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Bermuda needs action to combat Omicron’s spread

Rest and relaxation: everyone should take a vacation to recharge, but not all at once. (Photograph supplied)

Presumably recharged from his Christmas vacation, David Burt tried to regain control of the agenda this week.

Politically this was a necessity after the Covid-19 testing debacle that followed the Christmas and new year’s holidays and continues to wreak havoc.

After headlines reporting on failures to open schools, passengers missing flights because of testing delays and worst of all, the resignation of Dr Carika Weldon after her advice was ignored, Mr Burt obviously recognised that this episode had severely damaged the Government’s reputation.

That reputation was largely built on its previously capable handling of the coronavirus, but has been severely tarnished. Mr Burt’s efforts have done little to help.

Some may accuse this newspaper of being churlish after Mr Burt refused to be interviewed by this newspaper’s primary political reporter.

That is not the case. Had Mr Burt carried out his other interviews with aplomb, then that would be well and good.

But it would not change this newspaper’s view that Bermuda is not a dictatorship. Thirty parliamentary seats does not carry with them the right to choose interviewers, and The Royal Gazette is not the state media.

In any event, a public relations offensive will not solve the testing debacle Bermuda is in, or the growing tsunami of Omicron-variant infections. Sound decision-making and good policy will.

Those appear to still be absent, notwithstanding the Education Ministry’s belated decision to start a pilot programme for antigen testing. Why now? Why not a month ago, when the scale of the problem was already obvious?

Mr Burt’s defence of his government’s actions falls at every fence. Even where he argues that the decisions made were reasonable, the subsequent evidence shows they were not. As a result, they fail to restore confidence.

First, no one disputes that Cabinet Ministers had worked hard and deserved a break. In particular, Mr Burt and the health minister, Kim Wilson, have put in long and hard hours, exacerbated by the need to make tough decisions, often with limited information.

But that does not explain why both had to be off work at the same time, along with the Deputy Premier and virtually every senior Cabinet postholder. If some were going to be off over Christmas, then others could have taken time off in early January.

Where did it make sense for the Education Minister, Diallo Rabain, to go on holiday [having been juggling the role of Acting Premier previously] just as the schools were going back? Who agreed to that?

Secondly, Mr Burt maintained that Ministers remained in touch with their acting colleagues throughout the period. If that is the case, then why, as the scale of the testing debacle surely became clear, did no one intervene? The problem with the testing shambles is not that it happened, but that it was so predictable and could have been averted.

Mr Burt went on to defend the resignation of Dr Weldon, which he described as a “difference of opinion”, apparently without irony.

He also acknowledged that Dr Weldon and presumably others had proposed other plans for the reopening of schools, saying: “We recognise that there was some inconvenience with delayed and staggered return to school, but I think that that would pale in comparison to some of the recommendations that were given …”

Perhaps some of these recommendations were unrealistic – Mr Burt did not elaborate and nor has anyone else so far. But it was also unrealistic to expect all schools to open last Wednesday when it was obvious that testing thousands of students and teachers, often on the day before, would overwhelm the testers.

Instead, on the night before schools were due to open, the Government announced that most would remain closed, leaving parents and teachers scrambling. A week later, schools are still not fully back.

In fact, if the Government had planned a staggered return to school, virtually all of these problems would have been mitigated or avoided entirely. If some students remained out of school, they would have at least known in advance.

Again without irony, Mr Burt added: “I think that most parents would agree with the decision that the best place for our students to be is in-person learning.”

Indeed. But Mr Burt did not explain why many students spent the first week of school remote learning, if that happened at all: the lack of planning meant many teachers had not been able to prepare distance learning packages.

Mr Burt then went on to utter what is becoming a common refrain; that expecting the Government to manage the Covid-19 crisis on its own is unfair and is somehow the public and the medical profession’s fault.

He said doctors and pharmacists would do more to help with testing, adding: “The testing backlog can’t just be on the Government – if we are going to move ourselves to a place living with the coronavirus there needs to be multiple places for access to testing.”

But the testing backlog is on the Government, because the Government took on this function when it set up the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory and insisted for so long that only CR tests would be acceptable.

Having moved the onus for testing away from the private sector at the outset, along with vaccination delivery, it cannot now blame the private sector for its failures. This makes no sense.

At the same time, there has been no explanation from the Government as to how it plans to manage the rest of the Omicron wave.

It appears likely that positive cases will continue to surge, although the experience of other countries is that it begins to wane eventually.

But in the meantime, with 1,600 active cases meaning that a multiple of that number of people must be quarantining, services of all kinds will be in difficulty. The Government has said it has a contingency plan for this, but will not say what it is.

The answer to containing the outbreak remains continuing to get people vaccinated and boostered, but there is no material public effort to make this happen and no sense of urgency.

It is as if the Government has decided that “learning to live with Covid” means pretending that it does not exist. But this pandemic does not work that way. Early and decisive action would have slowed the spread of Omicron, but that did not happen. Now, with cases multiplying, the Government is more intent on defending its past failures than preparing for the future.

The time for action, not public relations, is now.

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Published January 12, 2022 at 7:50 am (Updated January 12, 2022 at 7:26 am)

Bermuda needs action to combat Omicron’s spread

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