Good morning members of the media and to all in the British Virgin Islands,
Thank you for joining me for this briefing today and for complying with the social distancing measures we have put in place to keep us all safe whilst we’re here. I realise it’s been a while since we last met face to face, but I am really glad that we are able to safely meet to have these conversations. I have taken my mask off as we are safely socially spaced.
As I have said before, the media are an essential part to any democracy and have an important role to play in holding leaders to account and informing the public. So I would like to start by updating you all on the work of the Governor’s Office in service to the people of BVI. I will then give you the opportunity to ask questions.
The Minister of Health will set out the latest developments regarding our COVID-19 response and border policies later today. Cabinet has been working diligently to plan and agree our ongoing approach, including the phased re-opening of our borders to belongers, residents and nationals from 2nd June. We have also agreed plans for the next 14 day curfew period which will come in to effect from this Sunday. Our plan is to maintain the night time curfew (7pm to 6am), which will allow more elements of our economy to safely re-open, as well as a few more hours on our beaches. We are also working on plans to allow boats to safely move within our waters and to open up other sectors of the economy as soon as is safely possible.
Overall, we have done well to tackle the initial risk of widespread transmission of COVID-19 and I’m pleased to see the collaborative effort and commitment of Cabinet, the HEOC team, public and statutory agencies, security agencies, businesses and most importantly the public – all of whom have adapted to new ways of working and living in order to help keep us all safe. Thank you. However, we are not out of the woods yet. We must not become complacent in any way and we need to keep working together to fight the risks of this virus. We must continue to practice safe distancing and practice safe hygiene. These are not just one off habits, but they are how we have to live our lives for the foreseeable future.
Sticking with the response to COVID-19, I’d like to give a brief overview of support this Territory has received from the UK Government, which my Office and I have been working hard to facilitate, along with BVI healthcare professionals. The Premier stated that each Territory is different and has different needs – that is absolutely the case and the reason why ongoing collaboration between the UK and BVI Governments is so important to understand BVI’s needs and ensure the UK is helping to meet them.
To date, the UK Government has donated and delivered approximately 10,000 test kits plus other vital medical supplies to BVI, including ventilators and a field hospital. Tomorrow, we are expecting a new, high quality testing machine to arrive from the UK – a much sought after model that will make testing easier and faster. This is enabling BVI medical professionals to pursue their testing strategy which is critical as we go in to the next phase of our COVID-19 response. UK public health experts are giving remote support to BVI health authorities on disease management on an ongoing basis. This is challenging work – medical equipment and expertise is in short supply and high demand the world over. I am pleased we have been able to secure these resources for the people of BVI, not only to bolster our COVID response, but to bolster our public health systems more broadly.
I welcome the Premier’s update regarding economic support for the people of this Territory earlier in the week and I look forward to more coming shortly. This is essential – the economic consequences of COVID-19 will be far reaching and the people and businesses of BVI need to have protections and support in place from their Government.
Relating to this, I would like to take the opportunity to explain BVI’s ‘protocols’ – the Protocols for Effective Financial Management. It has been suggested publically that these act as a barrier to the Government’s ability to deliver an economic response to COVID-19. The protocols have the sole purpose of ensuring sensible management of public finance and accountability to the public. By having them in place, BVI is sending a clear message to potential lenders and international partners, but most importantly to the people who live here, that we are committed to sensible borrowing and spending of public funds.
In practice, they are about making sure Governments don’t spend and borrow more than they can afford to. All of us know that as individuals, it is important to put savings away when times are good, so that we have resources available for when things aren’t as good. We also know that we, as individuals, shouldn’t borrow more money than we can afford to pay back. The protocols put guidelines in place to ensure the same for Governments.
I have not seen any evidence to indicate that they hamper the Government’s ability to bring forward an economic package for the people. From what I understand, BVI’s reserves are in a very healthy position – over $80 million according to the budget estimates announced late last year. The protocols also enable flexibility when needed. The UK and BVI Governments have agreed temporary breaches in the past when the BVI Government needed to borrow large amounts in exceptional circumstances. The UK is committed to supporting each Territory through this crisis and is working hard to understand and meet any needs on a case by case basis. I hope that BVI Government will soon enter discussions with the UK on their economic plans for the Territory, including any concerns over the protocols so that we can work through them together.
As you know, the Governor’s Office holds constitutional responsibility for security so work is always ongoing between me, the UK and relevant authorities here in BVI on this agenda. You will be aware that the UK deployed RFA Argus to the Caribbean earlier than originally planned to bolster overall support to the region ahead of hurricane season. Meanwhile, my team have been working with DDM to make our own preparations and refresh our plans for hurricane season. This includes DDM carrying out their readiness assessment ahead of the start of the hurricane season. We are expecting an above average storm activity season and it is important that everyone makes their own preparations now. Remember we do live in a multi-hazard environment and need to be ready for anything.
You’ll be aware that the UK has also offered security assistance teams to Caribbean Overseas Territories, including BVI, to bring additional resilience to Territories juggling COVID-19 and hurricane preparedness. I am aware that this has already been reported – and misconstrued – in the media. This is disappointing given that these were NSC discussions, and like all NSC discussions, I would have expected details to remain private until we had reached a conclusion. I am considering our response in consultation with others. I will update on my decision in due course. In the meantime, my team is working to secure new security equipment from the UK Government to increase the capability of BVI teams to safeguard maritime borders.
I’ll conclude by announcing my decision that Dawn Smith will be appointed as the new Attorney General for this Territory later this year and congratulating her on her appointment. I’d also like to say thank you to our current Attorney General, Baba Aziz for his service. Mr. Aziz will continue to serve in the role until a transition takes place later this year. The Attorney General is a crucial role – an impartial source of legal advice. As you know, I am very much committed to good governance and accountability in this Territory and the position of the Attorney General is important in that.
Unfortunately information relating to the Attorney General’s appointment appeared in the media whilst it was still subject to consideration of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission. I was disappointed to see the proper protocol for announcing the appointment was not followed.
Finally, I’d like to say a few words about the transformation of the public service. This has been an ongoing priority. COVID-19, out of necessity, has sharpened our efforts and I am grateful to public servants for adapting and showing flexibility. A new customer support centre has been introduced, we have moved services online and we are offering more services remotely. Public servants have been transferred to form new services and teams at speed, such as the Client Support Centre which supports those in quarantine. There is more we need to do and I will be working with the Deputy Governor and Cabinet to cement these reforms and ensure that we continually improve to become a world class public service. Thank you for listening. I will now take questions.