With the borders now formally reopened, how well Cayman fares in the coming months will be closely scrutinised, especially at a time of a huge outbreak in cases and the largest number of hospitalisations to date, including two deaths.
However, Deputy Governor Franz Manderson, appearing on the Caymanian Times programme ‘The Panel’ has offered considerable reassurance that the system in place to guide the jurisdiction through this phase is fit for purpose.
Cayman, which closed its borders in March 2020, was one of the few last remaining countries to have kept its borders closed until recently.
Judging from the insights offered by DG Manderson in his appearance on The Panel, the Cayman Islands reopening plan could serve as a model for others, several of which have struggled after their first attempt had to be suspended due to an accompanying spike in Covid-19 cases.
According to Mr Manderson: “Because we had solid finances and because of our fiscal responsibility and the way in which we have been managing our budgets for many years now, we were able to not rush to reopen as other countries had to do simply because they could not afford to stay close.”
As explained by DG Manderson, the preparation for the reopening and life going forward have been led by a Programme Board set up within the civil service which he heads, and which has had extensive collaboration with the private sector.
He highly commended the civil service for devising, implementing and now managing the system.
Mr Manderson remarked: “It has been one of the greatest pleasures and privileges of my time as Deputy Governor to chair that Board to see the passion...all working together for one common cause, and that is to put a plan in place that would keep our people safe, reduce infections, reduce deaths, reduce persons from getting seriously sick. You hear sometimes about silos in the civil service. They were broken down and everyone worked together.”
One of the concerns linked to the reopening of the borders has been the risk of a corresponding rise in infections. The initial schedule for the Phase Four reopening planned for October was delayed due to the start of the current spike in September.
Since then, the numbers have skyrocketed, but in the past few days the daily rate of infections has started to dip.
Officials have said there is a much greater chance of further community spread occurring among residents, especially those who travel, than from tourists.
DG Manderson said this has also been the experience of Bermuda and the Turks & Caicos Islands, in his contacts with the authorities there.
“Talking to my colleagues in TCI and in Bermuda, I asked them what happened when you open to tourists. Did you see a rise in your infection rates? And their response was: ‘Yes, there was some rise, but Covid got into our homes, rest homes and other areas, not because of tourists, but because of our residents, our people going away coming back and not taking the necessary precautions'."
A recurring issue is that of securing jobs for Caymanians - especially within the tourism sector - as the economy reopens. While Mr Manderson outlined that this was a key consideration of the Programme Board, panellist Dr Roy Bodden was keen to explore the matter further.
Mr Bodden said: “I was disappointed that the hospitality industry didn't use the interregnum between the lockdown and now that we are opening up to do some sort of training and preparation for Caymanian people who were either returning to the hospitality industry or who were new and wanted to come in…I'm not saying that there were not any but I have not heard of any formal training or orientation on any significant level during that period. What a lost opportunity.”
Mr Manderson said this was a real concern.
“It is a concern shared by Cabinet. We have had those conversations on a number of occasions. Ministers feel very strongly about it. Certainly, as the former Head of Immigration, I have a great connection to all of this and I understand exactly what you're saying and you're preaching to the converted here now.”
The Deputy Governor said there have been training programmes organised in collaboration with the Department of Tourism and the Cayman Islands Tourism Association (CITA).
But he noted the feedback from CITA, quoting them as saying ‘we can only do so much with training on empty beds’, to which Mr Manderson reacted: “I’m not sure about that, but that that is what they have said to us.”
The DG reminded: “The mandate of the government is very clear. We should not - and the law says this very clearly - issue any work permits until we are absolutely sure that there is not a Caymanian qualified and able to pick up that job. We have been saying this for months in terms of training people and giving them opportunities. And now the time is for action.”
He also pointed out that the government has been spending a little more than $5 million every month to sustain those persons who have lost their job due to Covid.
"That is not sustainable for the government to take that into the new budget. It’s going to mean other programmes and services is going to get impacted," he stated.
Another pressing issue is that of communication; getting information on the government’s plans, processes and procedures that the public is required to follow, circulated widely.
Host of The Panel, Ralph Lewis, and panellist Roy Bodden felt that more could be done on that aspect, observations that DG Manderson committed to take on board.
“Every country in the world can have the very best policies and procedures in place to keep their people safe. But if the community does not respect those wishes and procedures, we will have a problem. And that is where communication comes in…And you know what you're doing tonight is very important (referring to The Panel programme). So, I thank you for having me on and giving me this opportunity to talk a little bit about what we've been doing over the last months.”