Published 30th October 2020, 3:23pm
So we were as prepared as we could be to remove restrictions safely provided we did so slowly and continued increased testing, including screening front line people at supermarkets, banks, the Health Services Authority, pharmacies, restaurants and so on.
With our testing capabilities improved, and with the trend in positive cases going the right way, the month of May seemed a bit brighter with the first phase of reopening of the Cayman economy with additional essential services now including money transfer, pool maintenance and landscaping services and other businesses being allowed to reopen. This allowed about 6,000 people back into the broader community.
On 5 May the curfew was lifted on Little Cayman and some restrictions were lifted on Cayman Brac on 7 May.
Mr. Speaker, with these restrictions on Grand Cayman being reduced, we were able to move from Level 5 Maximum Suppression to Level 4 High Suppression of the virus. Shelter in place provisions remained as the country continued our fight to suppress the virus. Night time hard curfew and the Sunday curfew also remained.
Two weeks later on 19 May with testing going well, we were able to lift restrictions further and work to Level 3 Moderate Suppression allowing beach access Monday to Saturday by last name protocols and strictly for exercise, including swimming. Shoreline fishing and fishing by boat with a limit of two fishermen was now allowed. Moving to Level 3 was an important achievement for our society and economy. It increased outdoor recreation as well as added economic activity by allowing more businesses to operate, including hardware stores and home depots in readiness of the reopening of the construction and development sectors later in May.
Prior to the development sector coming back on stream, we put into place a testing regime to determine the extent of any infections in this segment of the workforce. Similar testing regimes had now been implemented for other essential workers.
Unfortunately the school buildings and places of worship had to remain closed. With schools having been closed from mid-March, parents were juggling work and helping educate their children from home. We know the strain that this presented on parents was great but school systems, both private and public, had to quickly figure out how to use technology and the means to support children’s education and the parents who were now part time educators. Our churches similarly used technology to reach their congregations.
Still, whilst we had had some hospital admissions from COVID-19 these were few and the individuals had happily recovered. Our testing had drastically increased and although our positive cases were increasing, they were not alarming. Our efforts to contain and suppress the virus were working. And so Mr. Speaker I was filled with hope.
I said on the 29th of May that if we continued that trend to suppress the virus, then we would be okay to move to Level 2 Low Suppression on 21 June. Key to this was to ensure that given the increasing numbers of people now interacting across our Islands that we were carefully monitoring our test results before moving forward.
On Sunday, 21 June, we were able to move into Level 2 Minimal Suppression with a greater easing of restrictions. More businesses were now operating and many more people were on the roads. Helpers and child care providers were allowed back to work and education facilities were allowed to open with appropriate protections in place. The night time and Sunday curfew regimes had also ended.
I am pleased to say Mr. Speaker that even with the majority of people now moving about their life with some sense of normalcy; we did not see a spike in the virus. And so on July 5th, more restrictions were lifted.
Then on 17 July, we announced an additional reduction of restrictions to come into effect on Sunday, 19 July. At that point, Cayman had conducted an impressive 27,000 tests and had had only two positive cases from 3,000 tests in July,
That allowed us to announce that we were planning a phased reopening of the borders to start on 1 September; this date was later moved to 1 October.
The further softening of restrictions included inter-Island travel by air and boat with the need for testing before travel; we increased the number of people who could gather from 25 to 50; and we allowed dancing and karaoke in restaurants and bars as long as social distancing restrictions were followed.
Visits to residential care homes was now possible, with certain restrictions, and up to 50 people could visit the Sandbar and Stingray City on a commercial craft with Wildlife Interaction Zone licenses. But social distancing restrictions, as well as mask wearing, remained in force.
On 25 August we announced that because of the negative spread of the virus, face masks were no longer mandatory but would still be required in healthcare and residential home care facilities, prisons and airports as well as in public buses, taxis, school vehicles and buses, including both passengers and drivers.
We also increased the number of people allowed to gather from 50 to 250, including on boats, as well as introduced a pilot programme of monitoring visitors who have homes here, or access to homes, and plan to stay longer than two weeks. That programme started on 17 September with the arrival of a British Airways plane bringing Caymanians, residents and permanent residents back to our shores. Prior to travelers being allowed to quarantine at home, all travelers were required to quarantine in a government-run quarantine facility and to be tested after two weeks on Day 15. Only then would they be allowed to leave provided their PCR test was negative for COVID-19. This requirement for 14-day quarantine with testing on Day 15 also applies to those in-home quarantine. In addition, those quarantining at home are also required to wear a ‘geo-fence device’ that will cause an alarm should the person leave the area they are quarantined in. Individuals quarantining at home also receive home visits and phone calls to ensure that they are where they are supposed to be. And Mr. Speaker, they are also mandated to do a test upon arriving at the airport.
And as we pushed toward the phased opening of our borders we were intent that we would keep security and safety front of mind, but we understood that we had to find a way to open up, albeit safely.
With the advent of the pilot programme of home monitoring, we put in place new public health regulations making it an offence for those quarantined at home to permit another person to visit them. Those who breached the quarantine faced a fine of $1,000 and six months imprisonment. As we are all aware Mr. Speaker this House approved changes to the Public Health Law last week to increase the fine for breaking quarantine to $10,000 and two years’ imprisonment, given the significant health risks and economic costs that a possible return of community spread of COVID-19 would bring.
Mr. Speaker, on 2 October we began our home quarantine pilot programme with 110 people arriving on six flights, all of whom went into the Quarantine at Residence Programme at 72 different homes. The remaining passengers arriving that day were quarantined at government-approved facilities.
In October further changes to the COVID-19 regulations included increasing the number of people allowed to gather to 500 and permitted people to fish outside our territorial waters without having to quarantine on their return, under certain conditions. This is to aid in our ongoing goal of allowing a return to normalcy in as safe a manner as possible.
Mr. Speaker we are looking at how best to safely expand the number of people who can arrive here over the coming months. As this House knows, one consideration is the introduction of what is called a Hotel or Resort ‘Bubble’. In other words, to allow visitors to come here and to remain at a hotel or resort that keeps guests separate from the rest of the population. Of course the hotel or resort would, as best as possible, ensure that physical distancing and wearing of masks and protective equipment, and so on, would be practiced. These visitors would also be tested on arrival and their health watched while here. Staff, too, would need to be tested periodically. But for this to work as a true ‘bubble’, it would mean that staff would need to remain at the resort as well, away from their families and friends. This is not an easy ask and has been but one of the challenges, and there are others, in considering this option.
We have also been looking at a proposal from stand-alone villas as to how to allow them to be a part of the solution. They are often self-sufficient homes with beaches and in theory would allow people to visit, be tested, and to remain at the villa. But this too has some risks. But like the Hotel ‘Bubble’ concept Government has not been ruled that possibility out.
One programme that has been in the planning for some time has been The Global Citizen Concierge Programme, which is strategically designed to welcome high net worth individuals here for several months and indeed up to two years. The programme has just launched and the interest to date has been promising. Individuals will be required to comply with the usual testing and quarantine regime and after which they will be able to live their lives among us in safety and security whilst also working remotely at whatever their jobs are in their home country. They will not be allowed to do any work for businesses in the Cayman Islands, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker, all of these initiatives are promising, but we are still being cautious, because we know we are still nowhere near out of the proverbial woods just yet. Indeed, a few weeks ago we had a slight fright. As I said in my State of the Nation address, an irresponsible blog site caused some unnecessary panic after a student at Red Bay Primary had tested positive - albeit a weak positive - for COVID-19. Subsequent testing showed the student, the parents and siblings, to be negative, but Public Health and the Ministry of Education instituted proper protocols and classmates, teachers and parents of the Year 2 class were all tested with no positive results. And indeed Mr. Speaker those exposed were required to isolate until the requisite fourteen day period following contact with the positive student had occurred.
And speaking of testing Mr. Speaker, I want to update this Honourable House on where we stand with testing and COVID cases to date. As of yesterday, 29 October, we have done 46,733 tests, which puts us 14th globally for testing. So far we have had a total of 240 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which 221 have recovered. We continue to screen healthcare workers, frontline staff at the ports, nursing homes and the prisons, in addition to testing those travelling here and of course anyone residing here can request a COVID-19 test at any time if they think they need to. Testing remains free to the public with Government picking up the costs.
Meanwhile Mr. Speaker, Worldwide there are 45.1 million cases; 30.3 million people have recovered and 1.18 million people have died. There are more than 9 million cases in the United States and almost 1 million cases in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Speaker, besides two weak cases found in the community in recent months all other new positive cases over the last three months have been imported as people arrive here from overseas. We know cannot remain closed forever Mr. Speaker and we must do what we can to open up. But we are determined to do so with safety as our first consideration.
Mr. Speaker we all understand that we have to get more of the economy working. But I am sure that we all also appreciate the devastation to what economy we now have should we be forced to lock down again and should we return to community spread. But what we may not appreciate Mr. Speaker, is the impact on our children, particularly their education and mental health. Indeed, our elderly and the broader population would bear a heavy burden. I do not believe any of us are ready for that – neither physically, economically or emotionally.
All around us we are seeing increases of the virus and new lockdowns Mr. Speaker. The UK and Europe in particular are now struggling as the virus takes off again and they return to strict lockdown measures.
The virus in the United States has also been rising as that country struggles with its response to the pandemic. This is a danger for them and for us. So we shall be careful in how we open up Mr. Speaker, we shall be careful.
I say again that we cannot remain locked down forever so a way must be found, and we will need to accept some level of risk. But my Government will ensure that the risk is reasonable and that our people will remain safe and that any risk from reopening is low compared to the danger of leaving our borders closed.
Mr. Speaker, this has not been an easy row to hoe these past seven months; not for Government and certainly not for the people and businesses of these Islands. I will forever be grateful to my people who not only understood the need to do what we did to save lives but also buoyed me and the entire Government up along the way with prayers and well wishes. I thank my Government in particular the Minister of Health and the Governor, and all of our health care community, public and private – including the Ministry of Health, as well as the many civil servants, private sector people and charitable organisations who worked tirelessly over these many months to help us get where we are today.
I also want to record my appreciation to those who served on the front line; the men and women in the public service who toiled relentlessly to carry out Government’s policy decisions and to faithfully serve the people of the Cayman Islands. It is due in large part to their courage and professionalism that it has been possible to maintain steady progress in the fight against COVID-19.
I also commend our communications team for their tireless work in keeping the public informed and the members of the National Emergency Operations Centre for their 100 days of endless service.
And Hon. Attorney General, I also thank you and your team for your guidance and efforts over these many months as we traversed how to implement the safety regulations that were needed to keep people safe. And I thank the able staff in my office along with my Chief Officers and the Cabinet Secretary for their assistance and friendship and support over these difficult months.
But there is more to be done.
So, Mr. Speaker, seven months on from the action this Government took to lock down these Cayman Islands how do things stand? Well, mercifully, as I have indicated we have so far come through far better than anyone could have ever imagined. And for that, I know we are all grateful.
I recognise the tremendous response of the Caymanian people to the stringent demands placed upon them. It took Government, acting on the best public health advice available, to identify what was needed and to do so swiftly. But it took the people of these Islands to respond and I am proud of the way thousands of Caymanians did as we asked of them despite the hardships and privations.
It was because of their steadfastness that the spread of the virus was kept to manageable levels and the most vulnerable have remained protected. And it was because the spread was kept manageable that we could implement the test, track and trace regime that we knew would be critical in helping us both to manage the crisis and navigate our way forward.
As we now look to the future, we need that partnership between Government and the people to be carried forward. I have felt through this crisis a closer connection between Government and our people that we must not lose. I do not mean that in any party political sense. I am talking about a connection between people and the institution of government. We have seen people willing to trust that decisions are being made in the best interests of everybody. We have seen people once again valuing the contribution of our key-worker public servants, in our hospitals, our emergency services, at schools and on our garbage trucks.
Mr. Speaker we face more tough times ahead. There will be difficult decisions for government and tough times for families and businesses in our communities. This crisis has shown however, that we can face the uncertain future together and that by working together Cayman will grow even stronger.
Our focus since March has been on the immediate public health crisis. I make no apology for that. Had we not maintained that focus I believe that instead of now being able to talk about how we will open things back up we would still be trying to come to terms with a greater crisis and attending funerals.
However, during that period we have not simply ignored the realities of Cayman’s economic position and we have not forgotten the families and businesses facing hardship. Instead, we have acted swiftly and positively to put in place a range of short-term measures that help to get us through the immediate crisis period.
We have channeled money to families in need both with direct grants, notably for those in tourism-related jobs and for our veterans and seafarers, and through the Needs Assessment Unit. We have brought forward measures to support small businesses including with access to grants and loans. We have safely facilitated the opening of the economy with the reopening of construction. We have acted to allow people who need funds to access their pensions and we have worked with banks, credit providers, and utility companies to reduce the pressure of regular bills on hard-pressed family budgets.
These measures add up, Mr. Speaker. The economic impact assessment report released by the Economics and Statistics Office calculated that government’s actions will boost GDP by a total of around $185M and will reduce by more than one-third the expected contraction of the economy this year. This means nearly 1,500 jobs saved, hundreds of which will be jobs held by Caymanians.
Mr. Speaker I must thank my Ministerial colleagues and the entire Caucus for the enterprise and creativity they have shown in putting these actions in place. Our focus has been unequivocally on public health but we have by no means neglected the economy or families in need through this difficult period.
Mr. Speaker, over the last many months, we have all found that some of our preconceived ideas have been challenged. Many of us have had to change the way we work and make adjustments in our daily lives. I am no exception. I have always tried to take a strategic view, believing the role of the Premier was to look after the long-term interests of the country. Over the last few months, my focus has been however has been on getting through today and tomorrow. At times, the long term has looked like the end of the week.
This crisis Mr. Speaker has focused me and many in government on the here and now. We have been ruthlessly focused on the actions needed to deal with the immediate crisis. We have put in place the measures necessary to contain and to deal with the public health emergency. We have taken action to help businesses through this shut-down period. We have responded to the needs of the families in our community who needed help.
But now Mr. Speaker is the time to look ahead once more. As we on these Cayman Islands begin to get back to something approaching normal, we need to chart a new course back to economic prosperity for all Caymanians and residents. And, Mr. Speaker, I have no doubt about our will or ability to achieve what we set out to do. I have spoken before in this House and elsewhere about the entrepreneurial spirit in Cayman that has lifted three small Islands in the Caribbean to become a major financial services centre and a premium tourism destination.
Those things happened not by accident but because government, people and private sector organisations worked together to make them happen. So will it be as we rebuild our economy as this crisis passes. It will take time. It will involve difficult decisions. There will be problems along the way. But we will get there and we will get there together.
What seems like an age ago now, Mr. Speaker, I promised this House and the country that in my time here over this term I would push hard to achieve the things I was elected as Premier to do. I concluded that I would leave everything on the field.
I guess, now the field has changed. What has not changed, Mr. Speaker, is my commitment to do all I can – to achieve all that I can – so that Cayman is in the best possible position for the Premier who follows me to lead our country forward. Cayman’s recovery make no bones about it will be a long-term project.
But Cayman’s recovery has already started. As I said earlier, the actions my Government have taken have already ensured that the recession will not be as deep as it otherwise would have been. I assure the House today that the Government I am privileged to lead will move at pace to turn our economy back to growth, to support business, and to help families. We are a Government of national unity and the need for unity of purpose is stronger now more than ever it has been. This government has that purpose and the resolve necessary to bring prosperity back to Cayman.
May God continue to guide us and bless these beloved isles Cayman.