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It’s past time to mandate vaccinations

The Government has mismanaged the latest outbreak of the coronavirus. It is that simple.

Having managed the coronavirus well in 2020 — and been rewarded at the polls as a result — the Progressive Labour Party government’s handling of the present outbreak has been far less sure-handed.

It is not too late to repair the damage, but time is running out.

Why Bermuda put itself in this position is a mystery. Managing the pandemic continues to demand tough decisions but the rulebook is well established:

• Pay attention to the science

• When the first signs of a new outbreak emerge, act quickly and decisively

• Apply tough measures early, even if they do not seem entirely necessary at the time

The Premier, David Burt, acknowledged before the spring outbreak that peaked with more than 900 active cases, up to 40 people in hospital and 21 deaths, that the Government and Bermuda had become too complacent and had not acted quickly enough.

That was perhaps forgivable. But, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to err once is unfortunate. To err twice is careless or worse.

And beginning with Cup Match, Bermuda has indeed erred again. First, there was a wilful denial that allowing official and unofficial gatherings over the Cup Match weekend would lead to a spike in Covid-19 infections, especially with the Delta variant taking hold.

Then, beginning with the Premier, but extending to others as well, there was an attempt to maintain that even if cases were rising, Bermuda's vaccination rate meant that hospital cases would be limited. And that, Mr Burt claimed, in virtually his last public statements before vanishing from the public eye, was the real goal of any containment strategy — to prevent the hospital from being overwhelmed as it nearly was with 40 cases in March and April.

Yesterday, the number of active Covid-19 cases reached a record 1,427 and showed no sign of slowing. Fifty-one people were in hospital with 12 in critical care, the latter one case down from Friday’s records. All of those measures are higher than when the April outbreak was at its peak. It need not have been this bad.

Only deaths have not yet matched April’s toll. By Friday, five people had died since August 31. Two days later, the total is nine. History has shown that Covid-related deaths come after several days of symptoms, so the tragic likelihood is that they will not be the last victims of this spike.

If not entirely avoidable, the scale of this outbreak could have been reduced significantly if the Government had acted sooner.

The farcical "reopening" of schools is emblematic of the incompetence that has characterised the Government's mismanagement of this crisis. In the course of three days, the plans for reopening went from “phase three” or nearly normal apart from mask wearing to “phase one”, meaning there would be no classroom learning. It was as if Bermuda’s leadership refused to acknowledge the evidence in front of them until it was figuratively pushed in their faces.

Last week, the Government finally announced new measures, with the favourite targets of restaurants and raft-ups again bearing the brunt. A 12.30am to 5am curfew was announced, which for most people is no curfew at all.

And yet the Government has refused to take the steps that would really stop this outbreak and Covid-19 in its tracks. Mr Burt all but ruled out further restrictions yesterday.

It has also failed for months now to encourage vaccinations with anything resembling vigour.

It has resisted all efforts to mandate vaccinations in key sectors. The fact that four in ten of people who work for the Bermuda Hospitals Board — including 30 per cent of nurses — are unvaccinated is a travesty. Of course, the hospitals are going to be overwhelmed if large numbers of their own staff are at risk of contracting the virus.

To that end, it seems obvious that requiring hospital staff to vaccinate, apart from in the rare instances of medical exceptions, is needed. If the Government can insist that unvaccinated, incoming travellers must stay in hotels for two weeks at their own expense in the public interest, then surely healthcare providers can insist on vaccinations as a condition of employment. The courts upheld supervised quarantine as being in the public interest in a health emergency; the same thinking must surely apply to the hospital.

By the same token, employers should be able to demand that SafeKey be applied in workplaces. At the moment, the Government requires SafeKey for public indoor spaces and can require social distancing in supermarkets and the like. Employers should be able to require the same for private indoor spaces such as offices, industrial facilities and the like, especially those that deliver essential services.

There are other measures that can and should be taken right now to contain this outbreak. Numbers should be limited in shops and other businesses. Exemptions for large gatherings need to end immediately.

Booster shots for the vaccinated have been finally approved and this is to the Government’s slight credit. The evidence shows that they improve the efficacy of vaccines and will reduce the spread and impact of the virus. But inevitably there is a kicker; the Government has allowed Bermuda’s reserves of vaccines to run down to virtually nothing, meaning boosters cannot happen immediately but must wait until the British Government provides more.

To the vaccinated, who have already done their part to end this contagion, much of this will seem unfair. Although vaccinations are not fully resistant to the Delta variant, all of the evidence shows they reduce symptoms. A tiny percentage of people in hospital are vaccinated. No one who was fully vaccinated has ever died of Covid-19 in Bermuda.

But the vaccinated must suffer because of the people who refuse to get the shot in the face of overwhelming evidence. To that extent, the severity of this outbreak cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the Government. If the unvaccinated did not solely bring the Delta variant to Bermuda, they have certainly done most of the spreading. The numbers do not lie.

So those who continue to put their own selfish desires and misguided beliefs ahead of the common good, even when people are literally dying because of it, must take responsibility for this.

For months now, the Government and others have tried the softly-softly approach with the vocal minority who put their own and others’ lives at risk. This has to stop. The Government, because it is the only institution with the power to do so, must make it clear that those who refuse to vaccinate will be unable to participate in day-to-day life.

The alternative — which is no alternative — is to continue the cycle of lockdowns to the point of mental exhaustion and economic collapse.

The voters of this country gave Mr Burt and the PLP 30 seats so they could make hard decisions for the benefit of all. Bermuda needs to mandate vaccinations and SafeKey in the workplace.

Mr Burt, do your job.

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Published September 20, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated September 20, 2021 at 7:48 pm)

It’s past time to mandate vaccinations

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