PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE, HONOURABLE ANDREW A. FAHIE
26TH MAY, 2021
UPDATE ON CURRENT MATTERS
Good day and God's Blessings to all the people of the Virgin Islands and beyond.
As we move forward together, to accelerate the further reopening of our tourism industry and re-energising of the Virgin Islands economy, as we continue to make major adjustments under the new phases of our strategy for balancing lives and livelihoods in this ongoing COVID-19 Global Pandemic, I am pleased as your Premier to address you the Virgin Islands people once again.
In my statement last week, I promised to do a better job in communicating with you and keeping you better informed on the work that your Government is doing in managing the very complex and interrelated issues emanating from COVID-19 and other matters.
So, today, I wish to give you an update on some current matters, including, for instance, the reopening of our cruise tourism industry in mid-June 2021.
Just to remind you, COVID-19 is the worst pandemic to have hit the world in more than a century. COVID-19 did not come with a playbook. And when the last pandemic struck over 100 years ago, the world was not as interconnected, globalised and interdependent as it is now. International trade and international trade was nowhere on the scale or as inter-twined as it is today.
To put some perspective to how we in the BVI are faring in our management of COVID-19, it is useful for us to have an appreciation of where the Virgin Islands stands in comparison to some of our neighbours, with regard to the COVID-19 numbers.
- For example, our brothers and sisters in Anguilla last month experienced a significant COVID-19 outbreak – jumping from 1 reported infection to 47 positive cases in the space of one week. A total of 66 cases were linked to one cluster of infections. Anguilla was forced to go back into lockdown and to close its borders. Latest reports are that Anguilla’s ports and airports are now reopening to international travelers after the lockdown. Indoor and outdoor gatherings – such as at churches, bars and restaurants - are limited to 25 fully-vaccinated persons. Anguilla, thankfully and Praise be to God, is down to 2 positive cases at present, no doubt due to the lockdown measures.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in Turks and Caicos Islands, they presently have 13 positive cases including 2 serious cases. Out of a total of 2,409 confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic, TCI has recorded 17 deaths. TCI is in the process of issuing new vaccination cards that will have the person’s photograph, and in about the next week fully-vaccinated persons will not be required to wear masks, allowing them to move towards resumption of normal activities.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in St Kitts and Nevis, they presently have 15 positive cases of COVID-19, of which 8 were new cases detected in the prior 24 hours. Their total number of infections since the start of the pandemic is 60.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in Antigua and Barbuda, they presently have 16 positive cases including 2 serious cases. Out of a total of 1,258 infections since the start of the pandemic, Antigua and Barbuda has recorded 42 COVID-19 related deaths. Antigua and Barbuda is now going to make it effective from 1 June that fully-vaccinated visitors would quarantine for up to 48 hours; so the BVI has been ahead of our neighbors in this regard with our protocols for incoming travelers.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in Barbados; presently they have 26 positive cases. Out of a total of 3,995 infections since the start of the pandemic, Barbados has recorded 47 COVID-19 related deaths. Barbados still has a 2-Day quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers, and a 5-Day minimum quarantine for persons who are not fully vaccinated.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in Sint Maarten, it presently has 80 positive reported COVID-19 cases. Out of a total of 2,370 infections since the start of the pandemic, Sint Maarten has recorded 28 deaths.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in St Vincent and the Grenadines, which is grappling with the fallout from a volcanic eruption, presently has 148 positive COVID-19 cases.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in St Lucia; presently has 242 active COVID-19 cases. Since the start of the pandemic, St Lucia has recorded 77 deaths. On 19 May, St Lucia recorded 35 new cases of COVID-19. As at 18 May, 2021, St Lucia health authorities reported that a total of 26,905 individuals had received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 17,301 individuals had received their second dose.
- Our brothers and sisters in St Barths presently have 542 active COVID-19 cases.
- Our brothers and sisters in The Bahamas currently have 1,002 active COVID-19 cases and recorded 225 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
- In terms of our brothers and sisters in Trinidad and Tobago currently has 8,150 active COVID-19 cases and their death toll since the start of the pandemic is now up to 390 lives lost. On March 10, 2021, Trinidad’s daily reported cases was down to as low as 7 cases with periods of no new cases, but in April, their numbers started to climb into the hundreds and on 21 May they recorded 708 new cases in a 24-hour period. Trinidad’s parallel healthcare system for COVID-19 was pushed to capacity and new hospital beds had to be added. The country is in a limited state of emergency with curfews and restrictions on people even coming out of their homes.
- In terms of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in the USVI are presently managing 90 positive active COVID-19 cases on their shores.
We are fortunate here in the BVI that with the combination of the hard work from our health officials and professionals; our team in the Government, the public service and the various agencies, especially also our private sector; the cooperation of residents and businesses; and of course the guiding hand of our God, we are comparatively in a much better situation today than most of our counterparts. However, our prayers are with our brothers and sisters throughout the entire Caribbean region and the world.
The latest data provided by the Ministry of Health for the BVI this morning, 26 May, 2021, indicates that the BVI has only 1 active case of COVID-19 which was detected in the travel screening. We have lost only one life – but one life too much, and of the 284 total cases detected, 282 persons have recovered.
So, you see, our protocols in the BVI have been working. Our protocols have been keeping our people safe. Our protocols have enabled us to keep the numbers down and to ensure that our health systems and other supporting infrastructure were not stressed to their limits and did not collapse. Our protocols have bought us time while the global scientific community worked on solutions – such as developing the vaccines and working out the logistics for distribution, which will aid in carrying humanity forward towards the goal of herd immunity.
So, in the worst pandemic of the last 100-plus years in the world, the BVI’s protocols have worked and continue to work.
And may I once again say thanks to all our hard-working health personnel and the other members of our team for ensuring that your BVI Government was able to make the right decisions to protect the BVI people and our economy.
It is not easy on any of us – whether it is the Premier, the Ministers, the Members of the House of Asssembly, the public health officials, the frontline personnel at our airport, sea port and the tourist board – having to be bombarded by persons about why we are not doing what other countries, big and small, are doing, and having to resist that pressure when the scientific data says that if you do those things the BVI will be put in trouble and lives will be lost.
Putting trust and faith in our BVI professionals, who have themselves been working with and through the international organisations, has allowed the BVI to keep moving forward with our plan for rebooting the Territory’s economy.
The evidence is there that the BVI’s protocols have been relaxed progressively over the past several months and we have not been forced into any major roll-backs. We have been reopening our borders in phases since June of last year, and we have not had to engage in any roll-backs.
We have been receiving international visitors in a phased and managed way since December last year and we have been expanding gradually, consistently and responsibly.
Since the reopening of our air borders to international visitors in December, 2020, we have welcomed a total now of 13,830 persons at the Terrance B Lettsome International Airport, of whom 10,119 were non-residents.
As you know, new arrival protocols for fully-vaccinated persons with reduced quarantine periods took effect on 15 May, 2021.
So far for the month of May 2021, the BVI has welcomed 2,261 arrivals at the airport, of whom 1,814 persons were non-residents.
So far for the month of May 2021, we have also received 973 arrivals at the Road Town Ferry Dock. Since the opening of the sea ports to international passengers in mid-April 2021, we have received 1,364 arrivals at the Road Town Ferry Dock.
These visitors over the past months have provided some economic opportunities for our accommodation properties, taxi operators, charter operators, restaurants, bars and various other tourism businesses.
Since we implemented the new entry protocols for both at the air and sea ports, the number of visitors coming to the BVI have been increasing. Contrary to the mischief that is being spread by some, our loyal tourist visitors are coming to the BVI – because the BVI is their preferred and beloved destination.
Decisions about the passenger loads for ferries and the number of trips that can be facilitated between Tortola and St Thomas, are not and I repeat are not decisions that we can take on our own.
They must be coordinated with the authorities in the USVI, who have their own protocols and constraints that they are working with.
As I indicated some days ago, your Government has been engaged in active and productive dialogue with counterparts in the USVI to increase the number of persons allowed to travel between the BVI and the USVI.
So, we are nailing down the final details to increase the capacity from 50 passengers to 65 passengers per trip, and having two trips departing Tortola at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. in the morning period, and two trips returning from St Thomas at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the afternoon.
We are also engaged in additional negotiations and discussions to have the number of passengers allowed on ferries to travel from the USVI – only from the USVI – to the BVI, to further be increased to just over 100 persons within an additional few weeks.
These discussions are ongoing and they have been yielding results.
As we go through these processes we are also assessing how our systems are working, how they need to be adjusted and what additional resource needs can be projected to handle the demands looking down the road.
At the end of the day, the objectives – both for the USVI and for us in the BVI – is to ensure that we have the adequate protocols, measures and resources put in place for everything to run efficiently and effectively.
While we have been doing magnificently with our protocols – and again, we have to thank our health officials and professionals for being on top of their game – we have identified areas within the BVIGateway portal and the COVID-19 testing lab where there is room for improvement.
These areas are receiving our attention. Some of the issues cannot be resolved overnight or with the snap of a finger.
Some of these are issues that emerged as the global COVID-19 situation evolved. We must remember that when our initial protocols went into place months ago, they were based on what the situation at that time was.
COVID-19 remains very fluid and as the situation changed, new opportunities emerged – as did new challenges.
So, I would ask that you bear with us as we continue to improve our operations.
COVID-19 is the worst pandemic in over 100 years. COVID-19 has no playbook. Every country, in trying to cope with COVID-19, is forced to come up with their own solutions. What works in one country may not work in another.
We have to leave room for human error – but at the same time we have to make sure that these errors are at a tolerable level, so that the entire system does not collapse.
So, let us give the team the chance and the support to do what we need them to do, so that we can continue the phased opening up of our borders and our economy in this COVID19-era.
I must point out that the increased arrivals – and even departures, through our air and sea port are contributing to the Territory’s revenues, and contributing overall to the economy by supporting jobs and livelihoods.
Of course, as we further open up, more opportunities are going to come, and this will mean more Government revenues and more money for our people to put food on their tables and to attend to their other needs.
It is also important that I let you know that as recent as this morning, our BVI team from the Tortola Pier Park along with the senior public health officials and other stakeholders, were engaged in a series of meetings with our international cruise partners to flesh out further details for the resumption of the cruise visits to the BVI.
These meetings have also been fruitful. Details being finalised with the cruise executives include how the bubbles will be designed and how they will work ensuring that the visitors get a safe and quality experience while protecting the safety of the local population.
These details are not being held back by either party. They are going through a process that ensures all angles, as much as humanly possible, are covered.
All stakeholders understand and are committed to ensuring that no effort is spared to keep the timeline that has been set for us to begin seeing the return of cruise visitors in mid-June 2021.
May I say that this again will enhance Government revenues and create economic opportunities for all our people, especially those in the tourism sector.
Speaking of Government revenues, I am happy to report that the financial services sector has been performing very well in the first four months of 2021. Between January and April 2021, the FSC revenue has exceeded $50.6 million. It is above the $42.6 million realised in the same period in 2020, and just below the $51.1 million earned in 2019. In fact, in April 2021, FSC generated $19.19 million compared to $11.5 million in 2020 and $15.3 million in 2019.
These are all positive signs for the economy and for the people of the BVI as we continue navigating through the worst pandemic in over 100 years.
Of course, your Government is mindful that we have to be prudent in managing our expenses and our spending, and we must make careful and wise decisions to ensure that the Territory gets maximum benefit and the best value for money in whatever we do.
We have to ensure that we are hitting the targets with our various programmes and initiatives.
Your Government has gone the extra mile to ensure that all our residents, Virgin Islanders and Belongers who have been living in the Virgin Islands during the pandemic were safe and provided for - whether through the provision of food and grocery supplies to households or economic stimulus to various sectors.
I want to remind the recipients of the various economic stimulus packages that when they received the funds they committed to providing statements to confirm how they utilised the funds provided and to provide data on the impact this funding support had on their ventures.
Please, do not delay in sending this information back to the Ministries so that we can close off the paperwork and complete our reports to account for what you have done with the money you have received.
I must say though, that COVID-19 exposed a number of flaws and weaknesses within our systems in the BVI – in particular certain areas of reporting and statistics. You would recall that last year, we were having public discourse on the need for a national census.
COVID-19 pushed the BVI into a crucible, and with little time and high pressure, things needed to be put in place. And in many instances the old pre-COVID-19 policies could not cope with the demands and the realities on the ground.
Those policies were conceived for a world that did not consider something like COVID-19, which has been the worst pandemic in over 100 years to hit the world.
So, we had to cater for some flexibility on all sides to ensure that at the end of the day no one fell by the wayside.
COVID-19 also exposed that some aspects of the Government’s records were not up to date – or were not being kept up to date. And one area where this happened is in the register, mainly, of farmers and fishermen.
More will be said on this when the ongoing investigation by the Government – in terms of the record keeping by Government themselves - is completed. But the preliminary facts show that there were persons who were engaged in farming and fishing at various scales and for one reason or the other did not find themselves on the listings at the Ministry, and some of them have been farmers and fishermen for many, many years.
Through COVID-19 and the stimulus programmes we are able to get the information to have these listings updated. We recognise that the status of all these persons needs to be regularised in the system.
And the objective is not to stir up any blame game or to point fingers at any public officer or official, but to finally get it right.
The objective is to take what we have learnt and to strengthen the systems, because we need to build our resilience in a world that is now prone to throwing economic shocks and catastrophic climate events.
As we continue to talk about progress and opportunities, your Government is continuing to work on getting the medical school established in the BVI before year’s end. One of the school that are advanced at this stage, will attract 50 students from other countries to begin with, who will reside in the BVI and patronize local businesses during their period of study, as well as allowing local Virgin Islanders the opportunity to study in the medical field as well.
This is a major accomplishment for our Territory as this medical school is projected to be able to house as many as 200 students in the near future. But there are other medical schools knocking on the doors of this Territory and we will report on them in due course.
I am happy to report that starting this Friday, we will be having a doctor present at the station on our Sister Island of Anegada, starting from Friday and going into three to four days of 24-hour service, having a doctor on the island of Anegada. We intend to make sure that this continues for the 7 days in the week; but this is a good start seeing that this is something that most administrations had found challenge to make sure that they fulfill. And this will also be extended within a month’s time to the island of Jost Van Dyke.
It is time our Sister Islands do have a doctor on-island 24 hours a day. And while we are starting with just three to four days of 24 hours, it is indeed a step in the right direction.
For years and through successive administrations, our Sister Islands have been without the regular services of a doctor on-island.
Your Government has taken the decisive step to correct this situation. At present, arrangements are in place for a doctor on-island, like I said, in Anegada for 3-4 days per week, 24-hours per day, starting Friday. The same arrangements will go in place for Jost Van Dyke within a further month or so.
This is good news for our Sister Islands, and still we have a lot more to do.
Your Government continues to try to stretch our limited resources to make sure the needs of our people are taken care of during this worst pandemic in the last 100 years, and to balance lives and livelihoods.
Your Government has recognised that the impacts of COVID-19 are indeed broad and deep. We recognise that this has been a challenging time for everyone – financially and emotionally. We recognise this as we travel throughout the Territory and speak to people.
This is why, you would recall, that an action point was given to the Minister of Health by Cabinet to report on the Social Impact of COVID-19 on the BVI population.
And although we have assisted the population with grants to the various sectors and other types of support, it is clear there are some deep social needs among our people; especially among single mothers where the need seems to be more prevalent.
As a Government, we are eager to receive this social impact report from the Minister for Health, so that we can identify the areas where we can put funding and programmes in place along with the Social Development Department, and bring the help to those who are truly in need given the challenges of COVID-19.
From Anegada to Jost Van Dyke, please know that your Government has heard your cry. We have not and we will not play politics with COVID-19 and its impacts on you the people.
I wish also, on another note, to very quickly let you know that the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), is working with service providers to address the renewal processes for telecommunications licenses.
These licenses are due to expire in 2022, and the procedure is such that one year before the expiry of the license, negotiations can begin.
For those providers who are in the one-year window, the process has begun.
And as these negotiations proceed, I want give you the reassurance that the TRC will be looking to ensure that the needs and interests of the BVI population are taken into serious consideration, especially as these relate to service quality and pricing.
As I come to the end, I wish to reiterate that your Government and all our stakeholders are moving to push the BVI economy into overdrive.
And I want you to know that in a few weeks time the East-End/Long Look Sewerage Project will be in full gear. This is a project that we have started and, due to some technical work that needed to be refined, has met with a slight pause. But it will be moving with full steam and full overdrive power within the next few weeks.
We are also seeing that projects such as the Market Square project will also be getting on the move and into overdrive, as well as some of our sea defense projects on the northern side of the Island into the Carrot Bay area, and eventually into the Cane Garden Bay Area, will also get into overdrive.
We are also seeing some other Government projects that we will be coming to the public to give further details on, that also will be going into overdrive.
So, as residents, Virgin Islanders and stakeholders, you must prepare yourselves. You must be proactive in identifying your opportunities and the niches where you will position yourself.
The economy continues to grow, coming out of the COVID-19 era, which is still continuing but we have to continue to learn how to live and work in COVID-19.
So, we have projects upcoming. And some also include the expansion of the runways at Virgin Gorda airport, and also the technical discussions to start looking at the expansion of the Terrance B Lettsome International Airport. These will expand economic opportunities, and they will complement the many other tourism initiatives and business initiatives such as the medical schools, certain local and foreign and mixture of investors, and many other areas that are forthcoming.
We have opportunities that are coming and we continue to ask our people to be ready.
There is a lot in store as the tourism industry further opens up and we begin to see increasing numbers of visitors coming in.
I was pleased when I visited Jost Van Dyke just yesterday for a public meeting on the Integrity in Public Life Bill, with the number of visitors that I met. And I had the opportunity to stop and speak with them and they have stated that they enjoy their time in the BVI and they told me how many more of their friends are coming. It tells me that the BVI is on the rise without doubt; ensuring the safety of our people.
May God continue to bless and protect these Virgin Island and her people.
I thank you, and now I will open the floor for questions from the media.