GOVERNOR’S REMARKS: NATIONAL ADDRESS – RESPONSE TO COVID-19
By now I suspect that, if you are listening, you have stopped doing what you were doing and you will have paused. You will understand the importance of what you’ve just heard. What the Premier announced isn’t an announcement to listen to as you do something else. This isn’t the background noise to your normal day. What was just said was important.
In my own words I’m now going to amplify what was just said, reinforce what was just said, associate myself completely with what was just said. Amplification and repetition at this point is probably helpful
Whoever you are on the Island: old or young; citizen, resident or visitor; whichever Island you live on; whatever your ethnicity; however, you make your living; whether you are rich or poor you are now one. We are now using emergency powers that came into effect last night, on your behalf, for the good of the community. This is going to impact you in very significant ways, for at least the next three weeks and perhaps beyond.
We are about to go through one shared unifying experience. How we come out of it at the other end will almost entirely depend on your sense of civic duty; your sense of community spirit while not being connected to your wider community. Your integrity as a person in doing the right thing not just with self interest in mind but the overall good of your country. No one can get through this without all others acting responsibly.
What we are about to announce is driven by one motivation; to protect you and to protect the overall population of these Islands.
We have - for some days - been working on the assumption that CORVID19 had to be present on the Islands - the identification of our first confirmed case came only on Monday. We first heard of this news at 3 am on Monday morning. The Premier told the public at 9:30 am the same day. We are determined to be straight and clear with you - we have to be one informed team - announcements today follows that desire for clarity and also for pre-emptive action.
We are in unprecedented times, that in itself is perhaps an under-statement. The Islands are used to being significantly disrupted through disaster. Indeed, the resilience of our people is one of these Islands great strengths and will need to be so again.
What we are not used to is facing that disaster alongside the rest of humanity at a moment when the international system is itself facing the greatest challenge of our lifetimes akin - I think - to at least that suffered during the great depression of the 1930’s. The world will change in the next decade in a way that it wouldn’t had this not occurred. It’s a moment in time that will be studied long into the future.
For the moment we cannot predict, nor can we change, the future of what is occurring outside our borders. For the next months we have to take our destiny in our own hands and make the very best decisions we can for these Islands. Being clear we need now - as a people - to entirely change our way of life, if we are to get through this next month as safely as we can.
There are many challenges but for the purpose of this month let’s be clear on the two that are most pressing and absolutely have to be dealt with now; no question.
First is our health. We are a small Island state. We have as a result limited capacity but also a limited ability to flex capacity. Large countries with highly developed health care systems - such as the UK and Italy - have had their health systems overwhelmed very quickly. If the virus grips this country, if it grows exponentially, our medical provision will to be overwhelmed and overwhelmed quickly.
The second is our economy. Macro certainly but also micro - how this impacts on individuals and on families. We have - or until the end of last week we had - an economy that was built on one pillar - tourism - or put another way international travel. As international travel stops, and it was stopping before the closure of our borders, so too does the economy stop.
As a result, today’s announcement should be seen as one, of two. The announcement today just deals with how we are going to suppress the threat posed to our public health by the virus. These measures - remarkable measures - were agreed in Cabinet late yesterday. They do not come into full force until Friday evening - although there will be a night-time curfew on Thursday - which will give time for the public to prepare. Our aim throughout has been not to surprise you. We need to balance moving now as quickly as we can, set against ensuring the country can go into this next period balanced and stable.
Before they come into force, and following a further Cabinet tomorrow, the Premier will announce a set of economic support and stimulus measures for the country. So by the end of the week you will understand how - in the immediate future - Government intends to tackle these two great challenges of our public health and our overall economic well-being. In both cases we are moving at a pace Government - no Government - has ever worked at before with the most limited of ever changing data. We can’t deliver you perfection, or anything close to perfection, we can though take some big decisions now that buy us some time.
While it is straightforward to call out the two great challenges we face, it’s also worth pausing for a moment to reflect that we start with a set of advantages. Much of what we announce today is driven by the determination that we do not lose the advantage we presently enjoy compared to most. There is a window here where if we are bold we might just come through this far less impacted than others; we don’t intend to shy away from that opportunity or responsibility. If we fail it won’t be because of indecision. So what are those advantages:
First, we still only have one confirmed case of CORVID19. Almost all other countries have taken the actions we are about to take long after this point. Globally, everyone who is now gripped by the virus tells us to move early, not late.
As of midnight, last night, we have Emergency Powers in place. We are the only Overseas Territory who has done this. In doing so the Government continues to work as one. Myself and the Premier are in the same place, able if you like to finish each other’s sentences. Cabinet Government and consensus is the order of the day. We have the powers bestowed on the Governor which are going to allow us to act at pace and rigour, but we also have the legitimacy, in this time of crisis, that democracy can deliver.
We start this crisis with the Government finances in good shape. It has well over 100 million in reserves. It finished the year with a financial surplus. It carries very little debt. This year was the first year its financial plan didn’t need to be cleared with the UK. It has a BBB+ credit rating. The UK has immediately agreed for the Premier to run, if she needs, a deficit budget. Money is cheap to borrow in the international markets. The Governments past prudence has bought itself some time, space and International credibility to support its people. Again many countries would wish to start from this position.
We also have the UK. She too is going through her own version of this - indeed she is deeper into this pandemic crisis than we want TCI ever to get. But the UK in the end holds the contingent financial liabilities for these Islands and remains one of the largest economies in the world; a back-stop most other Caribbean states would welcome at this time. She is sourcing health materials for us. She has been providing advice to our clinicians. I have military aid to call on to support us, as I need. Indeed, I spoke to the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff - General Nick Carter - who commands all the UK’s land, air and naval forces this morning. HMS Medway is in the region.
We also have not taken our eye off our priority of sloop interdiction. The waters between us and Haiti are being patrolled and our maritime police, our radar and immigration assets, remain vigilant and ready and will remain so throughout this period; indeed, they will be reinforced.
Crucially we have you - the public of TCI. You understand adversity and you understand hardship. You have been through three hurricanes in twelve years. Compared to most other countries in the world you know we can do this, and we know we can get through this, if we stick together and behave responsibly.
We know that we have to act for the good of the community at moments like this. Selfishness at this time is a social taboo. The actions we will need to take in a pandemic are different from those taken in a hurricane but the underlying human instinct - being steady, knowing it will pass, knowing that short term hardship will be replaced by a future normality, is the most powerful thought and many populations around the world have not got your experience. They can’t imagine it will end; they can’t imagine things will be better; you can because you know it does happen.
Because these Islands understand disaster we are well prepared for them. I have said in the past we have weeks of supply of food on the Island. The truth is, it’s months. There’s no indication our food supply chain will be impacted. And Government - in preparation for hurricane - has its own supply of food as a contingency. In the coming days be as responsible in our super-markets and stores as you have been to date. How we behave there will tell us a lot about how we will behave elsewhere.
We produce our water from the sea. So long as we have fuel (and again our fuel supply line is in great shape) to run our desalination plants we have fresh drinking water. We have a world class power provider and - unlike in a hurricane - we will have excellent and guaranteed communications. Our health service is small - it can’t cope with a pandemic - but our health service professionals are amazing. It’s not an accident that we are in good shape at present; their advice has been exemplary.
Which brings me to the most important advantage we have, the advantage I said we were not going to squander. Unlike many we are ahead of the curve in terms of what we already have in place compared to how the virus has spread elsewhere.
We have seen other countries react, we have seen what has worked and what has not. You, yourselves, will have been tracking this through the international media. Through the UK’s global network, we have been in very close touch with multiple foreign governments and been able to track their reactions - not from the press - but from talking to their officials, Heads of Government and medical professional. As I say, all their advice (and many are saying this in hindsight rather than foresight) is when you move, move quickly and move with great purpose.
That overall thought framed our discussion in Cabinet. How do we use the fact that we are slightly ahead to our advantage. The complete consensus in Cabinet, supported by expert medical advice that has guided us throughout, was to use our Emergency Powers to lock down the country. To do everything in our power to prevent the spread of the disease. To do what’s called ‘flatten the curve’. So while there will undoubtedly be cases, and there will be fatalities, we prevent the dramatic exponential rises we have seen elsewhere. It’s that ‘out of control spread’ we have to stop. We can only stop it through a complete national effort.
Put simply we intend - with your support - because this now has to be a single national effort - to place the country in lock down with families quarantined together. That will, overnight, significantly reduce the infection rate. It will also allow us to understand who is and who is not infected. It will allow us to prioritise treatment. Night-time curfews (8pm to 5am) will start on Thursday evening. From Saturday morning (5am) a curfew, except by exceptions captured in regulations, will be enforced until midnight on 15th April.
Once the period is over, it gives us the best possible chance of restarting a local economy - to get money moving through the Islands - before the point we can open our borders - or indeed other countries and their nationals start travelling again. Short term pain for long term gain.
The Premier and myself will be on RTC this evening at 6pm to go over (and if necessary go over again, the detail). The regulations will also be posted on Government websites. Let me now explain the broad thrust of what is now going to happen.
Even as of today rules are in place that prevent a gathering of 25 or more. Do not be foolish tonight; this isn’t like a hurricane where a ‘lock down party is in order’. It’s potentially fatal. You are endangering yourself and you are endangering others if you break this law. It’s best you use the time this evening to prepare.
So once again, to conform how we roll this out, from 8pm on Thursday until 5am on Friday a full curfew will be in place; enforced by law. Curfew will lift at 5am on Friday. The curfew will be re-imposed at 8pm on Friday.
Friday therefore will be the last working day in the office, and the last normal day in terms of social interaction. In giving you Thursday and Friday as normal working days we want to give you the best chance to prepare for the next three weeks as we can.
From Saturday morning we will settle into a rhythm of strictly enforced night-time curfews running from 8pm to 5am. During the period between 5am and 8pm you will be expected to remain in your homes, with your family or those living under the same roof as you. Think of it as a day-time curfew with named exceptions.
Of those there will be exceptions for essential workers (detailed in the regulations) when they are travelling to and from their place of work but only when they are engaged in that specific travel or work related activity.
Families living under one roof will be able to exercise together for 1.5 hours. Aside from those you directly live with, there will be no gathering of more than two. The beaches will be closed.
Understand what we are trying to do and use your own good judgement. We are doing all we can to stop the spread and if a case is identified rapidly control the numbers impacted.
The supermarkets, banks and gas stations will function; their use will be limited and controlled. We will ensure people have access to food and visits to the supermarket will be permitted but limited.
We have considered banning inter-island travel but will not do so until we are certain that food stocks on relevant islands are well prepared. But we strongly discourage anything but the most vital inter-island travel. We mean vital. We do not rule out regulation to prevent inter-island travel and you should use the next two days to position yourself with your family members that you intend to see this period out with.
Only those aspects of Government and public service that have to function, will function. Working from home will be the order of the day. Much can be done and we expect the public service to continue to work from home, as required.
There will now be provisions in law that allow us to enforce self quarantine or for people to be ordered to a place of quarantine, where there are suspected cases. Breaking these requirements, now breaks the law, and those foolish enough to do so will not only be placed in Government supervised quarantine they will also face criminal penalty.
Another change. As of today all residents of the Islands will prohibited from entering the Islands for a period of 21 days from 26th March. This will allow us to control the introduction of any new cases into the Island and allow a time to contain any suspected cases. We urge residents overseas to self-quarantine - this is for your safety.
Also - and please listen carefully to this - for those who defy the curfew or quarantine through the use of their vehicles, those vehicles are subject to confiscation at the point of arrest and, subject to a court order, to further forfeiture of their vehicle.
Those designated as essential workers - in the public and private sector - will I know step up; we know you will - your country needs you. Some immigration officers will be assigned as Special Constables and support the Police.
At the top, Government will split in terms of Cabinet operating as two groups, half meeting as a group - because unity of Government is essential in these times - and decisions we need to make are hard - and half connecting remotely. The Deputy Governor will be on Grand Turk and will be able to stand up an alternative Government, if that is needed.
The House of Assembly will continue to function; it must to allow budgets to be passed and even in times of crisis democratic engagement is essential. Saving the islands and her population will be the overriding aim for every politician during this remarkable period but that doesn’t stop debate or democratic accountability.
To remind you, even before we imposed these measures, as you woke up this morning, there is to be no gathering of over 25 people. There are provisions now in place to stop the spreading of misinformation linked to this emergency, and I will be looking to make examples where I see misinformation designed to cause alarm or spread hate or fear. Our schools are of course closed. With exceptions to cargo, food and the like, our borders did shut at midnight.
With due humility I say that Government - anywhere in the world - at the best of times - is not perfect. There was no plan here - there was no plan anywhere - as to how any country let alone this small Island chain would manage with a pandemic that has shut down the globe. The regulations we pass - that much thought has gone into - may very well need to be adjusted. We can think through how this will impact the many, but not all. We will be opening up an email address where we can look at individual cases where serious and unintended consequences need to be addressed. I said at my inauguration that I would care, serve be clear and listen. This is the best moment to hold me to that.
All my instincts and experiences of dealing with comparatively minor crisis and emergencies, up until this point, tell me that good decisions made early are far better than perfect decisions made late. Cabinet is in complete agreement on this. I hope the public agrees.
It just may be that these Islands - because of the inherent advantages I described at the start - are going to show the world that it is possible to deal with this crisis, calmly, intelligently and purposefully.
Whether we collectively succeed, or not, the one thing I know above all others is that our behaviours here - to one another - putting our future and our society before the immediacy of the moment - is going to be remembered.
Those living through this will tell a future generation how you, your friends, your neighbours, and those you never knew but came to respect, behaved and how through that behaviour the Islands rapidly returned to their previous prosperity. Because that will come. You know it, in different circumstances you’ve been here before. And in the end it will come not because of rules and regulations and because people were told what to do, but because this population knew what it had to do - and it did it.
And may God Bless these Turks and Caicos Islands.