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By Orville Williams

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While the debate continues about Covid-19 vaccinations possibly becoming mandatory in Antigua and Barbuda, employees in the tourism sector have been notified that severance pay could be on the cards for those whose employment is discontinued for refusing to get vaccinated.

Tourism officials are expecting a boost to arrival figures over the next couple of months, with widespread vaccinations across the world reigniting interest from prospective vacationers. According to reports, hotel bookings are steadily increasing, while cruise ships are preparing to dock in St John’s in a of couple weeks, after a lengthy suspension in that sector.

As a result of these developments, business operators in the tourism and adjoining sectors have been advised to get themselves and their staff vaccinated for Covid-19, to give the incoming visitors the assurance of their safety and protection during their time on the island.

This week’s post-Cabinet report noted that, “hotels, shops, taxi-drivers, tour bus operators, tourism-designed places of interest and entertainment, have agreed to ensure that all employees and employers are vaccinated.

The report also added that “the vaccinated workers and managers will wear brooches that identify them as having been vaccinated.”

While this will be seen as welcome progress by the many ‘pro-vaxxers’ who are itching for a boost in business, the same can’t be said for those individuals who are still undecided or defiant about not taking a vaccine, for whatever reason.

Stigmatisation is not the only fear that will have been resting on the minds of these unvaccinated people, with the fear of losing their jobs and primary source of income even greater than that of being ostracised by their colleagues.

They have been given a bit of hope, however, from Cabinet spokesperson, Information Minister Melford Nicholas, who disclosed that those employees could be eligible for severance if their employment is terminated for their refusal to get vaccinated.

“No determination has [yet] been made and certainly, Cabinet would not be the one that makes the final determination on the law…I suspect though, that part of the consideration would be [that] businesses are allowed to regulate their employment based on economic circumstances.

“If a business place is not going to be permitted to do good business [because] it cannot provide that environment where it can give its clients and its patrons the assurance of [their] safety, then clearly that presents an economic challenge for the business.

“I imagine, if they’re going to regulate the employees on that basis, then clearly [the] severance of employees would come into being and I guess the rest of the legal environment will determine how that arrangement works out.”

While the push to get employees vaccinated will no doubt cause a bit of tension, it may not necessarily mean that employers have to move to termination.

In some other countries where employee rights are also under scrutiny in relation to taking a Covid-19 vaccine, employers have been advised that they could simply relocate unvaccinated employees to a section of the business that does not require physical engagement with customers or other members of staff, to some extent.

It is yet to be seen what advice will be given to employers and employees here in Antigua and Barbuda in this regard, but that advice will have to come sooner rather than later, if everyone is to have a fair shot at reaping the rewards of a return to normalcy.

While the Minister’s comments were in response to the tourism sector specifically, he also put the rest of the business community on notice, that they will likely be met with these same contemplations at some point, given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

“This is a [critical stage] that’s going to have to be crossed in the not-too-distant future by all businesses, because as we return to a degree of normalcy, normalcy is going to dictate a safe environment and for the foreseeable future, we are not going to see the back-end of Covid.

“What we’re talking about is living with Covid, and we’re still going to be exposed to a degree of uncertainty with respect to [the virus] and its many variants – [also], whether or not we are putting ourselves in a more secure environment.”

Since Prime Minister, Gaston Browne hinted some weeks ago that vaccinations could become mandatory at a point – if herd immunity is not reached in a sufficient time – many within the population have been voicing their opposition to that position, insisting on their right to choose.

However, the post-Cabinet meeting saw a reiteration of the possibility of the mandatory vaccinations, saying “herd immunity is being sought and will be achieved by Antigua and Barbuda without compulsion, although that remains an option if a sufficient number of resident adults do not come forward voluntarily to take the vaccine.”