Statement by Premier and Minister of Finance
Honourable Andrew A. Fahie
19th May, 2020
COVID-19 Update- Continuing to look ahead
My dear Virgin Islanders, residents and visitors, a pleasant good day and God’s blessings to all the people of the Virgin Islands.
As a Territory, we continue to hold strong in the battle against the COVID-19 Global Health Pandemic, which we must remember, is not yet over.
Some countries are still reeling from this pandemic as hundreds continue to die every day; as borders continue to close and to be closed; and curfews continue to be lengthened; as hospitals and their intensive care units continue to be overwhelmed; and, as a cure or vaccine is still nowhere in sight.
By working together – as a Government and a people – with God at the centre and head of it all, we have been holding the fort and holding our own so far. We have managed to keep the infection and fatality rates down to very low numbers when compared to most other countries.
After engaging in preventative measures such as the closure of our borders and the implementation of curfews for just over two months, we began the rebooting and reawakening of the BVI economy about two weeks ago, in a phased basis and under the ‘New Regular’, living and working with COVID-19.
The implementation of the restrictions such as the curfews and closure of businesses was necessary not only to prevent the spread of the virus, but allow your Government and its agencies to develop and implement the necessary protocols and to prepare our infrastructure so that we can face the new reality of living and working with COVID-19.
As those measures came into place, we were able to gradually make the changes relaxing the restrictions.
Suffice to say, if we make one wrong move by rushing forward, we would have to shut down and restart again – which no one wants.
To shut down and reopen again has a high cost attached – including monetary costs – which will have to be spent all over again.
I must remind you that going into these difficult measures, your Government consulted with all our stakeholders and we maintained a very transparent and collaborative approach throughout.
This included members of the business community and Members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
In the case of the tri-party Opposition, special formal and informal meetings were convened to facilitate Members of the House of Assembly who, for one reason or another, did not attend the public forums, and did not attend the meetings to provide updates on the needs of their respective Districts in their capacity as elected Representatives of the people.
We wanted to hear from all of them to ensure that no District was left behind in COVID-19, and we ensured that we provided the opportunity for them to do so. After all, we all have the same objective, I believe, and that is to keep our people safe.
Thankfully, we were able to still ensure representation of those Districts through the four At-Large Territorial members of the Government of the Virgin Islands.
I am on record saying – which I said in the presence of the Honourable Leader of the Opposition in our 24 March, 2020, joint press conference – that very good suggestions were received from Opposition members, and your Government is mature enough to know that a good idea is a good idea no matter who brings it.
You will also recall from early, your Government was proactive and established a Coronavirus Economic and Fiscal Stability Task Force to critically analyse the potential impact of COVID-19 on various economic and social sectors and to advise on the Government’s possible economic and fiscal policy response.
The task force submitted a report which recommends a strategy for the phased rebooting of the economy.
One has to be mindful that the world has not faced any situation like this in over 100 years and no one, nowhere in the world, has a playbook for COVID-19. Again, there is no known vaccine or cure.
The task force recognised that the global situation is very fluid—which means it is constantly changing as every country is trying to grapple with its effect.
What the task force did was to present a range of scenarios based on a variety of factors, with recommendations as to how the strategy for each phase can be adjusted depending on how the COVID-19 local, regional and international situation turns.
This task force also looked at what was happening in the world, paying close attention to the strengths and pitfalls of economic stimulus strategies in the region and internationally.
So, to reiterate, your Government has a plan that has already been in motion for some time for reawakening the BVI’s economy. This plan was developed through the partnership between your Government working closely with the various stakeholders in the community and guided by the work of the Coronavirus Economic and Fiscal Stability Task Force.
As everyone knows, we are already into our third week of the first phase of the rebooting and reawakening of our economy under the New Regular.
As we continue the rebooting and reawakening of our economy, the BVI will be moving to Phase 2 of the Economic Stimulus Response, details of which will be released on May 28, 2020.
May I say that in preparing the Government’s fluid plan, we took an eagle-eye view of the Territory as a whole and the needs of our people – both in terms of surviving the present as well as into the future.
So, the initiatives where you the people of this Territory received supplies of food during the 24-hour 14-day curfew were part of that plan.
The multiplier effect shows that at least 20,000 people in the BVI benefitted from this initiative in a time of need.
Your Government’s plan has taken into consideration the need for ensuring that our children are able to get back into academic activity – which, you would recall, was one of the highest priorities of your Government when we took office 15 months ago. Our children are our future and it is our responsibility to equip them to achieve their highest potential. This is not just an investment for the COVID-19 era, but our future advancement as a Territory in the new digital era.
The plan has also looked at our food security and employment situation.
Every person who has been awake and paying attention over the past few weeks is fully aware of your Government’s allocation of $2 million for the development of agriculture and fisheries to get our fisher folk and farmers the tools they need be efficient in their production. Can I tell you that any country that cannot feed itself is a country heading towards destruction.
In the last week alone, a number of major construction projects have been launched to stimulate economic activity, provide job opportunities for persons, to enhance the development of the Territory and to improve public infrastructure.
All of these activities are being guided by our plan; a plan which has to be kept flexible in the event that there are any more surprises from COVID-19.
Anyone who insists on seeing a static, long-term plan, etched in stone, during this fluid COVID-19 global situation is either naïve or being misleading. This is why your Government has been moving in phases.
I say this because it has come to my attention that Her Majesty’s tri-party Loyal Opposition has returned to their familiar strategy of engaging in propaganda, by promoting a magic-potion plan for healing all the economic wounds of COVID-19.
As Premier and Minister for Finance, I can assure you that the situation – and the solutions – are much more complex that the tri-party Opposition is portraying them to be.
One would think that the Honourable Leader of the Opposition, having served as a former Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development and Minister for Health and Social Development, would have had an appreciation of this.
There are numerous cases where countries rushed to open borders and rushed to implement economic plans and they had to quickly put in the reverse gear because infections spiked and the economic plans did not match the rapidly changing situation.
So, it is imperative that I must warn the public to be wary of persons who feel that they can get inside of your head and play on your emotions so that they can damage your relationship and your trust with your Government and with your positive future.
It is noteworthy that most of the basic suggestions and priorities listed in the document put forward by the tri-party Opposition and their operatives, such as in the area of agriculture and fisheries, were already contained in your Government’s plan and have long been in the public domain.
As with any plan, the challenge is—how do you raise the funds to finance these initiatives? Who will be paying for them?
Anyone can just list out lofty activities for millions of dollars, but the question is how will these things be paid for? Who will pay for them? This is what the tri-party Opposition and their operatives have failed to tell you the people, and it is why his pronouncements must be approached with extreme caution.
People of the Virgin Islands are well aware that the Territory’s financial resources are not limitless, but more than that, our position is under certain constraints that were not of this Government’s making – and which your Government has been working hard to overcome over the last 15 months.
Some factors were the result of poor management and poor decisions by persons before, majority whom now form the Opposition. Just to remind the public of what some of those constraining factors are:
- The Financial Services Sector has suffered a decline of millions of dollars due to measures such as beneficial ownership and open registry that were imposed by external forces. The former Government did not implement any plan to contain this situation, and hence the decline in this industry. The is resulted millions of dollars less to take care of the needs of you, the BVI public.
- No serious effort during the eight-year tenure of the last administration to diversify the BVI economy and to develop new revenue streams and new industries that could provide jobs and economic activity.
- The position of the UK Government is that grants are not an option at this time, and the BVI taxpayers must use their own money to finance any relief measures that they want. Former Government Members, including those currently in the Opposition, should have no difficulty understanding this since they said this was the response of the UK Government after Hurricane Irma in 2017 on the matter of grants.
- The ability of your Government to seek out loan funding to help our people and stimulate economic activity is constrained by certain conditions in the Protocols for Effective Financial Management due to conditions agreed to and signed to by the former Government. Your new Government has been trying since last year to renegotiate more favourable conditions.
There are persons who are saying the Protocols are not impediments to the BVI raising and spending money. But you have to keep in mind that those persons have their own agenda, and for the most part are not mutually aligned with the purpose of the people of the Virgin Islands.
May I also remind you that after your new Government made revelations last year of how the BVI was put in jeopardy by the former Administration when they agreed to some of the Protocol conditions, certain Members of the former Government said they were not aware of these implications at the time that these things were being done.
It took Irma and Maria to expose the risk that the BVI was placed in. And where the UK’s assistance in recovery and rebuilding so far has been limited in comparison to the scale of the devastation caused by the 2017 disasters; we are now faced with COVID-19 where the UK is apparently again saying that our needs are not always mutually aligned with some of their offers for assistance.
Heads of Overseas Territory Governments would have had the opportunity to be in discussions with the United Kingdom Government as each Territory discussed the response to COVID-19, and how the United Kingdom can support the OTs response.
I must say that each OT is unique and our needs are unique.
We are all at different stages in navigating this pandemic; and we have specific needs and have requested the UK’s assistance in meeting those unique needs as we think about COVID-19 and the upcoming active hurricane season.
For example, some of the Territories have gotten security and military assistance to reinforce the capacity of their local law enforcement authorities because that is their need at this time. Others have received personnel assistance to support food and medicine delivery as well as support from medical teams. That is their need at this time.
In the BVI, I thank the United Kingdom Government for assisting the Government of the Virgin Islands with acquiring additional COVID-19 test kits; for facilitating our discussions with Public Health England and for making sure that the medical supplies that were seized in the United States were released to the Territory. We also made a request for funding to assist with unemployed as a result of COVID-19 and the relaxing of our protocol to also take care of our people. So as you can see we all have different and specific requests and needs as we work through COVID-19 as OTs. I thank the UK Government for understanding that the Overseas Territories is indeed not a ‘one-size-fit-all’.
With respect to accessing some loan funding, thankfully your new Government was able to renegotiate some portions of the CDB loan so that projects could have been undertaken with local contractors and workers being able to benefit.
- Funding for certain construction activity is held up because we are still awaiting approval for the UK’s offer of Loan Guarantees for Recovery and Development post-Hurricane Irma.
Your new Government has been criticised by the tri-party Opposition and their operatives for not rushing in and signing on the dotted line, instead preferring to conduct some research and analysis of our own. But the fact is that what we met on coming into office – conditions agreed to by the previous Government - placed the BVI at high risk of losing control of its finances. That is why your Government has sought to renegotiate some of the terms of this agreement and this arrangement, starting with a revised Recovery and Development Plan.
In fact, had your new Government agreed to the terms negotiated by the last Administration, where COVID-19 has now shut down the global tourism industry, our forefathers’ legacy and our patrimony would have been wiped away.
- While there are some persons who are pushing us to dip into the BVI’s rainy day savings, it is unwise for us to do so to any great degree. We must resist doing this as much as possible. Because the BVI, as we all know, is prone to catastrophic events as we saw in 2017, we cannot break the piggy bank and spend it all at once.
In any event, we are limited in touching the Reserve Fund because this will compromise the BVI based on the ratios in the Protocols for Effective Financial Management that the former Government agreed with the United Kingdom Government
As Minister of Finance let me be clear not just on COVID-19's impact on the economy, but also its impact on the financial position of the Government. Because more than 60% of government revenue comes from financial services, it is important for Government to know what COVID-19's impact will be on that sector. Government is currently awaiting the May report from Financial Services Commission on the performance of the industry. This will make a material difference on Government's ability to secure loans to support the forthcoming economic stimulus package, as well as what resources may be needed as a result of the up-coming hurricane season.
Our seniors taught us that who have the watch does keep the time.
It is also important that you the people are aware that the Government approved a suite of immediate relief measures that the public service and statutory bodies are preparing implementation plans for, while the Ministry of Finance is working out certain financial details.
I ask the question of the Members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and their operatives, “Did you take these factors into consideration when you drafted the pie-in-the-sky shopping list – with no plan for financing the same?”
I am not going to put the people of this Territory through the dilemma that we were put in, in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes. Not this Government.
The Virgin Islands Constitution is clear - we have to ensure the BVI moves on a path for the social and economic advancement of its People, and to fulfil the expressed desire of the people of the Virgin Islands to exercise the highest degree of control over the affairs of their country at this stage of its development.
Clearly, in the actions that the previous Government took, as I have outlined some above – to which three members of the now four-member tri-party Opposition were a part - they forgot that there was a preamble to the Constitution and designed the Recovery and Development Plan in a way that it gave others back door autonomy and power that would cripple us as a people and cripple our economy.
The initial Recovery and Development Plan submitted by the former Administration practically took the BVI out of the hands of the people of the BVI. And here they are again with another plan, drawn up by whom? To please who? And to empower who? Because if we follow their lead then we would not be that architects and engineers of our faith in the BVI. The proof is in the pudding, just look at their track record in 2017.
Thankfully, your government was able to revise the Recovery and Development Plan now being executed by the RDA.
Your Government has to tread carefully; it is not our intention to compromise accountability, transparency, and good governance as we seek to negotiate some of the detrimental terms and conditions in the Financial Protocols that have been a heavy weight on our economy, and by extension our Territory.
We have to be careful with what we do because the truth is some of the decisions and actions of the previous Administration have put the present Administration in a very dangerous position.
But with God guiding us and the Constitution as a reminder that we must continue to work toward advancement, we will provide the right support to the people of this Territory.
May I also say that the present Opposition has been treated with much more respect than any previous Opposition in recent time. Your Government has ensured that they have been afforded the opportunity to have a say in the Territory’s affairs – even going so far as to reopen the Budget debate when Opposition members were absent and missed their chance to speak.
What the country needs at this trying time is to be united behind a single plan – one that is informed by the widest cross section of information, input and professional analysis – not to be engaging in confusion and narrow divisive tactics. We have come a long way and we have come through a lot by working together and by being united.
COVID-19 is not a time for playing games, political or otherwise.
COVID-19 is not playing around with us and we must not play around with COVID-19.
Your Government remains open to welcoming feedback and suggestions from all quarters. We continue to welcome the dialogue with the tri-party Opposition and incorporate areas where we find common ground in the best interest of the people. This is true democracy.
But, in the same breath, I want all of us to understand that the decisions being taken must be in sync with a Territory-wide picture that must also be aligned with global developments. In other words, not everyone will get everything they want; how they want it; and when they want it. Also, there are things that we may not be able to implement this week for good reasons, but those things may be better suited to a later date and so, timing is everything.
Your Government is well aware that these are trying times.
We are well aware that the New Regular is not easy and that this may be frustrating from time to time. But, by and large, everyone is in agreement that these adjustments are necessary to save lives.
May, I remind you that we have saved lives by being proactive. We have made sure that the $12M went into proactive measures and we were able to abort the projection that we would have had more than 3,700 confirm cases of coronavirus in the BVI.
So in this event your Government will not allow anyone to make us feel bad about doing good!
Our Phase 1 soft reopening, which is in progress, has been coming along well, and we want to keep it that way.
Can I tell you, that our future steps require careful planning, execution and much prayer.
Can I tell you, that while we are all aware of how important tourism is to the BVI economy, especially at this time, we have to be realistic in facing certain facts.
Reopening of our borders at this time, without proper control measures, places every person in the Territory at risk of serious illness and even death. So, before anyone asks the Government to just throw open our borders, look your loved ones in their eyes and then think again what their lives mean to you and what your life means to them.
Your life and that of your loved ones is the price some people are willing to pay to grab hold of power, and may I add, put it in the wrong hands.
Most of the countries in the world still have restrictions on international travel. This applies to many of the countries from which the BVI’s visitors originate. How will tourists get here even if the BVI opens its borders? How will they get here if their own borders are closed and airlines are not flying?
Secondly, the economies in most of those countries are also in decline. Many persons there are also out of work and have no money. Do you think those persons will have the money for vacationing?
Even if the BVI says we are ready for visitors, the rest of the world is not ready. The United Nations World Tourism Organization continues to state that 100% of destinations worldwide still have COVID-19 related travel restrictions for international tourists in place.
Out of all 217 destinations worldwide, 156 (72%) have placed a complete stop on international tourism. Most significantly, the organization further states, no destination has so far lifted or eased travel restrictions. This is the global picture and it is so until someone invents a cure for COVID-19 or a vaccine for the Coronavirus.
So, I am asking, the Members of the tri-party Opposition and their operatives, from where will tourists come if the switch is flipped in the morning and we reopen the BVI’s borders to international travellers?
Does any of them have a crystal ball or a secret cure for COVID-19 to make pronouncements that global tourism and global aviation will be back up and running by September? From whom did they get this information?
I cannot believe that the four Members of the Opposition wants to put the entire country – you and your family – at high risk, and to retard the Territory’s progress by reopening travel between the USVI and the BVI, at this time.
Are the Members of the tri-party Opposition aware that flights are still being allowed between the USVI and the US mainland, and that yesterday alone there were over 17,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 750 new COVID-19 related deaths in the United States? Already for today alone, over 900 persons have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Is this what our Opposition want us to open our borders to contend with at this time.
So, my dear people, do not fall for this uninformed hype and propaganda, and put your life and the lives of your loved ones at risk. Do not let others influence you into doing things that can cause you harm and pain.
In closing, I ask you the members of the public to bear patience and to continue working with your Government.
We have come this far working together and we have done well. Thanks be to God.
Lives must come first.
We cannot jeopardise the BVI by creating a health crisis on our shores. We cannot place the BVI in receivership by creating an economic crisis that is beyond our ability to manage.
Do not believe that because we in the BVI have a good handle on things that we must become complacent. We are not out of the woods. So, we must continue to conduct ourselves accordingly as we navigate this marathon.
Please note that I do recognise that the Opposition have their work to do and I do respect that. But, the Government also have our work to do, and we do not intent to fail or compromise the safety and the future of you the people of our beloved British Virgin Islands.
By working with your Government as we reawaken the economy in phases and as we work to diversify the economy and create new local income streams, you will be saving lives, keeping people safe and protecting our Virgin Islands for future generations.
You the people have shown your commitment in the past and I am confident that you will stay the course and not succumb to distractions.
So, let us continue to work oneness of purpose. Let us stay informed and remain laser-focused.
Each of us has a role to play to help our economy and to keep us safe.
Can I tell you that every time that you wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds you are contributing to keeping us safe and helping our economy?
Can I tell you that every time you remain 6 feet apart, you are contributing to keeping us safe and helping our economy?
Can I tell you that every time you wear a mask covering your nose and mouth, you are contributing to keeping us safe and helping our economy?
This is why we must always be cognisant that we are in this together, and together we will defeat COVID-19.
And despite all the naysayers whenever I say this I mean it, wherever you are God is and wherever God is all is well. All will be well in the British Virgin Islands once we continue to work together and adhere to all safety measures being put in place by your Government for your safety and for us to continue to work together on rebuilding our economy in this New Regular of living through COVID-19.
And I add that any leader who tries to tell their people that COVID-19 will be going away anytime soon will be fooling the people and need to stop.
So may God continue to watch over all of us—as we learn how to live through COVID-19. And may God bless the people of these beautiful Virgin Islands and may God forever bless the British Virgin Islands.
I thank you.