September 22, 2021

Cayman Premier’s statement in LA on COVID-19

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Mr. Speaker, it has been over seven months since our first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on 12 March. On 14 March we closed our borders as we started our response to the COVID virus by introducing the hard and soft curfew regimes. But thinking back, it seems so much longer than that. I thank God for His mercies and I also thank the Caymanian people for their forbearance over these many months as we charted our response to the threat of COVID-19.    

It has not been easy over these many months Mr. Speaker.  To try to eradicate the virus, to save lives and protect health, we acted decisively.  We closed our borders, put curfews in place to limit movement, and required most of our people to stay home, indeed with many working from home.  Add to this the closure of all our schools and restrictions put on access to elderly care homes, our hospitals, and the prisons. Access to beaches was also restricted. When it was safe to do so, we removed most restrictions in phases over several months. Hopefully, things have gotten better, and we are not where we were in early March, but the impact of COVID-19 has been disastrous to our Islands; especially to our economy. Not only did our tourism sector come to a grinding halt but all local business has been hit badly during the period of lockdown. The same thing has happened around the world, Mr. Speaker. The impact of COVID-19 has been tough for business and for our people, including our children and the elderly. But it has also been tough for Government. But despite the challenges, there is no doubt that it is the strength of our response, and the understanding and compliance of our people that have helped to almost eradicate the virus here and has enabled us to return to some sense of normalcy. And because of this, much of the local commerce, save for tourism, has for the most part been able to return.

We are indeed in a much better place now than we were in the early phases of our response – but I shall never forget the direness of the situation as we all saw the news reports on television. We watched in horror early in the year as this deadly virus caused havoc in China, and throughout Asia, moving to Europe and eventually to North America. It seemed there was no stopping it. By the time we had our first confirmed case of COVID-19 in March there were more than 125,000 people infected and almost 5,000 deaths across the world. The entire country of Italy, with over 60 million people, was in lockdown. Today there are more than 45 million confirmed cases across the world and more than one million deaths. Those are staggering numbers and they continue to rise.

Mr. Speaker, as we started our COVID-19 response I could not have predicted these numbers, but the potential for calamity was obvious early on. And as our world, both here at home and abroad, began to change in March we all understood clearly that in the weeks and months ahead our priority had to be to keep our people healthy and to save lives. As I said several times over those months Mr. Speaker, we can rebuild an economy, but we cannot bring people back to life.  

I am appreciative Mr. Speaker that my Government along with the Governor, the Deputy Governor, the Chief Medical Officer, the Medical Officer of Health and others all agreed that saving the lives and the health of our people had to be at the forefront of Government’s decisions and actions. We saw what was playing out in much larger countries that had many more resources than us, yet we were determined that our fate would be different. 

Many thoughts went through my mind in those early days and I, like many of you Mr. Speaker, got very little sleep, given the hard decisions I knew had to be taken. But often on those nights when I was alone with my thoughts and worries, a quote from Winston Churchill kept returning to me.  

“Things are not always right because they are hard.  But if they are right, one must not mind if they are also hard”.  

I have reminded myself of this regularly over the past months as we took the difficult decisions that we needed to take, knowing that what we were doing was hard, but believing that the reasons we were doing them were right.   

Whilst the lockdown of the country began in March, Mr. Speaker, Government along with our medical experts had been keeping an eye on COVID-19 from late December 2019 when the virus was detected in Wuhan City in China. By 20 January the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Japan were also reporting cases of the virus. 

On 31 January the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency with 9,826 confirmed cases globally then. The virus had now spread to 19 other countries with the global risk assessment level rated as high by the WHO.  

So, Mr.  Speaker, in late January I and the Health Minister held a cross-Ministerial meeting with Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee, and key personnel from the Health Services Authority, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Employment and Border Control, the Customs and Border Control Agency, and others, to gauge our readiness to deal with COVID-19 and to explore what was needed for us to do our own testing.  

We also discussed the readiness of our health system, including the potential number of beds and ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other equipment that could be needed if the worst was to happen. Our goal was to bring in enough equipment as we could to be better prepared to deal with the virus. And over time we initiated broader plans to help us prepare should COVID-19 inevitably reach our shores.

Meetings were also held with the wider medical community which, like Government, was extremely worried over the potential damage the virus could bring. 

On February 3rd we held our first press briefing, which included the Health Minister, Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee and Medical Officer for Health Services Dr. Samuel Williams giving the public useful information on the virus and providing assurance that we were preparing to manage the virus when it arrived here. We confirmed that Government had also been working with international public health agencies such as the Pan American Health Organization; the Caribbean Public Health Agency and Public Health England regarding plans and protocols to deal with the virus. Mr. Gary Wong, with Customs and Border Control, also provided the public with an update as to the precautions being taken at our seaports and airports to protect our Islands from COVID-19.  

The additional scrutiny at the border assisted our decision on February 26th to deny entry of a cruise ship, the MSC Meraviglia, where a crew member had been isolated with flu-like symptoms. At the time our borders were still open to incoming tourists at the airports and via cruise ships, but we were watchful for anyone with flu-like symptoms.  

 On Feb 29th, the Costa Luminosa stopped in Grand Cayman. The ship had confirmed to local authorities that no one onboard had any flu-like symptoms. However, there was a 68-year-old passenger who had suffered two heart attacks aboard the ship and was in need of urgent medical care. He was taken to Health City Cayman Islands where he was put in isolation at the facility’s Medical Intensive Care Unit and treated for his cardiac condition.  

On 3 March our preparation continued as we activated the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) in anticipation of the national threat posed by the virus. Government also put in place travel restrictions for people coming into the Cayman Islands from mainland China where the virus originated and was rampant, as well as suspending all non-essential official business travel. 

Also, in early March we welcomed a consultation team from Public Health England (PHE), led by Ms. Autilia Newton, to discuss our strategies on COVID-19 prevention as well as to support our efforts to upgrade the Health Services Administration laboratory services to enable on-Island testing for COVID-19.

PHE also conducted scientific modelling to predict the likely impact of COVID-19 on the Islands. The results of this were quite sobering and indicated that with no intervention almost 1,000 persons across our Islands could die because of the disease should it strike here as it was doing elsewhere. This bolstered our view that the strategy to be undertaken had to include firm interventions to suppress the virus to save lives and protect the health of a large segment of our population. We instinctively knew that in our small Islands of close-knit communities, saving lives and keeping people healthy had to be our paramount concern.

Mr.  Speaker, on  March 9th we learned that there were five people at Health City Cayman Islands being tested for the virus – four staff who isolated at home, and the fifth being  the cruise visitor from the Costa Luminosa who was a patient at the hospital.

By March 12th it was confirmed that the cruise visitor at Health City was indeed COVID-19 positive. Fortunately four healthcare staff that treated the patient were negative. We awaited one more test result and had also arranged to test more staff from Health City. 

The confirmation that we had COVID-19 in the community was indeed a watershed moment for us in the Cayman Islands, as was the death of the cruise visitor two days later on the 14th.   

On the afternoon of March 12th we held a press briefing to update the public on events and to again provide assurances that we were taking the situation most seriously. I also advised that Cabinet would hold an emergency meeting the next day to consider various options, including increasing travel bans on more countries and other measures.  

I noted then that “We are going to have to make some radical and drastic decisions that are going to impact social behaviour, travel and, indeed, people’s economic circumstances. But we believe that unless we do so, the results will be potentially devastating, indeed tragic, for these Islands. We will not allow, because of a lack of willingness to make hard decisions, the situation to obtain, which is currently the case in places like Italy and the United States.”  

Mr. Speaker the words of Churchill had stayed with me – “Things are not always right because they are hard.  But if they are right, one must not mind if they are also hard”.  

Over time Health City would report that some staff had unfortunately tested positive for COVID-19, the hospital was closed for two weeks and staff were quarantined. Fortunately all staff at Health City recovered without complications.

On March 13th His Excellency the Governor, the Health Minister, the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lee and I updated the public on Government’s response to suppress and eventually eliminate the virus from our shores. These measures included:

  • A further ban on travel from those countries that presented a risk given the high number of growing infections, hospitalizations as well as deaths.
  • That effective March 16th we would ban all cruise ship visits, initially for 60 days. This was later amended to start from Sunday, March 15th. All educational institutions would initially close from March 16th until April 27th.  Children, as we came to understand, were unwitting ready carriers of the virus.
  • A ban was placed on all public gatherings involving more than 50 persons until further notice.

I also advised that there were other interventions under consideration to reduce the risk of the virus gaining ground in our community. These would be advised the following week. 

And so on Monday, March 16th, at the press briefing I advised the country that the Government had held a series of meetings over the weekend with representatives of several of the main business sectors. I also confirmed that other similar meetings were planned that week with other business sectors. Discussions focused on the potential implications of the disease on our Islands and the various interventions being considered by Government to suppress the virus. I have to say Mr. Speaker that I was appreciative of the positive, and patriotic, response of our business sector to working with the people of these Islands during a time of crisis. 

I also advised the country that Government, along with the Governor, the Chief Medical Officer, and other relevant persons had agreed that other interventions to suppress the virus were needed. These were:

  • To close our airports to international passenger travel for an initial temporary period of three weeks starting on Sunday, March 22nd, at 11:59 pm. This was later extended.
  • That only residents to the Islands could return just prior to, and immediately after, the closure of the borders.
  • That with immediate effect residents returning from overseas would have to quarantine for 14 days after arrival.  
  • Travel to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman from Grand Cayman was restricted to residents of the Sister Islands.  

Given what we knew would be challenging economic times ahead I also advised the following:

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