Thank you Mister Speaker, for this opportunity to make this statement to this Honourable House.
As Premier and Leader of Government Business, I wish to express gratitude on behalf of the Government and on my own behalf, as well as that of all Virgin Islanders and residents, to all persons who have contributed in some way to our battle against COVID-19.
Our immediate thoughts go to the health teams – the doctors, nurses, lab technicians, orderlies and all the other members of our healthcare system.
We think about our volunteers who have joined the mission to help those who are willing and able to become vaccinated to get vaccinated and those who helped them to become vaccinated – whether it is by being present at one of our many vaccination locations to help persons with paperwork, or dropping off some refreshments for them.
We must remember that there are persons across all Ministries and Departments who are playing their respective roles to ensure that all the components of our machinery work – and that they function in sync.
I am speaking about our police officers, customs officers, immigration officers, personnel at the air and sea ports, staff at the BVI Tourist Board, and public officers whose job it is to prepare Cabinet Papers and other policy documents and to ensure that these are implemented when they are approved, and many other persons working long hours often unseen.
We have teachers and educators who have been doing their part to keep our children engaged through online classes and this is not unique to the BVI but worldwide. Many of them have been contributing to getting things in place so that face-to-face classes can resume – as we anticipate will happen very shortly providing, Mister Speaker that we continue to keep our COVID-19 cases down.
Our business community has also been playing their part – implementing and enforcing the protocols in their places of business. Mister Speaker, we also must say thanks to our Attorney General Office who also has been playing their part with Attorney General Dawn Smith and her whole entire team at the Attorney Generals Chambers including the acting Financial Secretary Mr. Jeremiah Frett and his entire team. We have to thank all the elected members Mister Speaker, who have chipped in and also help with their own special way, especially our Junior Minister for Tourism Mister Speaker, who birth the idea for the drive thru and all the efforts of all the members of this Honourable House on both sides of the isles.
And of course, members of the public have – for the most part – following the precautions of hand washing, wearing masks, sanitising and social distancing; simple measures that are proven to be immensely effective in combatting the spread of COVID-19. For our people who continue to do this we say thank you.
Throughout this entire ordeal, we have always maintained that the only way for the BVI to survive this pandemic is by working together and staying united in BVILOVE. BVILOVE is about looking out for our neighbours, caring about our country and ensuring that we protect it for our future generations.
BVILOVE is about banding together in the face of adversity, in the same way that our foreparents did when they faced their tribulations.
COVID-19 is a terrible disease and it is a killer. Of this, we are very certain.
But as a pandemic, it is a disaster multiplier – meaning that it is not just the health implications and the loss of life that is of concern. COVID-19 has economic impacts. It has implications for trade, commodity prices, travel, transportation, employment, incomes, education, and almost every other facet of human life and human security.
We have been acutely aware of all of this for the past 17 months since the virus became a global threat. And when we speak of finding the balance between lives and livelihoods, it has been about finding the balance between all of these factors.
It has been about the question of how much do you expand or contract elements on either side of the equation without everything tumbling down – without causing permanent scarring in the economy; without the healthcare system collapsing.
This has been the delicate balancing act for the past 17 months, because almost everyday, almost everyday something changes with COVID-19.
All the elements and all the factors in the equation are bearing strain. They have been since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 – and they continue while the pandemic lasts.
And the constant challenge has been to re-adjust, so that we can relieve and redistribute the strain and give persons and businesses a chance to catch their breath, and keep shifting like that so that everyone gets a chance to catch a breath.
This is not perfect. There is no play book that exist to guide you on how to deal with COVID-19. Every country is grapping on how to handle the challenges of this fluid pandemic, worldwide pandemic. But here in the Virgin Islands we recongise that we are dealing with a global pandemic that is for the most part beyond our control, and this is the only way to make it through and to help as many persons as possible to make it through with some of the measures and also decisions that we continue to make.
And, let me be clear, Mister Speaker, no Government can play favourites.
All sectors in our economy are important. Small businesses and large businesses depend on each other. Businesses depend on customers. The shoppers depend on having a job to get money to satisfy their needs – which needs are satisfied by other businesses.
Everything depends on the stability of the economy.
It is a cycle. Everything is interconnected.
To survive COVID-19 with no economy left is ruin. And there is no economy if there are no people.
And this is why each one of us needs to make sure no one is left behind. Your Government understands this, and I know that the majority of our people understand this as well.
And it is because of this tight rope walk that since the pandemic began 17 months ago your Government has been implementing various measures to protect and to balance lives and livelihoods.
At the start of the pandemic, we implemented measures to close and secure our international air and sea borders.
We upgraded our health capabilities. We implemented curfews and restrictions. We implemented protocols to maintain public safety and health safety.
These measures were tough on all of us, but with Gods help they worked and they continue to work.
And we continue to emphasise that the decisions we make are informed by science and what the scientific and technical community – the experts – advise.
And, our local experts are part of a wider international community where they are exchanging knowledge, experiences, data, analysis – a professional community that is working and collaborating together.
Mister Speaker, the facts are that 15 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the BVI – in mid-June, 2021 – had only two active positive cases of COVID-19, only one unfortunate death which occurred at the start if the pandemic, and a total number of recorded cases of 296.
We had no community spread. Cases of COVID-19 were being detected in screening and the quarantine protocols were keeping the cases contained.
By the third week of June 2021, active positive cases had jumped to 13 with 308 total recorded cases. And within four days total active positive cases leapt from 13 to 49, and then almost doubled to 91 active positive cases on 1 July.
On 15 July, 2021, active positive cases in the Virgin Islands climbed to 1,602 and the death toll increased to 8 persons.
From the following day, 16 July, the number of active positive cases began to fall and recent figures showed that we were down to 152.
Hopefully, it will continue to remain on the downward trend. But those up-to-date figures will be provided by the Minister for Health.
Tragically, we have recorded to date 37 COVID-19 related reported deaths. And on behalf of all the members of this Honourable House, I would like to express our deepest sympathy, and Mister Speaker, with your kind permission I ask that we have a moment of silence for all our residents that have lost their lives to COVID-19 the 37 of them and even those who have died outside of COVID-19. So Mister Speaker with your kind permission I’ll ask for all of use to stand for a moment of silence.
Thank you Mister Speaker.
Mister Speakers, these people where our family, they were our friends, they were business people and for us in the BVI each person that dies is connected to all of us and that death is felt.
And this staggering loss occurred in the space of just under three weeks.
We continue to pray for the dearly departed and for their families, friends and loved ones.
This is a small, close-knit community. And as I said, when something happens to a member of our community, we all feel it.
Mister Speaker, my intention is not to blame anyone. People have enough stress and grief to deal with. So I will not mention what the contact tracing has pointed to as an explanation for the rapid spread of the virus. That has been said on diverse occasions already.
The fact is that we ended up with community spread, and I have already mentioned the numbers of persons who were affected.
Our health professionals have always cautioned us about what could happen if we ever got community spread in the Virgin Islands. In the early stages of the pandemic, we were warned that with community spread we could have easily seen more than 3,500 positive cases on our shores – and due to the resources available at the time that could have led to a high fatality rate. Mister Speaker, especially if no preventative or precautionary measures were put in place but thank God that we did put them in place and we never reached to that 3,500 active positive cases on our shores at that time.
In the recent spike, we were advised that based on the transmission patterns, if certain urgent action was not taken, the number of infections could reach as high as 5,000 active positive cases.
And, of course, the more infections there are, the more persons who are at risk of dying.
Cabinet took certain decisions, again based on the advice from our professional experts, aimed at containing further spread of the virus among the local population.
These measures included from 6th July, 2021, nightly curfews, restrictions on the numbers of persons allowed in gatherings, in businesses and on ferries, limit visits to homes for the elderly and other facilities, closure of certain businesses and restrictions on the operation of others, and other measures.
These were revised as the weeks went by and as we situation evolved.
This is not a boast, Mister Speaker, but for us to clamp down on a major wave in such short time and to bring the numbers back down so quickly, it says something about the team that is working for our people.
At every step along the way, our team of professionals has been correct in their modelling, assessments and advice.
They were able to map the scenarios based on the science.
I know there are those persistent critics who are saying, well why did they not predict the spike in June.
But, Mister Speaker, in all fairness, the advice and the appeals have always been that transmission of COVID-19 would be mitigated if we follow the protocols of mask wearing, sanitising and social distancing, among others.
The trained experts have emphasised that if the virus sneaks past us and we end up with community spread, that we would be looking at thousands of potential infections. And they have also advised what would happen if we do nothing or if we respond too late. And what would happen with prompt action as prescribed.
We have taken the advice of the real experts.
We have followed the advice. And because of this we are seeing a flattening of the curve but, let’s not become complacent. We need to keep following the expert advice if we hope to keep the curve flat. And as the Minister of Health says all the time, “We are not out of the woods as yet.”
As a responsible Government, we continue to educate the population on the benefits of vaccination for those who are able to take the vaccines. Vaccination remains voluntary. It remains up to individual choice.
We recognise there are persons with health conditions for whom vaccination may not be an option. And, many of those persons would fall into the high risk category for becoming severely ill or worse if they catch the virus.
The more persons who are able to become vaccinated, the greater our chances of protecting those who are vulnerable. So, again, we encourage persons to think about their own safety and doing their part to keep others safe.
The Ministry of Health and the health team, together with volunteers and other supporters, have intensified efforts to get persons vaccinated. And make no mistake about it Mister Speaker, while we know it is a choice, this Government has and will continue to emphaise and strongly recommend vaccination.
The Honourable Minister of Health must also be commended for the work that he and his Permeant Secretary, CEO, CMO and his entire team has been doing. Mister Speaker to leave him out of our prayers, and our commendations would not be right. I know that he has spent many sleep less hours, Mister Speaker, going above and beyond the call Mister Speaker, deeply concerned about the safety of the people of the Virgin Islands and I want to publicly thank the Minister of Health.
The Minister of Health, will provide the most updated figures, but up to 7 August, 2021, records showed that 12,187 residents and Virgin Islanders were Fully Vaccinated and at least 16,553 were either Fully or Partially Vaccinated.
The Territory has also been able to benefit from the USVI-BVI Vaccination Bubble, made possible through the generosity of our neighbours in the USVI and Governor Albert Bryan Jr. We have also received vaccine supplies through Public Health England, and I want to thank Governor John Rankin and the UK Government for their support and assistance in this regard and even more details of this programme will be given by the Mister of Health.
I want to reiterate, Mister Speaker, that your Government cherishes freedom of speech and democracy. We fully support the right of citizens to express themselves and to criticise or disagree with your Government. But, this must be done in a respectful and lawful way.
Vaccination remains a controversial issue in many countries, and we are seeing persons in other jurisdictions becoming passionate and even out of control to the extent where violence has reared its head in some countries.
Violence and violation of the law and the peace is not acceptable in a democratic society.
Your Government has already expressed our agreement with the statement issued by CARICOM following the recent assault of St Vincent Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves by a protester while the Prime Minister was on his way to the Parliament on 5th August, 2021.
The violence that was displayed against PM Gonsalves was shocking and reprehensible.
I repeat, that has no place in a democratic society. This COVID-19 era is a time for unity and for working together. It is a time for being supportive of each other. There is never a good or a right time for violence – never.
The BVI is a community of BVILOVE. We have been a positive example to the world and we must take pride in continuing to do that.
I also wish to thank all persons who joined with us in the recently concluded 21 days of prayer and fast, because we are a spiritual people and we acknowledge the role of our God in protecting us and clearing the obstacles from our path.
This is one of the ways that we show support and BVILOVE for each other, and further strengthen our commitment to peace and community spirit.
So, let us continue working together to keep everyone safe, to protect lives, to protect the economy, and to help us to on the path to fully reopening our economy once again. And as we do this, we must bear in mind that even as progress is being made, COVID-19 is something we cannot see, we cannot smell, we cannot touch, we cannot taste, and we cannot hear.
And, this means that once COVID-19 is still out there we must be vigilant.
I believe in the ability of our Virgin Islands people to unite and to bring the COVID-19 cases back down; to unite to save lives; and to unite for the sake of securing our economy.
Working together and with God on our side we will get through the challenges of COVID-19.
I thank you.