Statement by Vincent O. Wheatley
Minister for Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration
2 June, 2020
Social Security Board COVID-19 Grant
A pleasant good day to each and every one of you.
I wish to briefly address erroneous, misleading and sensational statements made by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in response to the Phase 2 Economic Response Plan presented by Premier Hon. Andrew A. Fahie on Thursday, 28 May, 2020.
In particular, I refer to the alarmist statements by the Honourable Leader of the four-member tri-party Opposition in which he sought to cast aspersions on the legality of the conduct of the Virgin Islands Social Security Board (SSB) in issuing its $40 million grant towards the Territory’s economic package.
It is clear, firstly, that the plan presented by your Government is indeed a solid plan, and that the Honourable Leader of the Opposition knows this. That is why he tried to claim credit for elements of your Government’s plan. But, unable to find any substantial grounds for criticism of your Government’s solid plan, the Honourable Leader of the Opposition, just for the sake of heaping scorn on your Government’s good work, has opted to go out on a very long, weak limb to question the legality of the issuing of a grant by the SSB.
The Honourable Leader of the Opposition is very familiar with the processes and procedures of Government, and therefore he is very aware of the deliberate nature of his campaign of mischief.
In the first instance, it is not unprecedented for the Government of the Virgin Islands to receive donations towards public projects. On a very regular basis, donations are received for projects such as school repairs and purchases of various types of equipment. These donations have come from private individuals, corporate entities and other types of organisations, including the SSB.
Secondly, it is not unusual for the SSB to issue donations. The SSB has been issuing donations for decades.
Most recently, on 6 April, 2020, the SSB partnered with the local Rotary Clubs to donate $50,000 to the Family Support Network (FSN); an initiative that received very high praises – and rightfully so – from all quarters, including none other than the Governor and even high-ranking members of his own party. Is the Honourable Leader of the Opposition saying that the SSB was wrong to make this donation to the needy?
Further, it is also not uncommon for the SSB to donate funds to public bodies and agencies. On 7 April, 2020, the SSB donated $500,000 to the BVI Health Services Authority (BVIHSA), “to further address the needs arising in the Territory due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The donation was to assist with the purchase of essential pharmaceuticals, treatments, and testing kits.
In delivering remarks at the presentation of that donation, SSB Chairman, Mr. Ian Smith, highlighted that the SSB is a long-standing donor of the BVIHSA. The SSB has donated $1.5 million dollars for the purchase of equipment for the Dr. D. Orlando Smith Hospital in the past. Other contributions, according to information publicly available on the SSB website, include funding towards an Intensive Care Unit, along with the purchase of a CT scanner and an ambulance for the hospital. In past years, the SSB has also assisted with the purchase of pharmaceuticals.
The SSB also continues to provide annual training and scholarships to local nurses to further the development of the Territory’s nursing programme.
The SSB states: “These donations are in line with a longstanding commitment to the Territory, ensuring the Board legally contributes to the community to maintain a level of social protection for all residents of the British Virgin Islands.”
According to Mr. Smith, “the Board refuses to sit idly on the side lines when our healthcare system and people are in dire need.”
This is no different, to the position the SSB has always taken. In January 2013, the SSB donated a $90,000 dollar ambulance to the BVIHSA for the then Peebles Hospital.
But, not only that, Has the Leader of the four-member tri-party Opposition forgotten that on 19 December, 2017, the SSB used its funds to purchase shares in the National Bank of the Virgin Islands, while he was a member of the then Government? Until that day, the Government of the Virgin Islands was the sole shareholder of the bank.
Does the Leader of this four-member tri-party Opposition have a short memory? Or has he conveniently shifted his compass? What agenda is he really trying to achieve?
Why is the Honourable Leader of the Opposition trying to taint, and block legitimate assistance from reaching the BVI citizenry in their greatest time of need?
Is it not peculiar that for all these years and all these past donations, all of which were publicised, the Honourable Leader of the Opposition has had no query and no concerns?
But in COVID-19, during an unprecedented pandemic, when – as he has rightfully pointed out – citizens are in urgent need of social support and the economy is in need of assistance, the Honourable Leader of the Opposition can make such frivolous statements, just to create alarm and distrust, and to create tension in our society, at a time when persons need the support and reassurance of the leaders of the Territory to get through these emotionally and financially trying times.
As I have mentioned in the quote from the SSB, the Board sees one of its duties as legally contributing to the community to maintain a level of social protection for all residents of the British Virgin Islands.
Contributions such as these are part of good Corporate Social Responsibility, and indeed, it is a culture that is encouraged, because it is one of giving back to the society and helping the society to sustain itself so that business activities can be sustained in the longer term.
When contributions like these are made, the donating entity, is investing in maintaining the viability of its own economic base. It is ensuring that there is still an economy where there will be people and businesses in the future to continue supporting its business activities.
Citizens and businesses are under intense pressure due to COVID-19. There is a vicious cycle, at play here.
The slowdown in business activity is putting pressures on the finances of business. If you do not have the volume of customers and purchases flowing through businesses, then where will the money come from to pay workers? Where will the money come from to keep the businesses open so that they can continue being a source of employment for persons in the future?
That is why, some businesses are forced, with a heavy heart, to cut back on their staffing.
And now, where the displaced staff does not have an income coming in, where will the now-unemployed employee get money to provide for the needs of their families? How will they support local businesses? The answer is that they cannot, and businesses can very easily end up being out of business permanently.
But, by helping citizens to have a little money to provide for the needs of their families, and helping the businesses to keep their employees engaged, just for a short time, the SSB recognises that it can bridge the gap and survive this pothole in the road, caused by COVID-19.
By working with the Government and the various sectors, the SSB can play its part to put food in bellies, and increase the likelihood that businesses will survive, thus stopping the BVI from flat-lining on the scale, that will take us decades to recover.
By supporting the NHI, just as in supporting BVIHSA, the SSB is investing in its client base. Because a healthy workforce can better contribute to the society, the economy and to the SSB and NHI funds, while having to make less direct drawings from it due to illness and similar reasons.
I have never been one to politicise issues and I do not intend to start doing that now. The hardships being endured by our Virgin Islands people is a serious matter and it is not fodder for political games.
This kind of reckless, inflammatory politicking is harmful to the psyche of our Territory. It is counterproductive, to the goal of keeping people calm and safe, and to fostering a coordinated COVID-19 strategy, that involves all our people, working together, hand in hand, to fight the common enemy, that is COVID-19.
The SSB grant is consistent with precedent and is being done with full transparency. When the Honourable Leader of the Opposition makes reckless accusatory statements about impropriety in this matter, I would urge him and his advisors to bear in mind, that while they throw stones wildly at the Government, there are innocent people, those who we are in need are being injured, by their actions to keep people away from getting the assistance they are most in need of at this time. In fact, what the Leader of the Opposition is doing, is maligning the professional reputation and integrity of persons such as the Chairman, Board and Executive Director of the SSB, as well as the team of public officers at the Ministry of Finance and the Financial Secretary.
The SSB did not act on a whim or by guess. Its decisions are informed by an actuarial study conducted by a certified actuary, Mr. Derrick Osborne of the firm Morneau Shepell. The study confirmed that SSB has the financial strength to support a well-designed, targeted income support programme, for workers.
And may I remind you, that your Government’s economic response plan is being informed by the work of the Coronavirus Economic and Fiscal Stability Task Force, which your Government established in early March, at the start of the pandemic to advise, from a multi-sectoral perspective, the Territory’s response to the pandemic.
In these challenging times of COVID-19, our Territory needs builders, not destroyers. We need unifiers, not dividers. We need self-less-ness, not selfishness.
We need leaders who are mature enough to put aside petty, partisan interests, and to join in the national efforts. We do not need persons trying to be the architects of chaos, confusion and disorder, just so they can swoop in and play heroes or so they can score some cheap newspaper headlines.
We need leaders who have vision for the big picture. We all have the opportunity now, to be that person!
Let me take this opportunity to again register, on behalf of the Government and people of the Virgin Islands, our heartfelt gratitude to the Board, management and staff of the SSB, for their continued hard work and their support to the Territory.
I also want to appeal to all Virgin Islanders, Belongers and residents, let us continue working together. Let us maintain our focus because, even though we have no more reported cases in the Territory, the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over.
Let us engage ourselves in positive activities that will lend a helping hand to our brothers and sisters and our golden gems. Let us do things that will bring them reassurance, comfort and peace of mind. Let us do the things that will aid progress, and ensure the long-term benefit for our blessed Virgin Islands and her people.
May God continue to bless us all.
And may God continue to bless the beautiful Virgin Islands.