By Orville Williams
The government is maintaining its position that sanctions will come into play for those frontline public sector workers who refuse to either get vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to twice-monthly Covid testing.
That change in policy was first announced in mid-July as a means of added protection against the spread of the virus, especially as the tourism sector started to reignite and visitor arrivals headed towards unprecedented levels for the time of year.
It is said to extend to staff at the VC Bird International Airport and the Port Authority, employees within the Immigration Department and the Emergency Medical Services (EMS), among several others.
The policy also applies to those in the private sector whose services depend on interaction with incoming travellers, like vendors at Redcliffe and Heritage quays, taxi operators and even service providers at some of the beaches frequented by cruise passengers.
For those who refuse both the vaccine and the testing, the government warned that they would not be allowed to continue working, calling that a last resort in protecting the majority of the population.
There has been sustained back-and-forth between the unions and the government on that issue and some others, including the “discriminatory” nature of the policy and the burden of the cost attached to the tests.
Initially, the government said there would be a personal cost for the twice-monthly tests, but it later recanted and has since made the tests free of cost to the unvaccinated frontline government employees.
According to a memo addressed to the Department of Immigration the week after the initial announcement, “Covid-19 testing for all unvaccinated staff members commences 14 days following Monday July 26.”
Based on that pronouncement, testing was supposed to start last Monday, but – possibly due to logistical issues – the Health Ministry announced that the process began on August 11 at the Villa Polyclinic.
Now, as the rollout continues, the government should have an idea in a matter of days just how the uptake of the testing is going and, importantly, the number of unvaccinated persons who still refuse to get tested.
Having withdrawn the cost attached to the test – all the way from $250 to free – after facing opposition from the unions, there appeared to be hope that the government could also renege on the plan to send the unvaccinated workers home for refusing to adhere to the policy.
This is not the case, though, according to Information Minister, Melford Nicholas, who said during yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing that the government still intends to take action against those who refuse to comply.
“The intention was not for these measures to be punitive; we have indicated the reason why [we need them in place] and so, they are intended to help.
“If the employees are not prepared to take a vaccine to improve the level of protection, then of course, we’re asking them to submit to these twice-monthly tests. If in those circumstances they refuse or remain recalcitrant, then we will have no choice but to ask them to stay at home, in the case of public sector workers.”
They may not be the only ones to face the repercussions, as Nicholas added, “If the persons who are plying their trade within the [tourism] sector remain recalcitrant as well, we may have to ask them to disengage until they are prepared to do one of the other two options”.
The minister did not confirm just when the sanctions will come into effect or how they would be implemented.
Meanwhile, the Antigua and Barbuda Trade Union Congress (TUC) refuses to buckle, maintaining its own stance that both the unvaccinated and the vaccinated should be subject to the testing, as the latter “can still contribute to the spread of the virus”.
The body did not confirm, however, the level of uptake for the free Covid testing among the many public sector employees it represents.