Prime Minister Andrew Holness has scoffed at claims that his Administration was pressured by “big businesses” to lift the protocols implemented under the Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA) to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus across the island.
Responding to the claim during an exclusive interview with the Jamaica Observer on Sunday, Holness quipped “absolutely nothing like that” as he explained the factors behind the decision which he announced while making his presentation in the 2022/2023 Budget Debate last Thursday.
At that time Holness announced that effective the following day, March 18, the Order, and measures under the DRMA would be withdrawn. He told the Parliament that while the pandemic is not over, it must be mainstreamed into the general, normal management of public health, safety and public order.
“It is no longer sustainable to manage the pandemic as a ‘special project’ by Executive Orders, through the Disaster Risk Management Act. However, risks still remain and continued vigilance is necessary, especially for vulnerable populations. For this reason, some measures will be retained and incorporated into regulations issued under the Public Health Act,” Holness told the Parliament.
In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, some critics took to social and traditional media to blast the prime minister, pointing to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in several European countries including Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, with experts in the United States also preparing for a fresh wave of the virus.
While accepting that the island could see another wave of COVID-19 infections, Holness was adamant that this can be managed by the regular public health laws.
“After two years, if the average Jamaican has not internalised the message, has not taken the disease seriously, and has not taken personal responsibility, then we would be in a really bad situation.
“I am of the view that the average Jamaican understands that you are going to have different variations of the virus that will enter our population…that you can protect yourself by wearing a mask, sanitising your hands and maintaining social distance. So get back to life, get back to normal, but it is not the normal before COVID; it is a new normal now and so you have to protect yourself,” said Holness.
“I don’t believe that anyone could expect that the State of Jamaica could continue managing COVID in the way that we were doing previously, which effectively was to divert and redirect resources from other areas of life to manage COVID. I think that speaks to the frustration and fatigue of the society that other areas of life were being affected because we were focusing so much on managing COVID,” reasoned Holness.
He argued that after two years Jamaica would have gained sufficient knowledge and would have a better understanding of the disease, plus, “There would be some spread of immunity — both through vaccination and natural exposure — and that would have placed us in a position to be able to transition from using Executive Orders to manage the outbreaks and the other controlled elements of the pandemic.”
The prime minister also pointed to what he said was a misperception that the Government was abandoning the control of the pandemic with its decision to withdraw the DRMA restrictions.
“We have now transitioned it to our normal public health laws…so what we have done now is, instead of projectising the management of COVID, COVID is now mainstreamed into our regular public health,” added Holness.
He told the Observer that he will remain involved in the management of Jamaica’s response to the pandemic, with Cabinet playing a key role. The day-to-day management will be from the Health Ministry.
“Minister [Dr Christopher] Tufton is quite capable and has done an excellent job, in my opinion, in managing. And for him, it is also very important that he now spends a little bit more time on the other elements of health care which were sometimes not given the attention they really need, for example the return of elective surgery and other such things,” said Holness.