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2022 needs to see a more active government

David Burt, the Premier, addresses anti-vaccine protesters backed by his Cabinet in June. Bringing the Covid-19 pandemic to an end has been an elusive task for the Government. (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Children today still like to play with Slime, which first gained popularity in the 1970s when it was marketed primarily as a disgusting looking green substance sold in a pretend plastic trash can.

Its attraction, if that is the word, lay in its slippery texture and its tendency to change shape, meaning that even when a child made one shape with it, it would slide around. Before video games, this was considered to be fun.

Political leaders around the world must feel that dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic is a lot like playing with Slime.

Unlike scientists who may get some vicarious satisfaction from understanding how Covid-19 works and may marvel at the way that MRNA vaccines tackle it, most politicians are more concerned with end results. They have to figure out how best to end or simply contain the pandemic.

But like Slime, the coronavirus has a way of slipping and sliding around and shifting its shape. Just when you think progress is being made, it slips away, mutating into a new variant and finding a way to bypass the vaccine that was supposed to restore normalcy or the natural immunity that was supposed to lead to immunity.

The reason for this somewhat laboured analogy is to offer a little sympathy to the Premier, David Burt, and Kim Wilson, the health minister, and to explain why after their sure-handed management of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 they have seemed less certain as 2021 developed.

It also means that the community should continue to prepare for the worst and hope for the best as 2022 begins.

At the same time, Mr Burt and his colleagues cannot, unlike the child who grows bored of Slime and walks away from it, simply resign themselves to “living with Covid”, as tempting as that must be.

Since being rewarded with a big political majority after an opportunistic General Election in October 2020, the Government seems to have been taken by surprise by events; moving too slowly to contain the second wave of coronavirus in March and April, again being too slow to introduce social-distancing measures in the late summer, resulting in the tragic and deadly fourth wave in September and October, which also brought the hospital to its knees.

It is not yet clear what Omicron will bring in the coming weeks. But the Government again has been reluctant to act early and decisively. If Omicron continues to display less severe symptoms, it may be rewarded for its lack of action. But luck is not a reliable method of governance.

It is notable too that Mr Burt has been distancing himself from Covid-19 as it has proven more intractable. Press conferences have been curtailed and when they are held, Mr Burt’s appearances have been rarer.

The Government has also curtailed the number of questions reporters can ask. This may have been understandable when press conferences were being held on a near daily basis and six or seven reporters were attending, but it makes little sense now when there are rarely more than two or three reporters present and briefings are being held once a fortnight.

This is not about the media wanting more than 15 seconds of fame. It is about the public being informed in the midst of a very uncertain time when they need as much information as possible.

Certainly Mr Burt and his colleagues want to move on from Covid-19 and to govern more widely. In this sense, the jury is out on the Government’s performance since the October 2020 election.

Certainly it has been distracted by the various Covid outbreaks, but the record is still thin.

Curtis Dickinson, the finance minister, has been hampered by coronavirus spending as well, but efforts to rejuvenate the economy and to diversify it remain difficult. Many of the 31 rejuvenation initiatives are vague or simply business as usual. And the One Bermuda Alliance criticism that there are too many ideas is right; having so many goals risks meaning none will get accomplished.

Ms Wilson, in fairness, has been dealing with coronavirus, but this means that the Government’s signature project of health reform has essentially stalled, and because it is has made several wrong turns it is not entirely clear what is desired, let alone achievable.

The Government’s other major reform project — schools restructuring — has changed too, and mushroomed in the process. The big idea of making secondary schools more specialised has been diluted, but middle schools will still be eliminated. And the decision to close half of the island’s primary schools was taken just months after a general election when it was never mentioned.

The reforms are likely to be expensive and time consuming, and it is not very clear what the outcomes will be. That some of the island’s best primary schools will be closed raises doubts about whether their success can be replicated. The history of restructuring is that the changes cause upheaval and the results take some time to improve.

Other ministers are also struggling to make their marks.

Rising crime rates and spiralling road deaths have been inadequately addressed. To be fair, policing is under the ambit of Government House, but there seems to be a kneejerk reaction to disavow any responsibility for these problems. “Not our fault” needs to be replaced with “how can we help”?

Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch has now been absent from his Public Works post for months and the Government has refused to say whether he will be returning to work. In the meantime, his stimulus projects seem to have stalled and may now be reduced as Mr Dickinson cuts capital projects in order to meet budget targets.

The Progressive Labour Party has not used its record-setting majority as effectively as might have been expected.

If Covid-19 recedes in 2022, a more active government seems both likely and in economic terms, utterly necessary.

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Published December 29, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated December 28, 2021 at 5:16 pm)

2022 needs to see a more active government

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