OBA says tough quarantine rules bypassed Parliament, but Burt fires back
The Opposition has slammed a Government decision to introduce mandatory hotel quarantines without a debate in Parliament.
Mark Pettingill, the lawyer for a protest group that questioned the legality of the order, also condemned the decision to bypass Parliament as “an affront to democracy.”
The news came as it was revealed that some Bermudian travellers – including Progressive Labour Party backbencher Kim Swan – had been blocked from boarding flights home.
David Burt, the Premier, defended the policy last night - but admitted there had been problems with the travel authorisation process.
He said: “Protecting Bermuda at the borders from coronavirus variants must be our top priority in this phase of the global pandemic.
“What some Bermudians are experiencing at airports is heartbreaking and we have made our displeasure known to the airlines themselves.“
Mr Burt added: “Some travellers have experienced challenges submitting correct information to the new travel authorisation and we will continue to do all that we can to help those arriving passengers safely and seamlessly get to Bermuda.
“As I said in the House of Assembly on Friday, the Government is not denying any Bermudian the right to return home.
“Whilst the requirement for a travel authorisation is not new, we have had to work with our airline partners to ensure that they have the correct information.”
The order was further delayed by last-minute changes – including one last Friday that saw the number of exemption categories reduced from seven to three.
The One Bermuda Alliance said that late changes to the regulations – introduced just 36 hours before they came into force – meant that returning residents were left confused about what they needed to do to board a flight home.
Speaking on Friday in the House of Assembly, Scott Pearman, the shadow legal affairs and transport minister, questioned why the Government had not tabled the rules for mandatory quarantine, which came into force yesterday.
He asked: “Where are the regulations? This is Bermuda’s Parliament.
“Why were no regulations brought to Bermuda’s Honourable House today, in advance of Sunday, so that democracy can flourish, and a debate could be had about them?”
The OBA said the Government had “bypassed” the House of Assembly and instead posted online their plans to force unvaccinated Bermudians to undergo quarantine in approved hotels after they returned.
But is understood that the quarantine regulations are made by the minister, tabled in the Legislature and could be taken up for debate if required.
Craig Cannonier, the shadow tourism minister, asked: “How can this Government announce their plans for mandatory quarantine many weeks ago, then twice delay the start date, and still not have the rules ready for Parliament to debate before the rules came into effect today?”
Mr Cannonier said: “To make matters worse … the Government couldn’t even produce their amendments to the Health bill that was being debated.
“We were debating amendments without the amendments. Total incompetence. Unbelievable.”
Cole Simons, the Leader of the Opposition, added: “Yes, the PLP commands a large majority in Parliament, but when the Government decides to restrict people’s civil liberties in this stringent way we need a proper debate.
“The Government cannot just make the laws on its own. Parliament makes our laws.
“The Premier cannot bypass Parliament and govern by press releases.”
An OBA spokeswoman added travellers were so confused they had “to resort to social media posts out of desperation for help”.
She said: “We understand the hotline has been swamped – long waits and disconnected calls have been the norm.
“While we understand it was the weekend, travellers are entering the island daily and waiting until the next business day is not tenable.
“Knowing that there could be potential problems with travel authorisation documents, the phone lines and e-mails should be manned around the clock.
“The Government needs to step up. Bermudians and visitors alike are very frustrated at this time and this does not bode well for our island.“
Mr Pettingill, a former Attorney General under the last OBA government, who represents Constitutional Freedom Bermuda, a pressure group that has challenged mandatory supervised quarantine, also questioned the policy.
He said: “The manner in which this was not debated or discussed in the Houses of Parliament is nothing short of an affront to our democracy.
“The fact that it is clear that a number of Government backbenchers have issues with the mandatory quarantine only speaks to the fact that those in power are prepared to deny a debate or face criticism publicly from people in their own party.
“How could this possibly be in the interest of a healthy democracy?”
Mr Pettingill added: “The issue of mandatory quarantine for unvaccinated people has become nothing less than a debacle and created significant legal and political issues.
“I have to question, after a year-and-a-half of managing this crisis well, who the Government is now taking advice from, given that so many right-thinking people – including medical experts and legal scholars – are opposed to discriminatory quarantine policy.
“The absolute farcical absurdity that is created by this latest action is that a vaccinated person who tests positive at the airport for Covid-19 will be allowed to go home, while an unvaccinated person who tests negative will be required to go into mandatory quarantine at a facility.”
Mr Pettingill asked: “How does that make any sense whatsoever?
“This holiday weekend, Bermudians celebrated on the water, on the beach and at family get-togethers across the Island. The end of the restrictions that have dominated our lives for far too long brought some welcome relief. But our ability to do these things is directly connected to a strong border policy. Protecting Bermuda at the borders from coronavirus variants must be our top priority in this phase of the global pandemic..” said Premier the Hon. David Burt, JP,MP.
After the weekend’s introduction of the revised border policies for arriving travellers, the Premier said: “I’ve seen the photos and the videos. What some Bermudians are experiencing at airports is heartbreaking, and we have made our displeasure known to the airlines themselves. Some travellers have experienced challenges submitting correct information to the new Travel Authorisation, and we will continue to do all that we can to help those arriving passengers safely and seamlessly get to Bermuda. As I said in the House of Assembly on Friday, the Government is NOT denying any Bermudian the right to return home. Whilst the requirement for a Travel Authorisation is not new, we have had to work with our airline partners to ensure that they have the correct information. I can confirm that the following message was sent to IATA - the international airline regulatory body - following the first indication of the issues with returning residents:
“Recently, some Bermudians have experienced challenges when trying to board flights to Bermuda because they did not have the necessary Travel Authorisation documents. Please update your system advising that, “under the provisions of the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968, no Bermudian should be denied entry into Bermuda, as Bermuda cannot deny a resident his or her ability to return home.”
We will continue to reiterate this message and make the point that no Bermudian should be refused boarding a flight home for this reason.
The Premier continued: “There is enough misinformation in circulation, so it is irresponsible of the Opposition to add to it. The Quarantine Order made by the Minister of Health followed the law to the very letter. The procedure under the Quarantine Act requires the Minister to make the Order FIRST (sign it and publish it) and then to table it in the Legislature. In fact this is one of many changes to border controls made since this pandemic began, and they have all been made in the exact same way. The Quarantine Act 2017 is clear, and the Order is properly made and operative.”
“The adoption of new and different restrictions has been a challenge throughout this pandemic, but these changes were announced on Tuesday as part of the regular Covid press conference, and so any suggestion that notice of the changes was any later is simply false.”
The Premier concluded: “This weekend, I felt the full brunt of the frustration of those people who have tried to follow the rules and fully appreciate the stress and anxiety these situations can cause. On behalf of the Government, I apologise for the unfortunate circumstances that have arisen. An entire team has worked this holiday weekend, making themselves available to assist as many people as possible, and that work is continuing. We must own the issues, and I will tomorrow invite the Cabinet to consider waiving any penalty for incomplete Travel Authorisations for residents while we work to ensure all travellers are familiar with the revised process.
“I believe, in fact, I know, that Bermudians are tired of restrictions which have had a clear economic impact on hard-working women, men and families. I believe Bermudians want this economy open and active so that they can work full time, pay their bills and enjoy this summer. It is only with strong border protection that we can maintain this. Our policies strike the necessary balance between our social and economic well-being and, like so many other countries, are designed to move beyond the pandemic.”