Report featuring key references from UK leaders

Tristan has special place in Overseas Territories Annual Council

Tristan's important part in annual Overseas Territories Leaders' Council

Report and photos from Tristan Government UK Representative Chris Carnegy, who reflects on the week

The Joint Ministerial Council unites the elected leaders of the UK Overseas Territories in dialogue with Ministers of the government in London. This year's event, held across four days 23rd – 26th November, was the first to be held by video conference.

Tristan Chief Islander James Glass giving his key report speaking live
from the Administrator's Office on the island.

Like so much about 2020, this year's JMC can fairly be described as 'unprecedented', and from Tristan's perspective, it can also be described as a major success.

HRH The Prince of Wales during his JMC presentation during which he congratulated Tristan.

Grabbing the headlines must surely be the lavish welcome that was given to Tristan da Cunha's recent announcement of a vast marine reserve (fourth-biggest in the world, three times the size of the UK, one times the size of Texas - however you look at it, it's enormous). It was quite a moment when the heir to the British throne popped-up on a video call to offer his personal accolade. HRH The Prince of Wales told the virtual gathering "I particularly want to offer my warmest congratulations to Tristan da Cunha on your recent Marine Protection Zone designation, the largest in the Atlantic Ocean".

UK Government Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith was another leader
to praise Tristan's environmenmtal leadership

Prince Charles was just one among many to heap praise on Tristan. From across the time-zones, the tributes poured in. Pitcairn sent its admiration. Gibraltar enthused about the 'inspiration' Tristan has provided. And from England, UK minister Lord Zac Goldsmith said "I can't exaggerate my thanks to the islanders for having provided that leadership".

Tristan's Chief Islander James Glass was hearing and seeing all this on a live video link from the Administrator's office. That in itself was a milestone: this is the first year when the satellite bandwidth on Tristan has been big enough to support even a single such call. James could have been forgiven for settling back to bask in the praise, but he had work to do. In a powerful speech, he described the challenge of conserving both environment and community, and thanked the UK government and international donors for all the support that's led-up to the unveiling of the MPZ. James asked key questions about future funding for conservation work in the OTs, including the defence of Tristan waters against illegal fishing. And he set-out his ambition that Tristan will become a key base for marine research, with Tristanians involved every step of the way. Here's an extract from his speech:

"This is quite a moment for my community. We've always relied on the sea, and our lobster fishery - which is independently certified as sustainable – is still the mainstay of our economy. The announcement two weeks ago was a big occasion for Tristan and for the Blue Belt programme. We were the first Territory to come to the programme with both a permanent population and a pre-existing commercial fishery. So for us it's been about harmonising the need to sustain our community with the opportunity to make a major contribution to the health of the world's oceans.
In reality of course, there is no conflict. Without a healthy ocean, we don't have a sustainable community. My ancestors knew that, and my neighbours know it today.
Only this month, we've seen a horrifying glimpse of the opposite approach. Two thousand miles to the west of us, there's evidence that fishermen are using a barbaric method of cutting off the beaks of trapped albatrosses and other seabirds, to save time removing the hooks.
So we've made a bold move: banning all commercial extraction from over 90% of our waters, and banning harmful activities like bottom-trawling from the whole of our vast ocean zone. We've delivered for the UK its promise to declare 4 million protected square kilometres of ocean by the end of 2020.
My ambition is that the tiny community of Tristan da Cunha can be a beacon to the whole world in conservation. But it needs sustained commitment from all stakeholders to make that happen".

To watch Lord Goldsmith nodding in agreement with James's words was to be very proud of Tristan da Cunha. The minister told the meeting he's working on plans to develop and enhance environment resource for the OTs, and reminded delegates of the soon-to-be-launched 'Blue Planet Fund': it will bring half a billion pounds to bear on the challenge of reversing man-made harm in the world's oceans.

The MPZ stole the show, but there were other achievements too. At James's suggestion, we'd lobbied ahead of the JMC for a long-promised review of the NHS Quota system that permits a few OT citizens to have free medical treatment in the UK. In exchange, the Territories guarantee free emergency care for visiting UK residents. At present, Tristan only has unofficial access to this scheme, but the UK government has now promised that the review will be completed by June 2021. Another pledge sought was that students from the Territories will continue to pay no more in UK university tuition fees than UK residents do: this was also delivered.

James made further interventions on the economy and trade. He described an ambition to reduce Tristan's reliance on imports of food and fuel, and to diversify its shipping links. These are long-term goals, but one element – the potential to increase renewable energy on the island – struck an immediate chord with delegates. And he found a sympathetic ear in UK trade minister Graham Stuart when he registered Tristan's long-held ambition to see China reduce import taxes on lobster.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Another highlight of the week was an appearance by UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Crucially, he re-affirmed a commitment that the UK will make supplies of a Covid-19 vaccine available to OTs as soon as possible. This is vital for Tristan, as currently the population would be very vulnerable to the disease if the virus arrived. And Mr Johnson spoke warmly of the relationship between the UK and the OTs: "we are united by deep ties of kinship and friendship and history and values. We in the UK government are going to make sure we continue to intensify that partnership".

Of course, the warmth doesn't diminish the challenges of the moment. Brexit and Covid-19 will have lasting economic impacts, and during JMC week the UK slashed its development budget by a third. For an island that can't tackle infrastructure projects without the financial help that's traditionally come from the UK and the EU, these are real clouds on the horizon. But Tristan is well regarded in London, and can make a strong case for support even in tougher times.

In a year like no other, this was a JMC like no other. It leaves memories of a moment when a small community on a remote island really did make an impact around the world.

Tristan da Cunha from Nightingale Island

Antje Steinfurth's photo shows Tristan da Cunha from Nightingale Island