Q&A: ‘If all follow these regulations, the outbreak will end’
The Royal Gazette sent questions to David Burt, the Premier, earlier this week. These are the responses received on Tuesday night.
Question: The health minister said: "This outbreak continues to spread fast – it is everywhere in our community and, at the risk of causing panic, it is only a matter of time before the situation is unmanageable."
In the past you have maintained that the main issue was ensuring that health services were not overwhelmed but the BHB is now on Disaster Level 4, its highest, and there is general recognition that test and trace capacity is overstretched.
Given this and the above quote, why have we not got the type of restrictions we saw in previous waves – where fewer people were infected and the pressure was not so great on health services? Why are restrictions not being increased? If they are to be increased, please outline how and when.
Answer: The restrictions in place now are deemed appropriate. Bermuda is in a different position now than it was in April, 2020 or April, 2021. We have 66 per cent of the total population and more than 75 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated, giving them robust protection against severe disease.
The minister is correct in reminding everyone to follow the public health regulations. If all follow these regulations, the outbreak will end.
It is heartbreaking to see the impact that this is having on families. Our plea is the same: follow the rules, let's keep each other safe. We have made so much progress in the last several months and we have the opportunity, even now, to make more by following the rules, looking out for one another and being personally responsible for doing so.
Q:If no more restrictions are to be introduced, you must, then, have an idea of when the restrictions you did announce would start to bend the curve of active cases downwards. Could you please tell us the timeline you are looking at in terms of the current restrictions helping to bring cases under control?
A: As per the normal course, restrictions will be reviewed by the Cabinet Covid committee in two weeks’ time. The cases now are not an indicator of current restrictions, but an indication of what happened two to three weeks ago. I can confidently state that if persons observed the guidelines that were put in place on August 20 by the Government, the situation would not have escalated to this state. We will continue to have cases of the coronavirus for the foreseeable future and it is vital that all persons who have not been vaccinated speak with their doctor about being vaccinated and register on gov.bm so they can be protected against severe coronavirus disease or death.
Q:Re the quote above that 'it is only a matter of time before the situation is unmanageable'. How close are we to that scenario? What happens if the scenario described by the health minister comes to pass?
A:We believe that the adjustments that have been taken along with continued community compliance will allow the burden to be relieved on the healthcare system.
Q: Given that most of the current active cases are the more transmissible Delta variant and given that Government has known of the existence of this variant on island for some time, why weren’t more restrictions announced earlier?
A: The restrictions announced on August 20 would have been effective in reducing the spread had they been followed. On the day after those regulations came into force, there was a large raft-up which resulted in many persons testing positive, seeding further spread. The Government has heard of numerous cases and many in the public know of scenarios where the laws put into place at the time were not followed.
Q: We had 4,000 people at Cup Match and we've had scores of exemptions for large group gatherings – with the benefit of hindsight, did you get the recent Covid policy wrong and allow the virus to spread? If no, why? Please elaborate.
A: There were no cases or traces back to the events of the Emancipation holiday weekend. SafeKey was well enforced at those large events. At issue aren't the large events that followed the process – at issue are the gatherings, nurseries, workplaces, funerals and weddings, parties, boat cruises where people attended that were not following the law.
Q: On-island transmission is mostly affecting the non-vaccinated. Why is Government not doing a drive to try and get more people vaccinated? If it is planning a vaccination drive – please outline what those plans are and the associated timeline.
A: We have continued to push, the drive never stopped, unvaccinated persons continue to sign up, and we continue to vaccinate persons. We will continue to encourage persons to protect themselves and their loved ones. We have seen an increased pace of vaccination over the last 30 days, compared with the period before.
We are also partnering with the Pan American Health Organisation – PAHO – n the coming weeks on a joint vaccination project stressing the importance of getting vaccinated. There were 336 vaccinations within the last week, 192 of them on Saturday alone.
The Government continues to use all forms of media to promote vaccines. Businesses and companies are doing their part by encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. We have been encouraged by the private sector's willingness to assist. We are partnering with some of our corporate organisations to provide pop up vaccination drives for their places of business. In that regard, we are meeting people where they are.
Q: We have in the region of 230 vaccinations available for first shots – what is being done to procure more – or given the lack of take-up, and unless a vaccination drive is to be started, have efforts to procure more vaccinations stopped because they may be wasted?
A: There are more and more persons registering for the vaccine. Government House has confirmed another shipment of vaccines will be sent to Bermuda this week.
Q: You have stated in the past that Bermudians are going to have to learn to live with the coronavirus. Given the surge in active cases and the numbers in hospital and ICU and the increased number of Covid-related deaths, do you still stand by that statement? If so, why? Please elaborate.
A: Yes, the coronavirus will be with us for some time, and all persons need to take personal responsibility to protect themselves and their families. Residents know what the rules are – and if followed, combined with the protection of the vaccine, vaccinated residents are at minimal risk of serious disease or death. If you are attending an indoor venue and the proprietor is not following the rules, staff are not wearing masks, they are not checking SafeKey correctly, that means you could be in an unsafe environment, and you are putting yourself at risk, especially if you are not vaccinated. You should choose to patronise somewhere else and also call 211 to report the violation of the law. As a community, we must all play a part in stopping transmission, and it's vital that we hold individuals and businesses accountable for following the rules needed to keep the community safe. The police cannot be everywhere, so we must all as a community, do our part.
Q: The health minister said booster shots will now be available for select target groups. When will those start and for how many people?
A: Future details will be announced by the Minister of Health shortly. She has already stated what the Bermuda Advisory Committee on Immunisation Practices has confirmed. Those with immunosuppressive conditions, chronic health diseases, healthcare workers, and persons older than 50 are in the recommended group to receive booster shots.
Q: Will the Government consider mandatory vaccinations for groups of workers such as those in health? If yes, why? If not, why?
A: There is no change to the current stance regarding mandatory vaccinations.
Q:Businesses – and unions – are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Some businesses are asking staff to test for Covid. We are aware of one firm asking people to be vaccinated. Others are setting their own rules regarding return-to-work protocols.
Unions are taking action over concerns for staff.
It is all very piecemeal. Why isn't the Government taking more of a lead on this and giving specific advice to businesses and unions/Government workers? Please elaborate.
A: Different businesses have different circumstances. The Government has provided detailed guidance on the coronavirus website.
Q:In the past ministers have said that Bermuda simply cannot afford another Covid wave, but here we are in the fourth – and worst – wave. How is this affecting the Government's finances. Please elaborate.
A: Please pose the question to the Minister of Finance.
Q: As active cases grow, so will the numbers in quarantine – last estimated to be in the region of 10,000 people. What effect is this having on the economy and jobs in the public and private sectors. What immediate plans do you have to address any economic impact?
Please be as specific as possible.
A: Businesses that have enforced the rules at their establishments are experiencing minimal impact. We would encourage all businesses to follow the public health guidance to ensure their business can continue to operate.
As the Head of the Public Service Dr Derrick Binns indicated last week, Bermuda is currently in the midst of a very rapid and serious outbreak of the coronavirus. This is having a significant impact on staffing resources in the public sector.
We continue to urge the public's understanding and patience while the Government navigates this latest wave of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Currently, many Government departments have instituted a mix of in-office and remote working. And many Government departments have implemented virtual and online services to allow them to continue to provide services to the public. Yes, our resources are being stretched but we are grateful to those public servants and those essential workers who are working around the clock to help maintain our service levels.
Q: Please be very specific on longer-term economic recovery plans. We are aware of the 30-plus economic ideas but there have been few specific details behind these ideas or specific progress made.
Please elaborate on the 30-plus ideas, progress made and when we can expect to result in terms of permanent jobs.
A: The ERP progresses, 6 of the 31 items have been fully completed and the rest are in progress. All of the 31 items can be found on gov.bm/economicreovery
Substantially completed initiatives include:
• The Creation of an online SME marketplace which will allow entrepreneurs easy access to sell their products.
• The introduction and establishment of a subsea communications sector in Bermuda
• The implementation of an Economic Investment Certificate
• Allow reapplications for Temporary Residency Certificates, enabling people to have residency in Bermuda for 1-year.
• Making it easier for Bermudians to return home & provisions to regularise the position of long term residents
• Introduction of a National Drug Formulary to reduce the costs for medications
Work on the remaining 25 initiatives has commenced and include initiatives where progress is well under way such as:
• Developing an Energy Regulatory Sandbox to test new renewable solutions in Bermuda.
• Establishing a regulatory regime for cultivation, import, export, production, sale, supply, use or transport for cannabis or medicinal cannabis; this was passed in the House of Assembly and defeated in the senate. It will be reintroduced in the next Parliamentary Session.
• Increased provision of affordable housing as announced by the Minister of Public Works earlier in the summer.
The website will be continuously updated to provide more detailed information and progress on the various initiatives.
Q: You said that you would be in a position to announce more fintech-related news when the House returned. The House has returned – what is the news? Please elaborate.
A: Not sure what this is referring to, but more fintech companies are setting up in Bermuda. Take a look at yesterday's Royal Gazette where a new fintech company in Bermuda is advertising for a Director of Trading.
Q: Can we expect to see more Government financial help for those individuals and businesses affected by Covid? If yes, please elaborate. If no, please explain why.
A: Businesses that have followed the rules, and ensured that employees and staff are abiding by the protocols to minimise spread in their establishments have mostly not been affected. We urge all businesses to ensure that protocols are being followed to protect their business. The BEDC has assistance for business via the Covid business continuity and sustainability funding programme and it will run until March 2022.
Q: The House did not sit last Friday and you have not been present at Covid press conferences. People are saying you are 'missing in action', silent when Bermuda is facing a real national crisis. Why are you not taking more of a public role, why are you not present at the press conferences alongside the health minister?
A: The House has met every other week for about three years now – that is not new. I have full confidence in the Minister of Health and her technical teams to manage the health crisis, the messages shared by the Minister of Health are on behalf of the Government of Bermuda. I will join the minister at her press conference tomorrow.
Q: In the past, you have engaged in one-on-one interviews but this time you refused a request from us for a one-on-one interview and instead asked for questions to be submitted. Why are you not – apparently – keen to have a face-to-face interview with The Royal Gazette at a time when Bermuda is facing a national crisis?
A: In your words, Bermuda is facing a national crisis – my primary focus is on supporting Ministers in managing all aspects of the current outbreak. I gave a one on one interview with the Gazette two weeks ago. I also facilitated one on one interviews with other local media outlets during this time frame.
Q: In the past you had a playbook to follow – learning from the experiences of other countries. This time there has been no playbook to follow. Are you content that Government has got things right with its Covid policies since, and during, the third and fourth waves? If yes – please elaborate on why. If no – please elaborate on what you would have done differently.
A: If persons follow the public health guidelines and hold each other accountable, then Bermuda together, we will get past this outbreak. We will continue to move on with our lives, mindful that the coronavirus will be with us for the foreseeable future.
Q: There are many rumours that you will be soon be facing a leadership challenge or a vote of no confidence. How secure is your future as Premier?
A: I will continue to lead my party until the delegates of my party decide otherwise. Just under a year ago, voters elected the Progressive Labour Party government with a 30-6 mandate based on our campaign of strong leadership for the tough decisions that we knew were on the horizon. We are now having to make those tough decisions one year on. The PLP Government is up to the task of leading Bermuda through these tough times, and I remain honoured and humbled to lead my party and this country.