By Staff Writer
The Opposition Progressives/Alliance has challenged the ruling PACT coalition to set a September 1st target date to restart the stalled tourism industry.
The call came in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon featuring the full slate of the opposition group which formed the previous administration.
Opposition Leader Roy McTaggart said with the vaccination programme pushing to meet a target of 70 to 80 per cent, it was now critical for the current PACT government to let the public know what its plans are.
He said the administration led by Premier Wayne Panton has been too silent and called on it to rearrange its priorities and stop dithering as jobs and the economy are at risk.
“We believe that we are now at the point where we can do more than think positively about reopening the borders. I can say this with confidence, because the vaccination programme has gone very well since the start of the year.
He referred to official statistics showing that as of the seventh of June, about 72% or almost 47,000 citizens of our estimated population have had at least one dose of the vaccine while 61% or some 39,000 have had both doses.”
“We are therefore well within reach of having sufficient people vaccinated, to safely open, and restart our public or tourism,” he declared.
Directing his remarks to Premier Wayne Panton in particular, the Opposition Leader said: “Premier, your silence is increasingly creating concerns in the community. If it continues for much longer. You could jeopardise a successful reopening and tourism recovery this year.”
“We in the opposition urge you to consider a September reopening date for our airports as a September date would give our tourism sector real hope to have an improved stay over tourism high-season, as we close 2021 and enter into 2022.
“We have arrived at a point where a reopening date can be announced. And we can do it safely,” he asserted.
The Opposition Leader also challenged Minister of Tourism Kenneth Bryan, asking: “Where is the Tourism Minister, and what are his plans and thoughts on breathing life back into tourism and returning hope to our people? We have heard nothing meaningful from him to date on restarting stayover tourism.”
The Progressives leader also stated that with vaccination rates increasing while COVID rates were decreasing in the main US market, a September reopening was practical contingent on the vaccination rates and reviewed quarantine protocols.
“A large vaccinated local population, significantly increasing vaccinations in the US and the effectiveness of vaccines over virus, allow us to make sound decisions on reopening, certainly on reopening our airports,” he said.
Admitting that “tourism will not get back to 2019 numbers overnight”, the former finance minister said the government now needs to set the stage for tourism recovery, while assisting unemployed tourism workers including extending the tourism stipend to the end of the year increasing it to $2,000 a month and extending the pension holiday.
“The government's silence on most things but especially on reopening creates genuine concern for people and businesses needing to plan and have a real hope for tourism restarting this year, thereby giving them hope for survival.”
Asked by Caymanian Times about a September reopening target coinciding with the peak of the hurricane season, Mr McTaggart said the date would ultimately be determined by the government but maintained that the administration needed to present its plans.
Former tourism minister Moses Kirkconnell said their September date was based on the scientific indicators locally and abroad including the UK.
“The leader has made very clear that this date is reviewed by the science itself, and he pointed out that the 75 to 80% vaccination rate was the most important part of making sure that the people in the country are safe. And this is what has been put forward by UK Health (Public Health England), and Dr. Lee - Cayman’s Chief Medical Officer - about a certain percentage with herd immunity.”
The Deputy Opposition leader and former commerce minister Joey Hew put forward that it was impractical to sit by to see what other variants emerged.
He pointed to the ongoing rates of vaccination in Cayman saying that the game-changer is extending the vaccination to 12 to 15-year-olds.
“I don't think we can sit and wait to see if another variant comes up to set an opening date,” he stated.
“We certainly feel that September 1st is enough time, and certainly given the general public target to get vaccinated, that in itself, is important. And of course, the game-changer here is now that the vaccine is available to the 12 to 15-year-olds that's going to boost our numbers, even more,” Mr Hew said.
Former Premier and current chairman of the Progressives Party, Alden McLaughlin defended his then government’s previous reopening plan and said the current administration was gripped by what he described as “a paralysis of fear”.
“The reopening was contingent upon getting to a safe number or percentage of the population that's needed - between 75 and 80 per cent. What we are seeing is, we are almost there,” he stated.
“The government cannot continue in a paralysis of fear.”