(Excerpts of Dr. Friday’s Press Statement)
The parliament was postponed because Ministers Camillo Gonsalves and Julian Francis tested positive for COVID- 19.
I had received a call earlier in the morning just before 9:00 am from the Speaker to inform me that the Chief Medical Officer had directed that all members and other personnel in the House be rapid tested before parliament commenced. Parliament was scheduled to start at 9:00 am with my response as the Leader of the Opposition to the budget address that was delivered by the Minister of Finance. The Speaker told me in that telephone call that the parliament will be delayed to conduct tests which were to be done at the House of Assembly.
I arrived at the House of Assembly just after 9 ‘O’ clock and was informed by one of my colleagues who had arrived before me and already tested that Camillo Gonsalves had tested positive and had left the building. Shortly, thereafter, I learned also that Senator Francis had tested positive.
The Prime Minster was not present at that time nor was the Deputy Prime Minister. No one informed me officially about the developments but of course we learned of them. I spoke with the Speaker who was present throughout and eventually told her that the situation had become untenable and that myself and other members felt that it was not safe in the chamber. My colleagues and I left the chamber and gathered for a while in the court yard of the parliament building. We agreed that in the circumstances we would not return to the House today.
Safety is my paramount concern; safety of everyone. But, I have also a responsibility, a special responsibility to my colleagues as the Leader of the Opposition, as their leader in the House, to take decisions to protect their interest and wellbeing. So, in consultation with them, we took a decision to leave the parliament building and not to return for the day at least; until the situation became clearer and until the Chief Medical Officer had considered and weighed in on the matter.
COVID- 19 is serious and we must protect ourselves. I want my colleagues to be safe and to feel safe, when we show up for work at the parliament building to do the people’s business. We know its important business and I don’t think that in the circumstances, the risk of infection would override the need to have the parliament done today. This can be done at some other time. If you will recall that parliament was postponed previously from January 3rd to January 10th and that was because the Speaker of the House was exposed to someone who was tested positive. She told me that herself by telephone and she said she was directed by the Chief Medical Officer not to attend the parliament so the parliament was postponed from the 3rd January to the 10th January.
Yesterday also, there was another development in the parliament. Prior to the delivery of the Budget Address by the Minister of Finance, the Prime Minister rose in the House and was requesting that members of the Opposition agreed to have voting by telephone for those members who might be absent from the House when voting was taking place. I did not agree that this should be done. I felt that in the circumstances the rules did not permit for voting by telephone. Standing Orders 44 says that the voting is done my members who are present in the House. There are no standing orders permitting the voting by telephone so I indicated that we would not agree for voting by telephone. Then the Prime Minister said that he would do what he had to do and one of the things he had suggested was that, as the opposition did not agree to voting by phone, the members who tested positive might be allowed to vote in person in parliament.
To me that is irresponsible talk. It sends a very bad message that there is one rule for everybody else and one for the government as it suits their circumstances. It cannot be permitted. This is a government that sends teachers and public servants home; refused them entry to their work places because they were unvaccinated, even though they were not tested positive for COVID- 19 and the suggestion that because government had business it wanted to conclude that members who had tested positive and who would not be available to vote in person in the House might be able to attend to vote even though they are positive. That is a very damaging position to adopt. It sends the wrong message to the members of the public about how seriously the government takes the public health concerns of COVID into account.
There are other employers who may have exigent circumstances, serious matters that they may want a specific employee to come in; if the employee is tested positive. You are going to say, you are going to be here for half an hour, come in and fix this thing for me because I want it done urgently. No, the protocol is that you stay in isolation until the medical officers tell you that you are cleared to end the isolation. It’s not just a matter of what is convenient or what is required by your own personal circumstances so that is something that unfortunately sends the wrong message to the people of this country and it has done considerable harm in my view to the perception as to how seriously this government takes the public health concerns of COVID and the risk of infection.I certainly will not be attending the parliament if any member who is tested positive is allowed to attend the chamber and none of the members of the opposition would attend and other members of staff who are in the chamber would have the right to refuse to be there.