Delivered by Premier-Hon. Joseph E. Farrell
Good day everyone.
It is my pleasure to be present here today and to be able to engage with you in a more direct manner, as we did prior to COVID19.
Joining me today is Mr. Martin Parlett, Head of the Progamme Management Office, for the Government of Montserrat.
I will address you on some areas of importance, while Martin will give a brief status update on the CIPREG Programme.
It has been six months since the government was forced to take action to mitigate against the spread of the Coronavirus, but thankfully, the island is returning to some form of normality- even while observing COVID-19 protocols.
- All government businesses are back to normal operations;
- Schools have reopened and all of our children are back in school;
- People are going about their normal businesses, while at the same time being cognizant that the coronavirus is still a reality.
Some countries in the Caribbean still have in place stringent measures, due to the presence of COVID -19 in those countries. Our families and friends in the United Kingdom, are under the threat of another lockdown, as they begin to experience a second wave of COVID-19.
Over the past months, the Ministry of Health has been receiving Personal Protective equipment from the United Kingdom, in addition to supplies which it has purchased. Additionally, the quarantine facility at Glendon is ready, just in case.
The Ministry of Health is prepared for any eventuality of any new coronavirus cases. Indeed we are not excited about the potential of having new cases, but we are not immune to it; so we continue to ensure that we have everything in place should we have to any case.
The testing machine has been validated and PCR tests are being offered to persons who are travelling abroad.
In the meantime, we must continue to adhere to the measures and guidelines which are in place to protect ourselves our families and our neighbours from contracting the virus.
We must all continue to wear our masks or face coverings when in contact with persons outside of our immediate households, and in crowded areas including business establishment. Practice good hygiene and report any flu like symptoms by calling the Casualty department.
I hear the conversations on the streets, some persons are wondering why we continue to take precautionary measures considering that we do not have any known cases. That may be so, but it only takes one undetected infected person for the virus to take root in our country and we must protect ourselves against that.
Hospitality Industry/ Opening of Boarders
This brings me to the question of the re-opening of the borders:
At the moment our borders remain partially closed, as only certain categories of persons are allowed to enter the island as per the existing Order, and these individuals will continue to be allowed entry, in addition to any other individual who the Minister of Health and his team may provide for.
After six months of not doing business, the hospitality industry is anxiously waiting for the border to reopen, allowing them to start doing business once again. I wish to assure the industry that their business is an integral part of the island’s economy and that the government is doing everything within its powers, to ensure that the people of
Montserrat and our visitors stay safe when the borders are fully opened.
In the meantime, protocols for the tourism sector are being fine-tuned by the Tourism Division. A series of training is taking place for service providers in the industry— ranging from Taxi and tour operators to food handlers and other industry workers.
The Tourism Division is also being strengthened with the return of a member of staff from overseas study. We have also put in place a tourism advisory group, to work along with the tourism department to ensure that key things are in place for the reopening of the Tourism sector, when the borders are fully open.
Traveling in and out of Montserrat:
Over the past weeks, there has been much discussion on a CARICOM Travel bubble; indeed there have been discussions for the introduction of Travel Bubble with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Barbados, in addition to a broader CARICOM Travel Bubble.
Statements were made that the bubble is up and running. As of today, Montserrat and some other countries are not ready to be part of the bubble for various logistical reasons: including the risk to which our countries might be exposed from persons coming into the bubble from some high risk countries.
Montserrat will continue to analyze that risk and join the bubble when it is safe to do so.
It is now fully established that the contract for the ferry service will not be renewed after the end of September. Cabinet took the decision after much consideration in terms of the effective use of the service in the presence of COVID19 and the projected low passenger movement for the unforeseeable future.
Government is conscious that a ferry service has become a way of life for us as a people over these many years, but at times something has to be given up for the common good of all; and this is one of those decisions.
The ferry has not been used for passenger travel from around the end of March 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak and the closing of borders, coupled with a downturn in passenger travel and the situation is projected to remain this way for some time to come.
To cushion the hardship which the travelling public may experience by the withdrawal of the ferry service, Government is working with both airlines and have reached an agreement to cap the base fares between Montserrat and Antigua and to provide subsidized airfares to passengers who are travelling.
How will this work?
The capped fare agreement will have no bearing on the airport taxes.
Government will pay to the airlines $150.00 on each one-way ticket and $300.00 on a return ticket.
The airlines have been receiving a monthly seat guarantee of $18,000.00 even with the ferry running, and this will continue.
Additionally, arrangements are made with the airlines to transport light cargo, while the access team and procurement are working to provide a bulk cargo service.
These are the arrangements that are in place to assist passengers to travel at a relatively cheap cost. The subsidy will not be given to the airlines. Passengers will go to the airlines and purchase their tickets at a reduced fare, the airlines will then send Government an invoice at the end of a period with the passenger manifest and we will reimburse the airlines for those fees.
In June, when I presented the 2020/21 budget, I informed the public that we were projecting a $22 million dollar deficit; this was predicated on the premise that the virus would remain active on island for six months in the first instance, which would severely impact all sectors of the economy.
Over the past months, the government with the Ministry of Finance has been working assiduously to manage the budget deficit within the framework of my instruction that no cuts can be made to healthcare, education and social welfare benefits. While at the same time, we are not in a position to accept new applicants for the social welfare programme.
We are working with senior managers in the various ministries and departments, and I am pleased to report that yesterday I received a revised near to balance budget. Indications are that we will end this financial year with a much smaller deficit than was projected at the beginning of the financial year.
We intended from the outset not to create hardship to anyone on this island, and any adjustment to the budget is not doing that. We are simply cutting areas that will not impact significantly on the residents and services of this country.
Rebuilding Montserrat’s Economy
On taking office in November last year, Government set about to prioritize projects under the Capital Investment Program for Resilient Economic Growth (CIPREG).
We are determined to complete these projects within the time frame and we are working with Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office(FCDO) to do so.
Included in that programme is the construction of a new hospital and, three weeks ago Cabinet took the bold decision and insisted that that the indicative figure earmarked for the hospital must be ring-fenced, so that it will not be used for any other project.