Budget debate marred by Covid-19 cases
Will this week’s Budget debate end today with the passage of the government’s $1.33 billion fiscal package for 2022?
The answer to that question is hanging in the balance following an outbreak of the coronavirus among members on government benches in Parliament that truncated this week’s debate.
After the outbreak Prime Minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves said he believes that he may have sufficient numbers to enable passage of the Appropriation Bill, even without Opposition support.
Debate on the Budget came to a halt on Wednesday afternoon after Minister of Health, St Clair ‘Jimmy’ Prince tested positive for COVID-19 via a PCR test, after returning a negative result on a rapid antigen test that same morning.
And the proceedings were suspended to today, January 14.
Prince was the eighth of 14 government Members of Parliament (MPs), to test positive for the virus this week, thus triggering a recommendation from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr Simone Keizer-Beache to have all members present in the House of Parliament on Wednesday, to take a PCR test.
“All six of us [on the government side] took the PCR and the good news on that is that everybody; I was informed earlier this morning [January 13] that everyone tested negative,” Gonsalves said while speaking on Star FM yesterday morning.
The government MPs who were tested on Wednesday evening along with the Prime Minister, were Ministers of National Mobilisation and Tourism, Orande Brewster and Carlos James respectively; Senators Keisal Peters and Ashelle Morgan, and Attorney General, Jaundy Martin.
Opposition Leader, Dr Godwin Friday was able to deliver his response to the finance minister’s Budget address on Wednesday, a day later than he was initially scheduled to.
He told SEARCHLIGHT yesterday afternoon that he and the other opposition MPs opted not to take the PCR test.
“We all tested negative with the rapid antigen test in the morning…we broke for lunch and when we returned we were told that we had to do a PCR test and at that point nobody could quite explain to us why or what was going on,” Friday said.
“And the way in which we have been treated, the way in which the parliament only seems to be functioning for the convenience of the government side, it just simply was a bridge too far and it was one too much, so we said no, postpone the parliament, let things settle down and let everybody have a chance to participate and that’s the only way, that’s the sensible thing to do.”
When the Budget exercise began on Monday, it was clear that Minister of Agriculture, Saboto Caesar and the Minister of Education, Curtis King, would not be able to participate in the debate, having tested positive for the virus over the weekend.
Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves delivered his four-hour address in Parliament that afternoon and less than 24 hours later was found to be COVID-19 positive, along with Minister of Urban Development, Senator Julian Francis.
Three additional government MPs: Deputy Prime Minister Montgomery Daniel; Minister of the Public Service, Frederick Stephenson ; and Senator Rochard Ballah were also found to be COVID positive on Wednesday morning.
In keeping with the latest revised protocols with regard to isolation and quarantine, Caesar and King were scheduled to test yesterday afternoon on the sixth day after going into isolation.
The Prime Minister said that if those tests are negative, and assuming the remaining six of government members again test negative this morning, their numbers will increase in Parliament.
“We’ll have eight tomorrow. We can pass the Budget tomorrow if we want to pass the Appropriation Bill,” he said yesterday morning, while noting that he understood the Opposition had no intentions of returning to the House today.
“If they’re done with that, I could then wrap up tomorrow…” Gonsalves said.
SEARCHLIGHT confirmed with the Leader of the Opposition that the opposition MPs will not be in Parliament today for the continuation of the debate.
“We have been advocating that the matter be put off so that everyone can participate…They ought to postpone the debate until members can participate effectively- certainly the members of the Opposition who have been barred from the chamber through no fault of their own and also because they have been exposed to a member from the government side,” he said.
These members, who were confirmed to be members for the Southern Grenadines and East Kingstown, Terrance Ollivierre and Fitzgerald Bramble, and Senator Shevern John were present in the House of Assembly when Gonsalves made his Budget presentation this week.
Speaker of the House, Rochelle Forde, in keeping with isolation and quarantine protocols, also indicated that these members, who were either unvaccinated or had not disclosed their vaccination status were required to isolate for five days as a result.
“To me, that is unethical because these members ought to be able to participate and we urged for the safety of everyone and to facilitate everyone being able to take part in the debate effectively that the matter, the debate be postponed for a week, ten days, whatever, to make sure that everyone can participate,” the Opposition Leader stressed.
He continued: “The prime minister say no, it must go on and all that has happened is that the situation has gotten worse and worse and now the Parliament is reduced to a situation where you never know what’s going to happen in the day when we show up, as happened yesterday. It’s just simply not an acceptable way to be conducting a budget debate”.