By Elesha George
Additional police officers had to be summoned to order picketers who gathered outside the Ministry of Education on Tuesday morning to vacate the premises.
About 200 people came out to register their concern regarding a government mandate to have all children above the age of 12 vaccinated against Covid-19 before they can return to face-to-face classes.
Those gathered said that education is a right and not a privilege and should not be treated as such.
In response, Education Minister Daryll Matthew said “as long as persons have received appropriate authorisation and permission from law enforcement, I think our Constitution and our democracy gives us the right to protest in a lawful way. There are some persons who are clearly unhappy about certain things and they, I am assuming, applied for permission to have a picket, the permission was granted and the picket took place.”
Matthew said approximately 6,000 of the 8,000 students who fall within the eligible age group to become vaccinated have already done so, which demonstrates wide acceptance of the government’s policy.
“It is not a policy that is put in place to disenfranchise anyone; we’re simply trying to protect health and lives and livelihoods and so we understand that there are some persons who disagree with the policy itself, and those persons exercise their democratic right to protest,” he added.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne also made brief remarks on the protest saying “they act at their own peril”.
He maintained that his government is doing what is in the best interest of the people to keep them and the country safe.
Browne also claimed that Franz deFreitas, the United Progressive Party (UPP) candidate for St John’s City South and organiser of the picket, has no vested interest in Antigua and Barbuda.
“At the end of the day, Franz loses, which he will, he pack up shop and go away after the next elections – that’s what he’s gonna do,” he stated.
DeFreitas will be running against the current Attorney General and Minister of National Security and Public Safety, Steadroy Cutie Benjamin, for the seat in the next general election.
Meanwhile, deFreitas has planned another picket for 7.30am on November 30 outside the Antigua and Barbuda Social Security office, this time to register his dissatisfaction with the late payment of pensions for senior citizens.
DeFreitas told picketers that “only this kind of demonstration does the despotic government in Antigua and Barbuda understand. We cannot continue to lie down and make them walk over us; we as the citizenry – the highest office in this land – must stand up and let the government of the day understand that is we send them there”.
He received support from other UPP candidates who spoke at the picket and urged parents to fight against the mandate and what they described as the dictatorial behaviour of the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) government.