As we bid farewell to 2020 I know we will all be sharing the hope that 2021 is a much better year.
Undoubtedly 2020 will be remembered as the year that everything changed, as the COVID-19 virus spread from Asia across the whole world in a matter of mere months, causing havoc to the health systems in many countries and bringing first sickness and death and then economic hardship as the world battled the disease.
Over 81 million people worldwide have been infected, with infections rising as far too many countries experience a resurgence. Tragically, some 1.8 million people have died because of the virus, including two people here at home. As infections increase, inevitably so too will deaths.
It was back in January that we started planning for the possible arrival of the virus on our shores, and held the first press briefing on February 3rd to update the public on those plans. Despite any efforts to keep the virus away the public health advice that we received indicated that it was not a case of whether it would arrive here, but rather when.
On March 12th that advice proved true when we had our first confirmed case of COVID-19. That triggered the implementation of our COVID-19 response plans - with the closing of our borders, the introduction of the hard and soft curfew regimes and the other public health measures to help eradicate the virus in the community and to protect health and life. Those measures were hard on all of us, but I remain convinced that the swift and decisive action we took helped to contain the community spread. The phased opening of our local business sectors, starting at the end of May and continuing through July, along with increased testing, helped keep our community safe as we opened up. With our safety secured I am grateful that much of our local commerce has been able to return.
Regardless of how well most of us are doing there are those of you who have lost jobs or are working reduced hours because of the harsh economic realities of the pandemic. As in most countries, it is those working in tourism and hospitality who have been hardest hit.
The various relief programmes initiated by Government have helped many during these tough times. The ability to access your pension, combined with the pension holiday and the direct financial assistance provided by Government to tourism workers and businesses has helped ease the financial pain until we can once again safely welcome tourists back to our shores in numbers.
The private sector and civil society have also helped in significant ways, including through charitable assistance to those in need.
The temporary loss of our tourism sector has also left a hole in Government's revenues. However, Government’s financial stewardship over the past seven years provided significant cash reserves, some $522 million at the start of this year, as a buffer against an economic downturn. This has allowed us the ability to fund the fight against the virus while keeping the country running and providing economic assistance to families and businesses.
I am pleased that the Minister of Finance and his team successfully negotiated a US$403 million standby line of credit with a consortium of local banks to provide added funding should Government need it. As things currently stand, the line of credit will not be needed until perhaps the second half of 2021.
The Minister of Finance and his team also separately negotiated a Government Guaranteed Loan scheme with five local banks. This loan scheme is fully managed by the banks and will assist eligible Caymanian businesses obtain the necessary bank financing, with government backing, to allow them to remain in business, serve their clients, and keep staff employed during the period of the economic downturn.
These initiatives, combined with those from the private sector, will help families and businesses survive the months ahead as we move from responding to the virus to rebuilding - particularly our tourism and hospitality sectors.
Rebuilding will take time and it will take resolute effort, but I have every confidence that our Islands and our people will emerge stronger from the challenges we have faced.
The availability of vaccines early in the New Year offers the safest way for us to open up our country and our economy more broadly. Our first shipment of vaccines will arrive in early January and we will then roll out our national vaccination plan.
By March we hope to have successfully vaccinated and protected a sufficiently large number of our population, including all of those at most risk. If we can achieve that target, we should be able to open our borders once again.
However, having struggled so hard to get through the worst of this crisis, we are determined to keep Cayman safe. Therefore, we will require that arriving travellers have also been vaccinated and received both a negative COVID-19 test before arriving, and a second negative test on arrival, along with any other public health requirements. Travellers not meeting these requirements will have to quarantine.
Despite the focus on COVID-19, we have been able to progress key Government projects including improvements to our road network to reduce traffic congestion; enhancing the Owen Roberts Airport runway; and the work to cap the landfill and to move closer to a final contract signing for a modern waste to energy facility. Work on the new John Grey High School is also progressing.
In February the European Union included our Islands on its list of non-cooperative jurisdictions for tax purposes. We worked diligently throughout the COVID shutdown to address their concerns and in October we succeeded in having Cayman removed from the list by the EU; a very good result for our Islands in a not so good year.
As 2020 ends there is much that as a Caymanian and as Premier that brings me great satisfaction and hope for our future.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, our economy will strengthen with growing private sector confidence, and increasing investment. This confidence was recently demonstrated with the announcement by Aster DM Healthcare of their intended phased investment in a US$350 million medical facility, focused on specialist healthcare tourism, an assisted living and independent living facility, and a medical school on Grand Cayman, as well as a medical clinic on Cayman Brac. Construction should begin in mid-2021. These types of projects are hugely welcomed as they help to further diversify and strengthen our economy, providing opportunities for Caymanians now and into the future.
As I reflect on the last seven and a half years I am proud at how much this Government and the last administration I led have achieved.
In coming into office in 2013 we faced an economy struggling to grow at just over 1% and with Caymanian unemployment at 10.5%. Tourism numbers were the lowest they had been in over a decade; the development and construction sectors were hurting and small businesses were struggling.
Fast forward to 2019 and we had a Cayman economy that was the best in the region. Growth averaged over 3% during the previous five years with Caymanian unemployment below 5%. Tourism had grown by record numbers while financial services business activity grew at almost 4% on average. The development sector was booming and in 2019 alone nearly 750 projects were approved with a combined total value of over $890 million; a tremendous accomplishment by any measure.
It was Government’s political leadership and strong financial stewardship over those seven years that provided the business sector with the confidence to invest and fuel the economic growth that created opportunities and thousands of new jobs for Caymanians. Even against the backdrop of a global pandemic and challenging economic times those investments are continuing.
Continued investment is critical to the rebuilding of our economy; and investment will continue as long as the business sector remains confident in the political and fiscal leadership Government is providing.