health care 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 Línea de la Concepción. 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 can’t 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 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.”

Football with fans

Gibraltar has issued vaccination cards to people who get their second shot. It's also developing an app storing vaccine data and test results that authorities want to link with other platforms elsewhere to revive international travel. Critics, though, say such passports discriminate against those unable to access vaccines, especially in poorer countries.

Gino Jiménez, 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 Jiménez, 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 re-opening schools, pushing back the night-time curfew from 10 pm 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 soccer 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.

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!”

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.