Premier's National Update on COVID-19

Good Afternoon Turks and Caicos! 

The Turks and Caicos Islands is at a critical juncture in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  I am firmly of the view that if Cabinet had not made the decisions it did those being: introducing Emergency Regulations and a curfew to enforce a significant degree of social distancing; these Islands would now be experiencing the level of transmission and Covid-19 related deaths as set out in previous 'reasonable worst-case scenario' modelling similar to what we see in some countries in the region and around the World. 

The Important Role of the People 

But what is most important in this experience is the role that you the people have played to flatten the curve. Your sacrifices have made important gains possible, and as a people, we are indeed in a much better place because of it.  

This has been an encouraging period, one that we can be proud of. Despite the rather unfortunate actions of a few, as a people, we have come together towards a single important goal. As we look around, we see what the irresponsible actions of a few have cost countries, but our experience shows that when we each behave responsibly and collectively, we can achieve the best outcomes.    

Regulations 

Let me repeat though, as I said on Tuesday, we may have successfully mitigated Covid-19, but we have not avoided it, and we have not removed the threat of the virus to our population.  Emergency Regulations and your responsible action have simply bought us time to allow the Ministry of Health (MoH), in partnership with Inter Health Canada (IHC), to strengthen our healthcare system and enhance the capacity and capabilities it has to respond to this pandemic. 

The decision as to what comes next is not a decision that anyone in the position of leadership at this time has taken lightly. We remain guided by the main principle that life-saving measures must take precedence over the economy, and this alone is not an easy decision but a right one for political leaders across the globe. While we have to balance these two important and sometimes opposing determinants, we wish to assure you the people that this approach remains heavily based on Ministry of Health’s advice. 

Following a 2 - day meeting ending yesterday after an 11hr session, Cabinet finalised a position on the way forward with our Health heads present and under their guidance. These meetings were of course preceded by a series of meetings where a wealth of information has been shared over the past weeks. Our position taken was based on the following:  

  1. An understanding of a clear and informed view of the readiness of the healthcare system in the Turks and Caicos Islands to respond to an uptick in cases that the relaxation in regulations would inevitably see; 
  2. The support for rapid development and implementation of a whole-of-TCI testing strategy; and 
  3. The fact that this is an unpredictable situation and that any decisions made must continuously be reviewed appreciating that there may be times when Health's advice will be to consider a roll back. 

Cabinet has agreed to a phased reopening of the country beginning 4th May. 

Let me, first of all, describe what is not going to change: 

  • First, international travel will remain closed until (at least) 1st June.  I will be establishing a stakeholder engagement group with the hospitality sector – guided by Health – to support and inform the work that will be required to start to reopen the islands to international tourism;  
  • A night-time curfew will remain in place from 8pm – 5am each day, and this shall continue until 5am on Monday 25th May;  
  • All businesses will be closed on a Sunday and Sunday will remain a day of lockdown and curfew. Wednesday will revert to a normal working day.  
  • Persons over the age of 65 years are to continue to shelter in place;  
  • Persons with underlying health conditions are very strongly encouraged to shelter in place this includes working from home wherever possible;  
  • All businesses, unless otherwise exempted, should continue to work and operate from home; 
  • Schools and educational institutions will remain closed until 1st June, with the use of virtual learning to keep students engaged – this will remain under review;  
  • Restrictions in respect of domestic travel will continue until 1st June, with the exception of Salt Cay and Grand Turk which is considered as one island community, and Middle Caicos and North Caicos as another island community.   
  • Those who need to return to their home islands from Providenciales cannot do so yet, but this will become available once on-island testing is established and persons can be tested, and quarantined if necessary, before their return;  
  • The Cruise Port will remain closed until 30th June. This decision will remain under review and will follow advice from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation. 
  • Penalties for publication of false statements will remain as mandated. 
  • A duty to provide information to Health Officials will remain as mandated. 
  • Application to Justice of the Peace will remain as mandated. 

What is going to change: 

  • A limited number of key government departments will reopen on May 11, 2020, to provide critical services to the country.  This will be done on the basis of a reduced staffing and customer service plan that allows for appropriate social distancing.  TCIG’s model will be used as the basis for guidelines for statutory bodies and businesses, and TCIG will lead the way in demonstrating how a responsible employer behaves. A list of offices will be announced in a separate release.  
  • All retail grocery stores are able to open from 11 May; Public and Environmental Health will bring together guidance for this industry in advance. Spot checks by Environmental Health will have the power to close any business immediately if protocols are not being met and Police may do the same if they identify social distancing protocols are not being adhered to.  
  • Hardware stores will be permitted to open beginning the week of 4th May once these establishments meet the protocols established by the Public and Environmental Health Department. These businesses will assist homeowners in DIY projects around the home as well as in the preparation of homes for the hurricane season commencing June 1st. 
  • Construction and hardware stores will be permitted to open from week commencing 11th May. There will be Government-led engagement with the Construction Sector following the issuance of draft guidelines from the Public and Environment Health Department within the next few days.  Related supply businesses, including electrical, plumbing, etc.; stores and ancillary businesses are expected to begin opening during the week beginning 11th May in support of the construction industry. 
  • Restaurants that choose to provide a takeaway service and 'takeaways' are permitted to open for takeaway only commencing May 11th, with careful protocols in place including strict social distancing.  Public and Environmental Health will issue guidance in advance and will be making unannounced spot visits.  Public Health and Police will have the power to close a business immediately if they feel the establishment or surroundings are unsafe;  
  • So long as strict social distancing can be observed, office-based services will be permitted to operate with four or fewer persons in the office at a time.  In terms of duty of care to their staff, we expect employers to make the case to themselves and their staff as to why someone should require a physical presence in the workplace rather than vice-versa.  Employers should also follow Government's lead and look to implement shift work and to ensure that staff work in the smallest groups possible to achieve the recommended physical distance in the workplace and reduce any chance of cross-contamination. 
  • Self-sustaining fishermen will be permitted to undertake those activities to support and sustain their families through their businesses. That may start on 4th May; 
  • Physical distancing protocols will remain in place.  However, we now mandate the wearing of masks or improvised face coverings when engaged in public to avoid the transfer of droplets while in conversation, business, or when in close proximity to others. 
  • Churches should remain virtual, but from Sunday 10th May, they may have up to ten persons in Church. Those persons should be actively involved in the delivery of the service. Social distancing protocols must be adhered to.   
  • Attendance at funeral services is also limited to ten persons. 
  • Other social gatherings remain restricted. 
  • Use of beaches and individual watersports can resume from 4th May for the purposes of fitness and recreation.  Strictly no gathering of over four adults may occur, and any gathering must consist of only those living in one household. No alcohol should be taken onto or consumed on the beach.   
  • As of 4th May individual fitness is allowed at any time outside the hours of curfew. This does not include any form of team sport. You may drive to your place of outdoor exercise, which may include the beach, should you wish to. 
  • Restriction on visitation continues until 1st June 2020 in the following cases:   

  No person shall visit or be permitted to visit— 

  • any place of quarantine or isolation station; 
  • a patient in a hospital or facility, except a responsible adult in the case of  a child; 
  • residential care establishment; 
  • however, there must be access by video link, audio/phone for attorneys at the detention centre(s), prisons and police cells 
  • Extremely limited visitation can be considered for the following with the appropriate application of social distancing due to the vulnerability of these populations; 
  • a detainee in a detention centre(s), prisons or police cells. 

In conclusion, there is now no requirement to apply for exemptions to the Governor's Office. The 911 database that has been developed will be kept should there be a requirement to revert to present lockdown and curfew conditions. We are grateful to the team that worked so hard and fast to both facilitate and control essential movement during this vital period. 

Medical Gains 

A carefully planned, transparent and evidence-based approach to releasing the restrictions was needed. This could not have been achieved without both prioritising public health and considering the wider economic health and health needs of the territory and its population. This approach remains critical to managing the whole impact of Covid-19, and we remain committed to carefully considering the individual health outcomes, the pressure on the healthcare system and longer-term economic position of the Turks and Caicos Islands. 

The Ministry of Health continues to provide the nation with daily updates via the dashboard which is published on the Ministry of Health's website and other platforms in order to update the general public on the status of Covid-19 within the country.  I am happy to share the latest update which is being published 30th April. 

To date there have been: 

  • 12 confirmed cases of Covid-19 
  • 4 suspected cases  
  • 5 active cases  
  • 5 recoveries 

The total number of persons tested to date is 101. 

The last new case of Covid-19 was reported 25th April 2020, and prior to this, it was ten days before on April 15th. 

Positive Gains: 

During the past few weeks, great focus has been placed on procuring: 

  1. additional personal protection equipment (PPEs) 
  2. in-country testing capability; and 
  3. additional medical capacity through personnel and physical hospital uplift. 
  4. Additional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were secured – We have been successful in storing up our supplies of personal protective equipment for front line workers including the hospital and health staff and have advanced distribution to each department throughout the islands. This will go a long way in protecting these staff. A large shipment was received from Public Health England last week along with additional PPE from local and international vendors which have been procured by the MOH. 
  5. PCR Equipment – We are in possession of one PCR machine for testing and anticipate the arrival of a second machine within the next week from the UK. We have also received additional swab and testing kits to be utilised with these machines. Additional supplies and materials to support local testing are on the way. 
  6. Additional medical staff are being sourced to ensure that there is sufficient surge capacity within the Ministry of Health and TCI Hospitals. An agreement has been made with Cuba and is being advanced for 20 persons to assist TCI. The delegation will consist of 9 medical specialists, ten registered nurses and one administrative support staff. In addition, Crown Agents through Public Health England have identified additional medical specialists and nurses who are being recruited through TCIG.  
  7. An agreement is underway to expand bed spaces at the Hospital to provide additional capacity. Work is about to commence and complete works over the coming weeks to use the outpatient department to provide an additional 12 beds by installing the relevant piping for oxygen and other upgrades. Funding has also been made available to procure oxygen generators to ensure sufficient oxygen is available for the additional ten ventilators which are on order through the UK; 6 of which will be in country next week. 
  8. A Testing Strategy was approved by Cabinet. This strategy will come into effect with the commencement of in-country testing. 
  9. A Masks Policy was also approved at Cabinet. It outlined the use of medical masks for frontline workers and emphasised the need for n95 masks to be reserved for front line health care workers managing Covid-19 confirmed individuals in accordance with WHO guidance. The policy also mandates face covering for the general public. While we agree that the use of face covering in the community may primarily serve as a means of source control, I wish to state clearly that the use of non-medical face masks in the community should be considered only as a complementary measure and not as a replacement for established preventive measures, for example physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, good hand hygiene and avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes and mouth. I wish to applaud those industrious business men and women who have begun to make cloth masks, and I encourage us to support them. 

During this time of the national lockdown, much has been achieved by the broad compliance of the general population with the guidance which has been issued by the Government. I am very proud of everyone for heeding the advice given, especially as it relates to the shelter in place order and curfew. With that being said, by reducing contact between persons through social distancing, sheltering in place, closure of the international and domestic borders, we have managed to slow the spread of Covid-19 within our populations. 

We have seen what Covid-19 can do in countries which have been slow or unsuccessful in implementing these public health measures and what a devastating impact it can have on individuals, families and the wider society. We have much to be proud of, but we still have a long way to go before life can return to any semblance of normality. 

Social distancing, enhanced hygiene measures such as frequent hand washing, cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, covering our coughs and sneezes and staying home when suffering from cough, fever and shortness of breath should now become second nature to each one of us if we want to continue to build on the gains we have made during this period of lockdown. We still need your help and your compliance. We still have a duty to protect the vulnerable and please stay home where possible. 

CONCLUSION 

We are taking a phased approach to reopen certain sectors while we monitor the impact of these sectors on the spread of the virus. As mentioned earlier, this may require a quick rollback where necessary. The start date and the allowable activities in the next phase of the reopening will as always continue to be guided by Health.  

We should acknowledge the fact that this pandemic will continue to impact daily life in the Turks and Caicos Islands until the end of this year with a roadmap to an 'end-state' likely to stretch well into 2021.  This presents a clear and compound risk of managing both Covid-19 and the hurricane season. 

Accepting that this position and restarting the international tourist economy do not need to be mutually exclusive; welcoming back international tourists is a key milestone on this roadmap.  This paper does not consider the opening of borders nor an approach to resuming the tourist industry, both of which are the subject of a separate and urgent whole-of-sector engagement. Our airport and protocols are being assiduously addressed even ahead of the stakeholder engagement. We are cognizant of the fact that this will not and cannot be business as usual. We are also watching closely, our source markets. 

Caution was adopted when considering purely economic drivers around the release of curfew restrictions.  This may seem counterintuitive, but prematurity - the destabilising impact of subsequent waves of outbreaks and the pressure on TCI's healthcare system – would extend our cross-territory recovery time and delay the critical date when we are able to restart our international tourist economy. This is the 'next normal'. 

In entering the 'new normal' as a Government, we take the lives of each and every one of you seriously, and we are grateful again to those who have taken this situation for what it is: a matter of life and death. As a Government, we wish to assure you that we remain ready to act and react decisively, to the epidemic. This means being prepared to re-enact full restrictions should that be required. We will continue to have clear and simple solutions and directives so that the public and businesses can understand them and to consistency in measures taken 

We value the confidence placed in our leadership guided by Health which is evidenced by the high compliance we saw over the past few weeks and will not willfully or negligently misplace or jeopardise this trust. Likewise, we have gained confidence in you, and we ask that this mutual trust not be violated.  

Again on behalf of the people of this country I wish to thank HMG for the support through Public Health England, the Ministry of Defence UK, and the Foreign Commonwealth Office generally. We have found in our Governor, an avid supporter, advocate and a true partner. This partnership is based on mutual respect and the fact that we all have to live with the decisions that we make. This partnership ought to assure our people that there is oneness in our approach, and oneness wins every time.   

Use of Emergency Powers 

A decision has been taken to extend the use of the Emergency Powers Ordinance to June 1st 

Whilst the Emergency Powers Ordinance empowers the Governor to declare a state of emergency in the Islands; it is important to note that the Governor is required to seek advice from the Cabinet, before making a Proclamation.  Section 2 of that Ordinance defines the term "Governor" to mean the Governor acting with the advice of the Cabinet, but not necessarily in accordance with such advice. 

In the case of the Government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the coordination and collaboration of all Cabinet stakeholders was required to address the many issues that arose from the pandemic and imminent risks to the Islands.  In recognition of this reality, His Excellency the Governor and I, as well as all Cabinet colleagues, agreed that the most effective approach would be a collective action.  As such on 20th March 2020 when the state of emergency was declared in the Turks and Caicos Islands, it was announced by the Governor and me as Premier, following a Cabinet meeting during which we discussed the pros and cons of that decision. All major announcements have been done collectively and following decisions taken by the Cabinet.   

The decision to declare a state of public emergency was determined to ensure that the Cabinet could make timely decisions, including the making of legal provisions – through emergency powers regulations – to implement measures to address the issues confronting the Islands.  Through regulations, like other Commonwealth jurisdictions and Overseas Territories, such as Bermuda, we have addressed a wide range of topics including – public health measures, the imposition of a national curfew, the creation of economic relief measures, the creation of stimulus and the continuity of the courts. 

The use of emergency powers is exceptional and only apply in extreme circumstances like we are faced with by this Covid-19 pandemic.  We use these powers to make regulations without going through the lengthier process in the House of Assembly, to take actions without complying with statutory duties that would normally apply, to take action to set aside an Ordinance in order to protect the islands.  Emergency powers allow the government to introduce measures that may affect fundamental rights, such as the right to liberty. These measures can only be introduced in exceptional circumstances and are temporary in nature.  These powers are able to be brought in rapidly in a crisis and are expected to be temporary. 

We are moving into a "new normal", and it is truly a matter of death as to whether we embrace it or not. I encourage us to embrace the "new normal" and while we have announced the first phase of reopening. The next phase will be announced shortly and will be marked by the start of in-country testing, which is also to begin shortly. 

My Government wishes to thank all of you who continue to support us in prayer, and this time requires God's strength and grace more than ever before. It remains our prayer that God continues to bless us and that He continues to bless these beautiful by nature Turks and Caicos Islands.