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Headline: Latest update from Cabinet. Listen to Observer Radio 91.1FM for updates during the day

HURST REPORTS ON CABINET OF Wednesday January 13 2021

The Cabinet met both face-to-face and virtually, three members choosing to participate by virtual means. The custom of the Gaston Browne-led Cabinet is to invite experts and government officials to Cabinet in order to enhance the body’s decision-making.1.The Cabinet invited the Chief Medical Officer, the Chairman of the National Technical Commission responsible for crafting Covid-19 policy, and the Head of the Government’s Laboratory to appear before the body in order to provide guidance on the policies which are to govern, now that the USA and the UK (and most likely Canada, also) now require all those passengers entering their territories to provide a Covid-19 Negative certificate.  The UK requirement will commence on January 21, and the US requirement on January 26, 2021.The need for more testing and a rapid turnaround, given the 72-hour limitation imposed on the validity of the test for re-entry, the MSJMC would have to increase the speed with which test results are returned, and address the larger number of tests that would have to be undertaken at its laboratory. Following intense discussions, the team identified a total of 3 additional PCR machines that could now be placed at the MSJMC, bringing the number of machines to 5; and, the number of persons who could quickly be trained to carry out the testing. It was agreed that though the USA would require a viral test, and the UK would require a Sophia test, the gold standard of all tests is still the PCR test, and the capabilities at MSJMC could be adjusted to meet the expected increased demand. The three officials were also questioned on the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines that are now on the market, and to identify which would be best for Antigua and Barbuda. The Prime Minister informed that at a recent virtual CARICOM Heads meeting, there was concern expressed for the kind of “vaccine nationalism” that has become prevalent; and, of the criminal sale of fake vaccines, especially to private practitioners. The three officials advised that  there would have to be regulations governing the use of any Covid-19 vaccine, and that permission to treat privately would first have to be sought. At this moment, none of the countries participating in the COVAX purchase through the PAHO do not  know which of the vaccines will likely become available to  them. While the Pfizer vaccine is more than 90% effective, storage at a sub-freezing temperature would prove challenging. There was discussion about the other vaccines, their efficacy and the cost. It was agreed that cost would not be a consideration given the need to move to inoculation of the Frontline Responders, the elderly and others in the population as soon as practicable.

2.The alarming spread of the Covid-19 disease in other Caribbean territories in the post Christmas and New Year’s holidays was examined; it was agreed that the limitations imposed in Antigua and Barbuda limited the “spread effect”. However, enforcement seemed to be lacking as many residents exhibited Covid-19 fatigue and were engaging in dangerous behaviours that could cause infections to rise. The Cabinet found that weddings and funerals were among the most challenging of the social events that resulted in the likely spread of infections; returning nationals are among the group which adds to the likely spread. Bars and restaurants were among the next group where the infection could spread. The public market and vending sites were also included.An invitation was extended to the top brass of the Royal Police Force to appear before the Cabinet to address the issue of enforcement; six members appeared before the Cabinet. The Commissioner of Police shared with the Cabinet the vigilance of the enforcement effort, pointing to the number of tickets issued to men and women who violate the law by not wearing masks in public; and, to tickets issued to establishments that harbour more than the prescribed number of patrons.  The Chief Health Inspector, or her deputies, is the only official who can order closure of a bar or restaurant, and the Police can enforce that order but not make such an order in the first place, the Commissioner explained. Since the Police cannot be ordered by the Executive to take any specific action, the Cabinet repeated the need to be vigilant in order to prevent the kind of spread evidenced in other Caribbean territories. A number of areas were identified where bars proliferate, where restaurants host excessive numbers, and at the cemeteries and wakes where large numbers gather and social distancing is not observed. The Cabinet agreed that a restriction on weddings and funerals would control, limiting the number at the cemetery to 25, and at wedding ceremonies to 10 persons. These restrictions would apply beginning immediately and police presence would enforce the numbers, it was agreed. Limiting the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which causes sickness and death, is the ultimate objective.

3.The General Manager of the Antigua and Barbuda Transport Board (ABTB) was invited to Cabinet to address overcrowding on commuter buses, and the agreement to reduce taxes on fuel purchased by the bus operators in order for the buses to operate with a smaller number, below capacity, but make an adequate profit. The General Manager pointed to the division of daily entry fees at the bus stations to the ABTB and the Bus Association, and the requirement for the Bus Association to establish a pumping station (like the fisherfolk who receive a tax waiver on gas purchases) that could carry out the sale. He pointed out that many bus operators do not pay statutory deductions to Medical Benefits, Social Security, and Education Levy and that the Association was required to provide a list of members in order to determine their membership and qualification for the subsidy. The Cabinet insisted, however, that addressing the overcrowding on buses was an immediate objective, and that other systems had to be put in place to ensure that buses carried a safe number that would not result in the community spread of the deadly virus. Sanitizing hands and wearing masks on buses are mandatory for all commuters. The immediate arrangements will be negotiated with the Bus Association, the General Manager agreed, and buses will begin carrying fewer passengers and will receive a waiver of the taxes on fuel purchases.

4.The Minister of Information and Technology informed that 300 additional tracking bracelets have arrived Antigua and are to be deployed for use to encourage those arriving passengers in self-isolation or in quarantine to be traceable to the location specified. A total of 500 bracelets are therefore deployable immediately. Already, two persons who were wearing the bracelets decided to go shopping and the bracelets signaled to the Command Center that the persons had gone beyond the borders of the quarantine center. Those persons were identified, and punitive action will likely be taken by a Magistrate for having disobeyed the terms of the quarantine. More of these bracelets will be deployed to discourage mixing and the possible spread of the infectious virus.

5.The Cabinet was informed that the dredging of the channel and the turning basin in the St. John’s Harbour will likely be completed by the end of February 2021, making the Harbour ready to receive the Oasis Class Cruise Vessels that are likely to call in March or April 2021. No date has yet been fixed for the return of cruise vessels to return to the Caribbean; however, the likelihood of millions receiving the vaccine in the source markets will likely lead to the resuscitation of the cruise trade.

6.British Airways has announced the reduction of flights to two per week from Heathrow/Gatwick directly to Antigua, since the imposition of the lockdown in Britain. The BA flights will terminate here and not proceed to another Caribbean destination, as was the case before, making Antigua a highly-favored destination. The Minister of Tourism indicated to Cabinet that Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism is continuing to recover and the number of arrivals will eventually return to 2019 levels in the near future.

7.The Minister of Lands indicated to Cabinet that clearance of lands at Cades Bay has been completed and the surveyors are now working to turn the plots into parcels which are to be sold to potential new homeowners. The machines are proceeding to St. Phillips North and South, and then to Montrula in order to create more than 500 parcels for sale within months.

8.The Throne Speech is to be delivered on Friday, January 15, 2021. The Budget Speech will be delivered on January 28, 2021. The Budget Debate will likely commence in early February 2021.

The AT&LU will celebrate 82 years of outstanding contribution to improvement of workers’ rights and the strengthening of social conditions in the nation, on Saturday, January 16, 2021. It was established on January 16, 1939, and is the oldest institution to have been given life by indigenous Antiguans and Barbudans that still survives today. The Cabinet congratulated the AT&LU for its unrivaled contribution to nation building.    

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