STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE
HONOURABLE ANDREW A. FAHIE
Good day and God’s Blessings to you my people of the Virgin Islands.
Together, through and with the Grace of God, we continue to move forward with a clear plan of action that involves balancing lives and livelihoods in this era shaped by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
I must say that for the most part, we all have been doing remarkably well, navigating and implementing the different phases of the Virgin Islands COVID-19 response plan.
We are now in Phase III in the border reopening process which started on 1st December, 2020 allowing international travel through the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport and the carefully managed re-opening of the tourism industry.
On 15th April, 2021, the Road Town Jetty will welcome, for the first time after one year of being closed, international passengers arriving and leaving through the terminal, and we are excited about this because it is another reality that when we work together, we move the Virgin Islands forward.
We have had some setbacks along the way – most of them due to circumstances beyond our control and outside of our shores, but we have been able to confront these issues and learn from them, making us stronger for the future.
And, amidst the good and not so good comments, we have been able to achieve constructive, positive action.
So let me thank all of you, the health team, the Members of the House of Assembly, all Cabinet Members, public officers, the Joint Task Force, prayer warriors, the private sector and everyone who has been doing their part to get the Virgin Islands to where we are at this important point in our history, and in particular to surviving the COVID-19 pandemic so far.
We could not have done it without each other.
We could not have reached this far without the hard work, sacrifices and understanding of everyone.
We continue to encourage persons to become vaccinated so that we can continue to further reopen up our economy and increase the volume of visitors, customers and business in our jurisdiction and destination, and reinvigorate opportunities and livelihoods for all our Virgin Islands people.
For those persons who have already taken the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, please remember to pay close attention to the date on your card so that you can be aware of the date to get the second dose.
We thank the United Kingdom Government for making the vaccines available. We also thank the Government of Dominica and the OECS as well for gifting us with additional supplies of the vaccine.
As of 7th April, 8,519 people in the Virgin Islands population have had the first dose of the vaccine, and according to health officials, there has been no reports of any significant adverse effects to those persons.
I must remind you that the position of your Government is that taking the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice and it is entirely voluntary.
If you have questions or concerns, or if you want additional information, the best person to speak with is your family doctor. Your doctor will have knowledge of your medical history and will be able to give you advice that is tailored to you and your particular circumstances.
The vaccine is available to help to limit symptoms and it is an important tool to help in this fight against the pandemic, which has affected every economy in the world, whether it be the health care system, trade, employment, business, or travel. COVID-19 is not a local problem, it is a global problem.
Many other countries, and this includes our competitors in the tourism industry, are pushing forward to get their populations vaccinated so that they can speed up reopening of their industries and their economies. This is going to affect competitiveness among destinations.
That is why we continue to make important decisions as your Government to balance safety, health, lives and livelihood.
That is why we continue to make important decisions as Members of the House of Assembly to balance safety, health, lives and livelihood.
That is why we continue to make important decisions as a Cabinet to balance safety, health, lives and livelihood.
And that is why, as a Government, we continue to put all the options on the table for our people. Our present and the future will be determined by the decisions we take individually and as a collective people.
As of 7th April, there are 20 active positive cases of COVID-19 in the Virgin Islands.
This accounts for 13 persons on Tortola, and 7 aboard marine vessels.
Based on the epidemiological summary provided by the Public Health Unit team, 2 of these cases were captured in the arrival Day 0 screening, 10 on their Day 4 screening, one of the Day 14 screening and 3 through Travel screening. There continues to be 4 local cases, one of whom is hospitalised, though, for other non-COVID medical conditions.
Given a comprehensive report from the Health Emergency Operations Centre, concerning the various COVID-19 safety protocols and the increase efficiency at the Dr. D. Orlando Smith certified lab and the Public Health Unit, Cabinet made some important decisions.
I report to you today that we have lifted the curfew on landside. As of now, the 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. curfew is No More! Again, I repeat, the land curfew has been lifted. The health and safety protocols, wearing of masks and sanitising of hands, remain in place.
Regarding the sea, the curfew started at 10:00 p.m. However, Cabinet has now decided to push back the curfew on the sea from 10:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. This will further stimulate more economic activity on our Sister Islands.
With regards to school, we have reduced the distancing in the classrooms from six feet to three feet to now allow most of our students to return for face-to-face instruction. They will still have to observe all protocols, and this is in keeping with the advice of international and local health officials.
These new changes are all attributed to the cooperation of our people.
Your Government will continue to do its part, in the best interest of the people.
I wish to take this opportunity, also, to speak about the readjustment to port fees. I know that this issue is a concern to us all.
When we took office in 2019 as your new Government, we pledged to be honest and responsible.
We promised that we would not side-step any difficult and/or important issues and those we would deal with long-outstanding problems or matters which were urgent for the Territory, but which were left to linger by those before us.
Postponing those decisions may have been popular and politically expedient in the moment at that time, but these things are now catching up with us as a Territory, and we cannot afford to run away and hide from them for much longer. We cannot and we do not have the luxury of kicking the can down the road any more.
Users of our ports have been complaining about inefficiency in the service. They want faster, more efficient service. They want a wider variety of services to accommodate the modern demands of shipping.
The public have been complaining about inefficiency – and wastage to the users, taxpayers and to the organisation due to these inefficiencies. We are constantly bombarded with criticism that the technology and the systems are ancient and needs updating.
Port workers have been clamoring for better working conditions and better terms and benefits – and by all means they deserve it.
International regulators are breathing down our throats because our facilities and operations have not been meeting safety and security standards in a number of critical areas for many years now. It is important to note that our international inspection is within a few weeks, where all the preparations should have been done from more than five years ago are now being put in place even amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 era. But, these come with a cost.
In addition, the BVI Port Authority has loans it must repay. It has other financial commitments to meet. We keep asking why it is not operating with a higher level of self-sufficiency. But all of this is, in large part, due to persons in the past running from their responsibilities and running from the tough decisions.
When your present Government took office, we charged the BVI Ports Authority to address these long-standing and inter-related problems. We charged the Authority to address its efficiency issues, the issues with international regulators and the quality of service.
The Board and Management of the BVI Ports Authority examined all of the factors that were contributing to its position and began to address them. One of the issues, at the root of the problem, was the fact that the current fee structure was 25 years old.
Simply put, the BVI Ports Authority has not raised its fees in over 25 years, but yet the demands on the Ports and its operation cost have significantly increased over the course of the past 25 years.
Those fees were set based on operating costs quarter of a century ago. And, we can all admit, that a lot has changed in those two-and-a-half decades.
This means that while customers of the ports charged their customers modern day and current prices, the BVI Ports Authority operated with outdated fees that did not match the fiscal realities of the current day ports operations and demands.
The Board and Management when, as I said, have done a lot of adjustments in other areas. So, it is not accurate for anyone to give the perception that the only thing they did was to recommend raising fees.
We must not forget that during the peak times in the Virgin Islands of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the BVI Ports Authority lowered and waived some fees to support businesses and to shield our people from the full economic impact of the pandemic.
But as much as the Authority tweaks their operations to tighten up management, there is only so much they can do – and only so much we can expect from them - with 25-year-old fees.
And so, the Board set about to employ a decision that they believe is necessary for the ultimate development and revival of the engine of our economy, and to deliver what the international regulators and the public are demanding of them in terms of compliance and port services.
In order to upgrade the ports to the international standards while addressing the international obligations and other requirements from users, the BVI Ports Authority instituted a number of measures and decided on the implementation of a new fee structure. Their decision also took into consideration what the industry norms and standards are in regional ports and the fact that fees in the Virgin Islands are significantly low in comparison.
These recommendations were forwarded to the Board of the Ports for approval and subsequently after the Board’s approval, it was forwarded for Cabinet’s approval, and then to the House of Assembly where it was laid on the table of the House of Assembly without objections from any Member of the House, including Members of the Opposition.
It is important to note that Cabinet stipulated and instructed that all stakeholders be engaged for further feedback prior to implementation. Also Cabinet recommended that a full Public Relations Strategy be done by the BVI Ports Authority after the above so as to sensitise the public of the intent.
These recommendations were not followed. However, the BVI Ports Authority announced in January 2021, an adjustment to port fees, and the implementation thereafter.
Since then, the people of the Virgin Islands as well as the small business stakeholders have expressed concerns, mainly regarding the timing of the new fees. Some have also recommended to the Ports Authority the need for further consultation.
As your Government, we are mindful of the economic shocks caused by events such as Hurricane Irma and the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. And, as I have pointed out, we have also had to consider the other demands and pressures we are under from port users and international regulators.
We have to navigate these challenges – not as a Government in isolation, but as a one Virgin Islands people.
When your Government assumed office in 2019, we promised to always put the people of the Virgin Islands first.
We are a listening Government. We are also a Government who is not afraid to make the tough and hard decisions, as we are not here in our own interest.
This covenant is always the code by which we work.
We listen to our people and we work with our businesses to find the solutions that allowed us to reopen the economy while continuing to protect and safeguard our people.
So, as regards the issue of port fees, when you the public spoke, we listened.
I stated last week that your Government intended to review the decision and return to inform you the people pf the Virgin Islands.
After having discussions with many stakeholders as well as with members of the Board and Management of the BVI Ports Authority, the BVI Ports Authority Board has agreed that the Authority will roll back the majority of the recent fee increases to the pre-March 2021 amounts.
This means that majority of the fees that formed part of the fee scheduled to take effect from May 2021 are postponed.
Furthermore, the BVI Ports Authority has informed that the majority of the announced Port Authority fee increases will now be postponed until 2022.
As I said, we cannot run from this forever. We will have to find a way to do what is necessary while softening the impact it will have on the population.
I thank the BVI Port Authority and its Board for being considerate of the people’s needs through their recent decision to suspend the majority of all fee increases.
The return of Cruise Tourism along with other new proposed revenue streams are projected to allow the BVI Ports Authority to adequately function for now until our economy continues to rebound in this New Regular of living and working with COVID-19.
I must say here that we are a resilient nation, and our people are our own enduring strength.
Each time we get knocked down - whether by nature or human hands - we have gotten back up.
We have rolled up our sleeves and we have pushed through.
And we have held each other’s hand as we have done so.
I thank the men and women of the BVI Ports Authority and its Board for navigating through the challenges brought on by this pandemic.
I thank the public and the port stakeholders who came forward, with consummate professionalism and care for the industry, to offer constructive feedback in getting us to this position.
People of the Virgin Islands, we may not always agree on everything, but I am assured that we are all committed to the development of these islands, as well as always respecting each other in our most disagreeable times until we find common ground.
Let us continue to work together for the development of the Virgin Islands.
Let us look forward to brighter days, when hope triumphs over adversity.
Remember do not procrastinate, vaccinate.
We have the capacity to vaccinate at least 9000 more people. I repeat, we have the capacity to vaccinate at least 9000 more people.
Each supply that is currently on hand each has expiration dates, which is fast approaching.
We will continue to educate, and inform the public of the benefits and advantages of being vaccinated.
Our lives, our health and our economy depend on what we all do.
What we will not do, is allow our supply of vaccines to expire awaiting the decisions of some of the public.
In this regard, a decision will have to be made whether or not the volume of vaccines that is at risk of being expired would have to be returned to the United Kingdom and/or Dominica.
Also our proactive steps in securing vaccines from COVAX in 2020 would have to be heavily weighed, in that: do we want it or not? If it is that we do it will work out well, but if it is that we do not want them it would result in wasted resources.
I am aware that member states within the region are seeking to amend their public health laws to make it mandatory for some sector of employees to be vaccinated. It is not our intention to make it mandatory, I repeat, it is not our intention to make it mandatory, but it is our intention not to have the vaccines expired while in our possession, if others can do with it.
It is time for us to fully reopen our borders, reopen our ports, return to full time schools. All these can be accomplished sooner, based on our decisions to vaccinate or not!
The most credible option to rebound our economy at this time is the vaccines. This will ensure the safety of our people and the economy of the Virgin Islands as much as humanly possible.
I pray that God will continue to order our steps and give us the wisdom to make the right decisions.
At time, I ask everyone to remember and pray for our Caribbean brothers and sisters in St. Vincent and the Grenadines as they are not only currently being affected by COVID-19, but the eruption of the volcano.
May God continue to strengthen them during this time.
I end here by saying, my people of the Virgin Islands, let us continue to move forward in BVILOVE as life is precious.