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Weldon resignation: A failure of political leadership

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David Burt, the Premier, Dr Carika Weldon and Minister of Public Works David Burch at the opening of the Bermuda Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory. (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The shambles surrounding Bermuda’s much hyped Covid-19 testing system worsened at the end of last week with the resignation of Dr Carika Weldon as the Government’s scientific adviser.

Dr Weldon returned to Bermuda from the UK at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic almost two years ago and took on the leadership of the testing programme. My most accounts she did this well, leading a growing team of analysts to carry out the all-important Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory.

Dr Weldon’s role has not been entirely uncontroversial, although little of this has been her fault. The Government has not been entirely transparent about the funding for the service or the lab, leading to various unfounded aspersions being circulated in typical Bermuda fashion.

And at one stage, David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, launched a strange attack on Black female civil servants in the health ministry, apparently in defence of Dr Weldon.

But Dr Weldon appears to have done a first-class job in often trying circumstances. Little of this came out in public, although following Dr Weldon’s Twitter feed was an often effective barometer of the state of the Covid-19 fight.

Now Dr Weldon has resigned, the last straw being the refusal of unnamed civil servants to listen to warnings that the lab would be overburdened by testing demands over Christmas and before the return to school. It appears Dr Weldon pleaded for school openings to be delayed, to no avail.

Dr Weldon told The Royal Gazette: “I was told that education had to be pushed forward and we had to make it work.”

As is often the case when brute ignorance meets irresistible logic, irresistible logic won. As predicted by Dr Weldon and evidently anyone with a scintilla of sense, the testing system collapsed, and the vast majority of schools closed. At the same time, travellers missed flights and others have been forced to isolate for days on end while they wait for positive tests.

Others no doubt have simply ignored the Government testing system and are relying on antigen tests and common sense. In the meantime, the Omicron wave gathers strength.

While Dr Weldon was careful not to blame David Burt, the Premier, and the other Cabinet Ministers who went on holiday over Christmas, it is obvious that this whole sorry episode was a failure in political leadership.

While it appears she was rebuffed by civil servants, the admission that the presence of acting ministers clearly hampered decision-making.

It remains impossible to understand how it was that the Premier, Deputy Premier, the health minister, the finance minister and the national security minister were all allowed to go on holiday as the wave of Omicron infections soared.

This is not a case of the Cabinet being surprised by an unexpected event. The first Omicron case was recorded in Bermuda at the beginning of December and it was obvious it would reach Bermuda even before that. If the severity of the infection could not be determined at that point, it was completely clear that it was highly transmissible.

Nothing about the testing shambles was not predicted, either by experts like Dr Weldon or ordinary observers like this newspaper. And while this newspaper does not expect its advice to be taken, this Government used to have a good reputation for following the science. But not now.

This was a dereliction of duty by Bermuda’s duly elected leaders.

Now the Government finds itself in a difficult situation. While no one is indispensable, Dr Weldon will be hard to replace. Few Bermudians have her technical knowledge or, perhaps more importantly, her reputation for independence and integrity.

The Cabinet has already accepted her resignation. All employers know that persuading an employee who has already resigned to stay is a risky manoeuvre, and it may be that Dr Weldon cannot be persuaded to change her mind. But it would seem to make sense at this point to try to convince her to stay for the country’s sake. If the Government’s worried about its own reputation in this, it should cast those worries aside. It cannot get any lower.

Much of the blame for the current debacle must surely lie with the education ministry, which seemed determined to open schools on Wednesday, January 5, regardless of the concerns raised by either Dr Weldon or the Bermuda Union of Teachers.

Opinion will no doubt be divided over whether teachers were right to refuse to get tested ahead of their official return to work on Tuesday, January 4. But it would have made sense to stagger the testing and school reopenings over a series of days last week.

This was in fact what happened, not by planning but by necessity, as the testing system was overwhelmed. The knock-on effect extended far beyond the schools as PCR tests for departing and arriving travellers were delayed along with many other essential functions, including the Government’s ability to type the Omicron variant itself.

Minister of Education, Diallo Rabain (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

In the middle of this, the one person who should have been able to make a decision to delay, Diallo Rabain, the education minister, went on his vacation.

Mr Rabain needs to be held accountable, but so does Mr Burt, whose failure to manage his Cabinet in the middle of this crisis is a rare misstep. Mr Burt has shown he can do better. He needs to tell the public how he plans to do so in the future.

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Published January 10, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated January 10, 2022 at 12:44 pm)

Weldon resignation: A failure of political leadership

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