Speech by the Prime Minister

Statement on COVID-19 Measures by The Most Honourable Andrew Holness, ON, PC, MP, Prime Minister To the Houses of Parliament Jamaica Conference Centre on Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I wanted to update Parliament on the proposed measures for December 2020 prior to the enactment of the new Orders under the Disaster Risk Management Act. 

We must take measures now to continue our measured, evidence-based, proportionate and situationally appropriate risk-based management approach to the pandemic.   We are now approaching another period of high risk for us in the pandemic. 

We’re now approaching another period of high risk for us as a nation in the pandemic. This is a period of time when we will be seeing higher levels of travel both internally and from overseas. It is a period of time when Jamaicans are looking forward to the traditional merriment that is associated with the Christmas season. Those factors contribute to this period being a higher risk period than normal.

It is a difficult balance to fulfil the expectations of the season, anticipated increase in commercial activity, while at the same time keeping the population safe and not overwhelm our health system.   We must remain diligent in our adherence to the infection prevention and control measures and not jeopardize our recovery prospects in 2021.   Our measures for the month of December must therefore be realistic but they must also be strategic.  

After consultations with a number of stakeholders which I will enumerate. We had consultations with the church group, the umbrella body, we had consultation with a broad cross section of private sector interests and I had a one on one conversation with the leader of the opposition on a call discussing what we could do for the Christmas period.

I’m not saying Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is consensus or agreement, but I will say that there is an understanding of the issues.

 So, after consultations with a number of stakeholders, Cabinet is considering the following measures for December 2020 to mid-January 2021. I bring these to this Honourable House today in the usual spirit where though these measures could easily be announced outside of this body as part of the Disaster Risk Management Act I’ve always maintained that the spirit of the legislation and the way in which we conduct our government is that when we’re taking such measures that will infringe upon the constitutional rights of the citizen that they should be brought to parliament for parliamentarians to have a discussion on it and to make their contributions and I think that has been the spirit that we’ve preceded so far with and it has worked very well in ensuring that there is, well, maybe not necessarily national consensus but certainly there is cooperation amongst the stakeholders. 

Madam Deputy Speaker, the gathering limit is proposed to remain at 15 and the prohibition on parties and events will remain in place; that’s what we are proposing for the Christmas period so for the Christmas period, that is for the month of December through to mid-January the gathering limit will remain in place for 15 persons, and the prohibition for parties and events and such likes will remain in place.

However, we are proposing that under the Disaster Risk Management Act, we will make an amendment to say that ALL gatherings; whether in public or private spaces should be no more than 15 persons; it’s a very important distinction.  

In the current Order it speaks to public places but for the Christmas period where we’re anticipating that there will likely be gatherings not only in public but in private places as well and we may very well have to make this adjustment for that period.

Madam deputy speaker we’re seeing being reported now by the CDC, by the World Health Organization, by PAHO that many of the super spread events are actually private events. There’s one case and I was reviewing last night where the CDC pointed out that a wedding in the United States, a wedding of 50 persons contributed to a spread of over 300 and including the deaths of persons who didn’t even attend the wedding but of course secondary transmission so weddings, parties, funerals, receptions; these are now emerging as the spreading events and we have to be very careful and we are seeing what has happened in other jurisdictions as a result of thanksgiving activities where families are gathered together and then, of course, the virus is spread through those gatherings so we have to be very cautious and very careful.

Of course, this could be thorny and problematic in how it is enforced but I think we should still propose to make this amendment and we will also be clear with the security forces/ law enforcement to ensure that when it is actually being enforced it is done in a way that is, of course, sensitive to people’s privacy and their property rights.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am appealing to all Jamaicans to be responsible in the way we celebrate Christmas this year.  It should not be about large gatherings of family and friends but rather we should celebrate with our immediate family, with our immediate household, and try to maintain 15 or less, however, we understand that in Jamaica the lines of household and family is blurred. Some households have 20 persons, I can think of inside my constituency right now, that if you were to enter one yard as minister Samuda referred to them as “big yaad” you will have sometimes more than a hundred persons there and I’m certain that the leader of opposition business can relate to that and I’m certain the leader of opposition can relate to that so even though we are proposing to make the amendment we understand the exigencies of the Jamaican reality but this does not say that we shouldn’t do it to send a message to the population that we have to control and limit our gatherings. I think that is the essence of us proposing to make this amendment to the new Order that will come into effect in December.

I must also make a special appeal to the diaspora. I know, as is customary, you may want to come home for Christmas and there are some friends and family members who I haven’t seen in a while, I saw a little note that said: “cuz, tell me what are the protocols for family members coming home.” I haven’t responded to them yet but instead of coming, buy a tablet and send it for the kids here so that they can go back to school. But I’m not here saying don’t come. I’m saying if you don’t need to travel to come for Christmas then reconsider. If you are deciding to come then go to the resilient corridor and help our tourism industry but don’t leave the resilient corridor to come and look for grandma and auntie, maintain the protocols. And if you come there is a strict quarantine protocol in place under the Disaster Risk Management Act for 14 days.  Of course, the way in which it is crafted if you come for 5 days, you can leave but you must stay quarantined and that fits neatly into the concept that we are pushing for the celebration of Christmas. Celebrate Christmas within your household so you might very well if you come quarantine and celebrate the Christmas inside your household. I can only make the appeal because what we wouldn’t want to happen is that after you have come and you unintentionally, and I’m certain that’s not your intention but you may have hastened the departure of your grandmother or your grandfather or some other member of your family who is in the vulnerable group so I can only bring this to the national forum, bring it to public consideration and make an appeal that if you don’t have to travel then don’t travel at this period of time. But if you do decide to come we will still welcome you not necessarily with an embrace but we will welcome you socially distant with an elbow or a  “namaste” and we expect that you will maintain the quarantine, stay and celebrate within your household grouping and enjoy the season and preserve the lives of our loved ones.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I have received numerous heart-rending appeals in respect of funeral services. The prohibition on funeral services has had a very significant psychological, emotional and spiritual impact on those who have lost loved ones. The inability to have a proper funeral service on their passing makes it even more difficult to get closure.  The Government has taken note of this and we are examining the possibility of allowing funeral services with specific restrictive protocols. 

Now, I don’t want this to be interpreted as a change in the protocols. The protocol as is still stands, funeral services are prohibited but we have been in discussion with the churches and for example, I received one very touching letter from a family whose family member passed and that family member was the founder of the church and because of the prohibition they were not able to have the family member who dedicated his entire life to building this church, to have the final rights administered in the church that he worked so hard. It really had an impact on the family and I sympathize with them but I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t make any exceptions but it is something that we have to think about very carefully in trying to achieve that delicate balance in society so we’re examining it and hopefully next year we will come to parliament again with a proposal, we can have it discussed and see what can be done.

Madam Speaker, I now turn to the proposed curfew hours. Balancing all the different expectations and considerations has been a challenge.  I know that some persons fearing the spread of the virus are saying we should have a tighter curfew. Other persons concerned about the state of the economy are advocating for longer hours.  

The Government has tried to strike a balance which allows for greater productive economic activity while limiting activities that are likely to result in greater spread.

The proposed curfew hours will be as follows:

  • For the month of December with exceptions for the public holidays; the curfew will commence at 10 pm nightly and end at 5 am each morning, 
  • On Christmas Day and Boxing Day, the curfew will commence at 7 pm and end at 5 am the following morning.  Movement will therefore only be permitted between 5 am and 7 pm on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
  • On December 27th therefore curfew will revert to 10pm nightly including December 31, 2020 (New Year’s Eve). 
  • On New Year’s Day, January 1, 2021, the curfew will commence at 7 pm and end at 5 am the following morning.
  • From January 2 – 15th, 2021, we will return to the 10 pm to 5 am curfew.  

However, if the numbers rise beyond reasonable expectations, then the Government will have to re-evaluate these hours.  Keeping the curfew at 10 pm will depend on how well all of us take personal responsibility in observing the protocols.

Madam Deputy Speaker let me say a few more words in explaining the curfews and the logic behind it. When we met with the private sector interests, they made valid points that a one-hour increase in the movement hours, that is a one-hour decrease in the curfew hours would have a significant positive impact on commerce. It will increase economic activity and it will bring back many jobs which are now on the margin. For example, in the quick-service industry, one hour more for serving persons in the fast-food industry, restaurants, for pharmacies, that will bring back shift employment so that one more hour makes a shift more viable and that means more people get paid for Christmas, people can actually have their Christmas dinner and overall general positive impact but it is not long enough for persons to want to keep party events even though they are banned because you now have a general curfew ending at 10 pm so it is I believe we’ve struck the right balance to increase productivity but not at the same time encourage risky activities that could increase the spread and that’s where we believe we have struck a balance.  And we understand that this is not going to make everyone happy, there are those who believe that for Christmas we should have gone to midnight and there are others who are deathly afraid of what could happen and believe that chaos will ensue and that what we should really do is make the curfew tighter in Christmas but I believe we’ve struck a balance.

Now, what is the logic for Christmas day, Boxing Day and New Year’s day; those are the days when persons would be moving not necessarily for economic activity but for social recreational and family activities, and that I believe would be the root of the spread and you would have heard our CMO pointing out that we’re seeing an uptick though slight so far but after the Christmas period you could see, it is being projected, that our numbers will rise and will be those days that would account for or significantly contribute to so from a risk management point of view we have decreased the curfew hours for the entire month of December except for the public holidays where we tighten.

Normally when we tighten on public holidays we close at 3pm and someone was pointing out to me that the vendors Downtown were saying ” 3 o’clock not going work prime minister”, I didn’t get to see that video but I’m going to search for it and they have a point. What we wouldn’t want to do is set an unrealistic curfew time that would force people to break the law so I think the curfew times that have been set would still facilitate grand market activities. Well, no grand market would be 10pm because it will be Christmas eve and we consider that carefully because that is the commercial day that is beneficial to the average man.

In my constituency, for example, we don’t want to force people to break the law, so I think 10pm is a fairly good compromise. I appeal to all the persons who are selling where we have the big grand markets that happen in Trelawny, in the Falmouth market, Downtown, in Spanish town, in HWT, all of that area turns out to be a big grand market, and I’m not forgetting Christiana, member from North East Manchester. Gayle has a market and it can be grand but almost every rural parish everywhere people will be out and I take the opportunity to appeal to all the shoppers and all the persons who will be selling their wares that wear your mask, pay attention to your hand hygiene and your facial hygiene; hand hygiene, sanitize your hands regularly, facial hygiene, wear your mask covering your nose and mouth or a face shield if you can.

Social distance, that might be difficult, but I would say to you if you are going to the market you can choose your own space. If somebody comes close to you, you step back, manoeuvre yourself smartly so that you avoid any clustering or crowding, and just shop very smartly. Make your list before, go and get exactly what you need; the browsing and window shopping you can eliminate that and just go for exactly what you want. They are smart things that you can do to keep yourself safe at this time.

On New Year’s eve that one gave us quite a bit of mental exercise as to how we’re going to treat with the traditions of the season, the watch night service, and when I discussed it with the church members there were two sets of suggestions. One set is that we should have no curfew on New Year’s eve which means that you could go up to midnight and then you could give one hour and thirty minutes to allow people to leave church and get home so the curfew would be effectively at 1:30am; that was the suggestion.

The problem that we have is that once you do that then you have people starting to have later gatherings, the illegal parties, and the illegal receptions and the prohibited rather than illegal activities. Those will masquerade under what we were intending to give the approvals for which would be for the traditional watch night service and it becomes a law enforcement nightmare and so we decided not to go with that route.

There was another view which suggested that we treat New Year’s Eve in the same way we treat boxing day and Christmas day and start the curfew at 7pm. We decided to go until 10pm, it is a commercial day and it’s not a public holiday in a sense, so we decided to go to 10pm. When we examined it further, we could go to 7pm but at this point, the proposal is to go to 10pm. Next week we will bring to the parliament the actual order, but the thinking now is the ending at 10pm. On New Year’s Day itself we will end at 7pm, 1st January, the curfew will start at 7pm.

What we would like to do is for the beginning of the first half of January is to maintain the 10pm curfew start to give more time for economic activity. However, that all depends on the numbers we’re seeing coming out of December. There are some critical trade-offs that we don’t want to have to make. If December goes badly in terms of numbers, we cannot reopen schools; that’s the trade-off. Each time we give a little we end up disadvantaging our students by not being able to reopen our schools and that is a trade-off that we all must bear in mind.

And the other disadvantage of course is that if we don’t maintain the protocols and we see where this becomes a threat then we will have to put in place even tighter curfew measures and tighter infection control measures which could have an even greater negative economic impact so it really comes down to personal responsibility and how well we as individuals how well we are faithful and how well we adhere to the protocols that we have put out.

So, Madam Deputy Speaker, these are not normal times, and we will not be able to celebrate Christmas in the normal way this year. Celebrating Christmas in the normal way would mean keeping our schools closed or shut down our economy even more than it is now restricted.  We must continue to be vigilant and responsible over the next few months, starting with the upcoming Christmas season.

Madam Deputy Speaker, Christmas is my favourite time of the year and I definitely will miss celebrating Christmas in the normal way and I’m certain that that is the sentiment of all Jamaicans, but we have to be responsible. We’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. A vaccine is likely to be available very soon. From what we are hearing encouraging new with several of the trials. Let us not at this time throw away good sense. Let us not at this fall into complacency. Let us Madam Deputy Speaker, as a nation take the true meaning of the season which is a time for peaceful reflection on the birth of Christ and his redemption of the world. Let us do this with our families together as Mary and Joseph did with the holy family. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.