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The PLP’s honeymoon is over

David Burt, the Premier, speaks at the Cabinet Office before a crowd of protesters. (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

For virtually the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government is experiencing sustained criticism of its handling of the crisis.

Perhaps because of the novelty of taking fire from within the Progressive Labour Party and without, its leadership is showing a surprisingly thin skin.

At least, that is the most plausible explanation for the Premier’s recent maladroit attempt to use the recent deaths of two Bermudians, one in an alleged assault and the other in a hit-and-run collision, to justify the Government’s Covid-19 border control policy.

Usually David Burt is adept at sensing the mood of the community and adroit at sidestepping criticism or letting someone else take the blame when things go wrong.

But in this case, he got it wrong.

Mr Burt’s statement, and direct references to “anonymous Whatsapp messages” suggest he is wearying under criticism, which sharpened when the Government announced the mandatory supervised quarantine plan and has not eased since.

Mr Burt and the Government have scored several own goals along the way. First, it banned raft-ups for reasons that seemed to have more to do with puritanism than public health. Then the Bermuda Tourism Authority, which falls under Mr Burt’s portfolio, organised an event that featured a raft-up.

Earlier, Mr Burt was videoed enjoying mask-free drinks at the St Regis hotel opening while social-distancing restrictions were still in place.

These stumbles could be forgiven in normal circumstances, but at a time of Covid-19 weariness, they have gotten under people’s skins.

There is a significant and vocal minority of people who have taken umbrage at the idea that if they choose not to be vaccinated — which Mr Burt and Kim Wilson, the health minister, have always maintained is a matter of personal choice — they have to pay for 14 days in a hotel if they return from travel abroad.

This newspaper has argued that the Government should have used its ample powers of persuasion to convince more people to get vaccinated. Having failed to do so, it should be no surprise that people resist being told they must now pay the price for having exercised their choice, no matter how ill-advised it may have been.

This week, several hundred people demonstrated at the Cabinet Office calling for changes to testing requirements. But the nub of their argument was that they should not be penalised for choosing not to be vaccinated.

This newspaper disagrees with this position because the bulk of the evidence, and it is mounting by the day, shows that the best way for a community to move from the cycle of easing and lockdown to one of near normality is via immunisation. Those who choose to be vaccinated should enjoy more freedom of movement than those who do not because they pose less risk of transmitting the virus to the wider community.

Nonetheless, the Government has not managed this aspect of the pandemic well. Nor has it adequately explained why supervised quarantine is safer than home quarantine. It is a fact that the spike in cases before Christmas and in the spring were caused by people who should have been quarantining moving around in the community.

It is hard to accept that the innocent and the law-abiding must suffer for the irresponsibility of the few. But there is little option when one superspreader can cause a wave of potentially fatal infections.

And those who wish to travel — leaving aside those who have to for study or medical reasons and have not had the chance to get a vaccination — have a choice. They may not like the choice entirely, but they can get vaccinated.

Certainly, the Government has not helped itself. The imposition of the mandatory vaccination for travellers caused chaos at airports last week and while the airlines were blamed by the Government, the defence that they were told on Friday not to stop Bermudians returning home on Sunday was too little too late, especially when the health minister had said the opposite three days earlier. Mr Burt’s admission that it was “not Government’s finest hour” was a masterful understatement.

His statement on Tuesday night that he did not personally support mandatory supervised quarantine but had to go along with medical advice was worse; it was political cowardice. The buck stops with the Premier, not with medical advisers.

Normally, government or anyone else grappling with the challenges of a global crisis could expect to be forgiven for teething problems or struggles to get new policies right.

But it is difficult to forgive when the same government or its agents are refusing to allow elderly people to go home or putting tourists back on flights when they arrive after an officious bureaucrat has decided they have the wrong Covid-19 test.

By the same token, the Government’s inflexibility on expunging criminal convictions for curfew breaches or even on the number of questions the media can ask ministers on behalf of the public comes across not as dedicated public servants working hard to keep the island safe, but as arrogance.

This may seem unfair to the politicians, public servants and health professionals who have worked long hours for the best part of 18 months to deal with an unprecedented health crisis. But that is the growing public perception.

This has given ammunition to the opposition One Bermuda Alliance as it recovers from last year’s election drubbing, and more seriously for Mr Burt, the perception has spread to the back benches of the governing PLP, if not into the Cabinet itself.

The sight of at least four government MPs speaking out against government policy in the House of Assembly speaks volumes.

The PLP has displayed impressive public discipline in recent years, regardless of what infighting may be going on behind the scenes, so this was a significant break. That four MPs got up and spoke suggests there are more who lack the courage to speak out in public.

More notable is how few MPs and ministers spoke in defence of the Government. This is not to suggest that Mr Burt is in any imminent danger of being out of a job. He remains the greatest vote winner in PLP history and there is no obvious successor. But this is also the first time he has faced disquiet and he has not handled it well.

Mr Burt has shown some weakness and his opponents inside and outside the Government will have taken note. The honeymoon is over.

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Published July 02, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated July 01, 2021 at 1:09 pm)

The PLP’s honeymoon is over

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