‘Public must shape post-virus world’
The public must help shape the future of the island after the Covid-19 state-of-emergency restrictions are lifted, a government backbencher said yesterday.
Jason Hayward, a former leader of the Bermuda Public Services Union, predicted a bleak future for low-income families if there was a failure to rethink social policy after the crisis.
Mr Hayward highlighted figures from Curtis Dickinson, the finance minister, that Bermuda's economy would shrink by 7.5 per cent to 12.5 per cent this financial year because of the pandemic.
Mr Hayward said: “That is between $484 million and $808 million at constant prices.
“The estimated decline in GDP is larger than the current contribution of both our construction industry, at 4.3 per cent of GDP, and our wholesale and retail industry, 5 per cent of GDP.”
He said tourism and tourism-related businesses, which employed more than 5,000 people, would “definitely” contract and damage an industry that contributed $166 million a year to the Government — 16 per cent of annual revenue.
The Bermuda Tourism Authority announced last week that its board members would give up 20 per cent of their payment for this year and that staff had cut their work week by one to two days.
The Bermuda Taxi Owners Association this week reported hundreds of taxi drivers were out of work and Philip Barnett, head of the Island Restaurant Group, said more than 95 per cent of staff in his sector had been laid off.
Mr Hayward appealed for the public to contribute their suggestions through the Bermuda Citizens Forum on the government website “so we can collectively shape the policies of the future”.
He said: “The top policy priorities would be for us to ensure that we have the proper social protections in place to prevent people from slipping into poverty.”
Mr Hayward added that the emergency unemployment benefits programme, unveiled on March 18 by Lovitta Foggo, the labour minister, was “timely and appropriate social protection”.
The scheme, at first scheduled to run for 12 weeks, was designed to give “short-term relief to the thousands who find themselves unemployed”. Mr Hayward said: “The total social and economic impact of Covid-19 is unknown.
“However, when we emerge from this pandemic, Bermuda and the rest of the world will have to grapple with a new normal — a new normal that will require critical and decisive policy responses.”
Mr Hayward added that other areas that needed the public's viewpoints were “assessing our workforce landscape to see where job opportunities exist for the unemployed” and “finding ways to ensure support of future economic activity”. He said: “Rebuilding a resilient economy will be difficult, but together we can navigate these unchartered waters.”
He added that social policies to create “safety nets” were now being discussed by the Government, the private sector and charities.
Mr Hayward said: “This pandemic has exposed the fragility of our economy.
“The efforts to contain the spread of the virus has made it extremely difficult to contain economic losses.
“The employment spectrum has been reconstructed as a result of workers slipping from private sector employment to unemployment.”
However, Mr Hayward said public-sector employment remained “stable”.
The Pembroke Central MP warned uncertainty over a major drop in government revenues combined with increased spending on support measures had led to “a great amount of fiscal stress”.
Mr Hayward said “unaffordable” housing and healthcare worsened the plight of low-income families and made the need for reform even more urgent.
He added: “As an individual's savings are depleted, the high cost of living will squeeze families into poverty.”
Mr Hayward said that unemployment benefits would have to be replaced with social investment that “not only provides support but empowers individuals”.
Fresh labour policies would be needed to boost employment and entrepreneurship.
Mr Hayward warned: “Without suitable interventions, low-income families will suffer and endure further hardship.”