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More questions than answers over St Regis

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Work continues on the 120-room St Regis Hotel, which is set to open on May 22 (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Imposing stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders for prolonged periods of time has always depended on the consent of the people.

When Bermuda embarked on its efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, it had to put in place laws and severe penalties for those who would breach the requirements. But these penalties were aimed at a small minority because it was assumed that the vast majority of people would accept the restrictions.

That's because there is, or has been, a consensus that the restrictions, based on medical advice, are for the greater good. It was broadly accepted that sheltering in place and bringing the economy to a halt were necessary steps to prevent mass deaths and to stop the health services from being overwhelmed.

But if the vast majority of people decided not to follow the rules, there would be very little the Government could do about it, short of imposing martial law and turning large numbers of people into criminals.

To achieve consent, the vast majority of people had to accept the medical reasons for it — and they did. To stop the spread of the virus required social distancing and, when surges of infections have occurred, lockdowns.

So clear communication for the reasons for the lockdowns has been essential and it has also been vital that the public have trust in the medical experts and the Government.

To date, this trust has been strong, as was made obvious in the October 2020 General Election when the Progressive Labour Party was re-elected with a record majority. That vote was, above all, an endorsement of its handling of the pandemic.

Recently, and mainly because of mistakes of the Government's own making, it has been fraying.

First, although Bermuda has made good progress on vaccinating the population, thanks in part to the contributions of the British Government, it has been largely a question of preaching to the converted. Those people who accept the validity and importance of the vaccine have needed little encouragement to register and get the shots.

The harder part is convincing the less motivated and those who are opposed to the idea. Here, there has been a fair amount of conflicting information ranging from legitimate and understandable concerns about the speed of the vaccines' development to scientific fantasy that would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.

The Government has not done as effective a communications job on combating misinformation or encouraging people to get immunised as it should have. That raises the concern that Bermuda will not meet the target of 70 per cent immunisation and herd immunity by the end of May.

It is a little ironic that a political party that has been so effective at campaigning and so masterful at using social media to send messages to its voters should have stumbled on vaccinations. In part it is because vaccination information is more a matter of persuasion than confirmation of preconceived biases, but it may also be because there is more opposition to vaccinations within the PLP base than in the broader community.

The other aspect of fraying trust is owing to any examples of perceived unfairness. Consensus depends heavily on the idea of shared sacrifice. And while it is true that the pandemic has laid bare inequality, and has affected people in different economic sectors very differently, there was a feeling through the first two lockdowns that everyone was affected in much the same way.

The voicing of concerns over SailGP training and how the event will be handled was the first sign of disquiet. To some degree, the PLP has been the cause of its own misfortune in this. Having been at best lukewarm about the America’s Cup and other “boat races for millionaires”, it has looked decidedly uncomfortable about defending the economic benefits that will accrue from this event.

Much worse has been its mishandling of the St Regis work exemption. It appears that the hotel's owners made an argument to allow work to continue to meets its looming opening date. Permission was given but was not made public.

Two days into the lockdown, as word spread that work was still under way, the Government made an abrupt about-turn and withdrew the exemption. The hotel claimed it had spoken to the Premier and had done nothing wrong. The Minister of National Security denied having personally issued the exemption or even knowing it had been granted. The Premier admitted on Friday having had discussions but refused to say who had granted the exemption.

Now Renée Ming, the minister responsible for exemptions, appears not to know what is happening in her own ministry. David Burt, the Premier, said there were a lot of exemption applications, so the minister could not be expected to see them all.

Yet the St Regis must have been one of the biggest exemption applications, and to make matters worse, is in the minister's own constituency. So she appears not to know what is going on either in her ministry or in her backyard. This raises questions about the competence of the minister and the Government.

But Mr Burt's refusal to take responsibility and refusal to answer questions is more alarming. He has admitted he knew about the application as the minister responsible for tourism. If a civil servant issued the exemption, he deserves a little credit for not throwing that person under the bus. But if that is the case, then he should take full responsibility. Instead, he looks evasive.

In fact, there were good arguments for allowing the St Regis project to continue through the stay-at-home order. It is a major project with an imminent opening. When it opens it will start to generate badly needed jobs and activity in St George's. Provided appropriate testing and distancing protocols are carried out, it can be shown to be in the public interest.

Presumably when the exemption was granted, these ideas were foremost in the minds of the decision-makers, whoever they were. But to then abandon the exemption without a word shows a certain cravenness and indecision, which does not augur well for the future.

There is, of course, a risk that once one exemption is issued, others must follow. Questions were indeed asked why St Regis got an exemption when a tourism project at the Azura resort did not. But with transparency and clear communications, most of these problems go away.

What this emphasises is a general sense of disorganisation around this stay-at-home order. Mr Burt indicated quite strongly a week earlier that he thought the measures in place would be sufficient, but was rapidly proved wrong.

The Government's handling of this period has been less deft than in earlier incidents. Even now, the statistics do not really support an easing of restrictions. It would appear that the restrictions have slowed the growth of infections and the number of active cases have plateaued at about 850, but they have not yet shown signs of decreasing — and more deaths have occurred.

The broader risk for Mr Burt is that having brought in restrictions too late, he is easing them too early.

In the meantime, the importance of vaccinations is more important than ever.

For those who believe their own immune systems are sufficient to ward off the virus, consider this: there are families of 19 people who prove that theory wrong, and many more people living with the long-term effects of Covid-19.

Get vaccinated, if not for yourselves, then for the people you will not affect as a result.

This was corrected to reflect the fact that 19 people have now died from Covid-19. An excerpt from Friday’s press conference with David Burt, the Premier, has also been added.

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Published April 19, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated April 19, 2021 at 4:26 pm)

More questions than answers over St Regis

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