By Orville Williams
Certain businesses within the private sector will now be required to adhere to a mandatory vaccination policy, as the government announced yesterday the first step in extending the Covid-19 vaccine mandate.
Around the time the public sector vaccine mandate was announced last month, Prime Minister Gaston Browne declared that if herd immunity was not reached “within the next few months”, more vaccine mandates would come into effect.
That move has now been made, despite the fact vaccination figures are slowly increasing and the country is at least a month or two away from the PM’s initial deadline.
Information Minister Melford Nicholas told yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing that “effective from the 15th of this month, Cabinet has agreed that the vaccine mandate will be extended to include all of the essential services, both public and private, and the financial service institutions, to include the banks, the insurance companies, credit unions and similar organisations.
“This is, of course, in preparation for the opening of the economy and these services are critical,” he added.
As part of this latest mandate, customers entering these business places will not be required to be vaccinated, but all employees are subject to the new rules.
Also, the penalties that are applicable to those within the public sector who fail to adhere to the mandate will not be replicated in the private sector.
The government has talked up the impact the mandate has already had on vaccinations, with the post-Cabinet report noting that – based on the number of public sector employees who got vaccinated between September 20 and 30 versus the number that have not returned to work since September 30 [on account of the mandate] – “the number of workers returning to work vaccinated exceed 50 percent of the unvaccinated, in all instances”.
Expectations are therefore high for the mandate to have a similar impact in the private sector, particularly as much of that sector is very dependent on an economic rebound to recoup the losses it continues to suffer.
Similar to the public sector vaccine mandate, concerns are likely to arise about the legality of the private sector mandate, but Nicholas assured that the necessary measures are already in place for the mandate to go into effect without any challenges.
“We think we’re on good legal ground [with] the Public Health Act and the whole idea of providing a safe environment in response to what is clearly a public health emergency.
“The Attorney General’s chamber would have reviewed this matter and would have consulted with other legal [professionals] as well to ensure that the government is on sound legal footing.”
The Information Minister noted too that the government will continue to engage with private sector organisations on the matter, in response to queries about the level of support from these groups.
In the past, groups like the Antigua and Barbuda Employers’ Federation (ABEF), for example, have voiced support for private sector vaccine mandates, while others like the Antigua and Barbuda Chamber of Commerce and Industry maintained that individuals’ rights must be factored into the equation.