Statement by Premier, Hon. Alden McLaughlin, MBE, JP, MLA
14th October, 2020
Opening of the Legislative Assembly
Mr. Speaker, my statement today takes the form of a State of the Nation address. These occasions are usually an opportunity to place on the record Government’s achievements and its plans for the year ahead. For those of you looking forward to that, I hope not to disappoint.
As I contemplated putting pen to paper and the thoughts that would fill the lines I considered the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the late American essayist and thinker and his poem, “A Nation’s Strength”, which he penned in 1847. Permit me, please, to paraphrase:
“What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?
It is not gold.
And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its lustre down
In ashes at his feet.
Not gold but only man can make
A people great and strong;
Those who for truth and honour’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.
Brave men and women
Who work while others sleep,
And who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.
As I reflect on those words and the achievements we have made as a nation and a Government, I am buoyed in the belief that the foundations of these Islands have indeed been strengthened and built on pillars deep by the work we have done these past seven and a half years.
And so, if I were asked to sum up in one word the strength of our nation as we sit here today, I would use the word resilient. We began this year in a strong fiscal position with the economy continuing to grow and unemployment low – all things this Government had promised would be delivered during our term in office.
Indeed, for the first three months of this year, the country was doing exceptionally well. Cayman’s economy grew by 3.2% in 2019 and unemployment was at a low 3.5%. It appeared that our major challenge was to overcome the problems of success. Inflation was running at 5.7% and the government was acting to deal with rising prices. Commuters were spending too long in traffic jams so we had embarked on highway improvements to ease congestion.
But in the space of mere weeks, the situation changed out of all recognition. We have estimated that growth for 2020 will decline by 7.2% with unemployment rising to 6.9% and inflation falling to 0.4%. A similar story is seen across every country in the world. Indeed, many economies both in this region and globally are faring much worse than Cayman.
But whilst there are many here who are doing reasonably well, my Government and I appreciate that there are also many Caymanians, especially in the tourism sector, whose livelihoods have been impacted by this pandemic. But we are working hard to not only try to safely get some tourism jobs back online but also to provide assistance to these families and businesses and I will speak more to this later.
Mr. Speaker, I had warned in early March, at the Cayman Economic Outlook Conference, of the threat posed by a new virus, which could have potentially devastating effects on Cayman. By the end of March, the COVID-19 virus was with us and we were forced to shut down the economy to defeat the virus and stop community spread. That decisive action was necessary to protect public health and to save lives. Only by taking that firm action could we give ourselves the best chance to rebuild even stronger.
The alternative would be ‘death by a thousand cuts’ with repeated lockdown and opening up because we failed to do what we knew had to be done in the first place. Our people would have suffered from the virus itself while in the long term our economy would have been hit even harder as confidence was adversely impacted. I am not guessing at this. We can all see what is happening in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and elsewhere. That was not an outcome anyone would want.
Today, despite our significant challenges we are doing reasonably well and our economy has indeed proved to be resilient, and in some cases even robust - particularly international financial services and much of the domestic sector. Our revenues are impaired but the Government’s finances are still strong and will help get us through most, if not all, of next year.
But Mr. Speaker the world around us, including our major trading partners, is filled with uncertainty. Given the turmoil of the last seven months, the normal patterns of our society and our economy have been seriously interrupted. As such it is not easy for us to understand exactly how things will develop as we move into 2021. Equally, there is so much left unknown about how events will unfold from here that it is difficult to plan properly for what is to come.
Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I cannot think of a time when it has been more necessary for a Caymanian Premier to make such an address as this.
Events beyond our control have created a set of circumstances facing these Cayman Islands today that I think are unparalleled in our still short history as a self-governing nation.
But Mr. Speaker, despite the uncertainties around us, of this I am certain, we are, to a very great degree, still masters of our destiny.
We need to move forward as a country and as a people and to do so determinedly, together. Crucially, I am thinking, Mr. Speaker, of the need to maintain vigilance in the face of the current public health crisis that we are not yet through and of the need to chart a course back to economic prosperity, and to do so together.
One of the things that give me confidence in our ability to come together, Mr. Speaker, is the experience we have had over the last seven months. The response of Cayman and its people to the COVID-19 crisis has been a source of considerable pride and inspiration for me. I think all who live and work in these Islands should have those same feelings. The response of the community here, both in terms of a willingness to follow the rules the Government moved swiftly to put in place and in the way we have come together to look after each other, is a story we should be proud of, Mr. Speaker.
Just last week we again saw the community comes together in response to a positive case, albeit weakly positive, at the Red Bay Primary School. Setting aside some initial panic caused unnecessarily by an online blog site, the school and education and public health officials all acted responsibly, professionally and quickly to determine the facts and then to contain the situation. Thankfully after some 207 tests were done of contacts and possible contacts there have been no other positive cases found.
I am glad the child and her family are well and I wish the very best to them as well as to the many families now quarantined as a result of that incident. But it served as a good reminder, if we needed to be reminded, that we still need to be vigilant to avoid a serious outbreak and a return to strong measures. We do not want to go back there Mr. Speaker. I do not want to go back there and I am sure none of us do.
This Government has made some tough decisions over the last seven months. Tough decisions that have curtailed liberties and impacted the livelihoods of Caymanians and residents in ways that no one on these benches would ever have wanted to see happen in these Islands. But it was those measures that have now allowed us to go about our lives in reasonable safety.
In that context Mr. Speaker, I must take this opportunity to thank my colleagues on the government side of the House for their steadfast support during this difficult time. I also thank the members of the Opposition for their support of Government’s measures. Both in their willingness to support the general government effort and in the steps that they have taken within their Ministries, I believe they have provided exemplary political leadership in a hugely difficult period in Cayman’s history.
Thanks too to the Governor and the official members of Cabinet for their support and the long hours of work they have put in to keep these Islands safe. The Governor attended every one of the 65 or so press briefings that we have held since March. The Governor’s office played a key role in obtaining necessary equipment and medicines, including the test kits that were such an important game-changer for us.
We could not have made it through the worst of the pandemic without the able assistance of the learned Attorney General, the Deputy Governor, Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose, my Chief Officer Eric Bush who oversaw Curfew Time and Travel Time, Employment and Border Control Chief Officer Wesley Howell and their respective teams.
Thanks are also due to all civil service leaders and staff who have adapted and reshaped the way they work to new demands and changing circumstances so that much needed public services could be delivered through these times. This includes the stellar work done by the Ministry of Community Services, headed up by Teresa Echenique and in particular the Needs Assessment Unit. They were at the forefront of much of the Government’s assistance to those in need and impacted by COVID.
I should also acknowledge the tremendous work of the Ministry of Education on the Department of Education Services. Equally the work of the Ministry of Tourism led by Stan Bodden of the Department of Tourism led by Rosa Harris deserve recognition and appreciation.
It is perhaps invidious to single out an individual amidst a collective effort of this magnitude but I want to place on the public record my appreciation for the work of Chief Medical Officer, Dr John Lee. His clear and unflustered advice has been crucial to the Governor and I, and fellow Cabinet Members, as we came to terms with the unfolding public health crisis.
First, we were able to make timely decisions to intervene and close things down in a way that I believe has saved lives and maintained public health in the Cayman Islands. Secondly, the quarantine and testing and tracing arrangements put in place from a standing start have been crucial in both containing community transmission and providing public reassurance.
Clear political leadership was possible because of the quality of the advice we received from Dr Lee and Dr. Samuel Williams-Rodriguez, Medical Officer for Health Services, and their health colleagues, including those at Public Health England who supported Cayman. I believe the nation owes them all a debt, one I would like to acknowledge in this House today. Dr. Lee’s appointment as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen is thoroughly well deserved and I congratulate him on this.
I also congratulate Angela Tanzillo-Swarts, forensic DNA specialist at the Health Services Authority, on her award of Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to helping build Cayman’s capacity and ability to carry out wide-scale testing. Indeed, I congratulate all those who were recognised for their contribution.
I also thank the many who worked very hard to get us through the hardest days of the pandemic and I want to recognise the capable efforts of the Commissioner of Police and the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, of Cayman Border Control, of WORC and the other uniformed organisations that assisted.
We also must recognize and thank the private sector and our generous charitable community for all they have done and are still doing to assist people in need during this time.
Mr. Speaker, we continue to follow the best public health and scientific advice as we move now to carefully re-open Cayman and its economy to the outside world. The changes that came into place on the first of the month represent an important first step on the path back to a more ‘normal’ relationship between Cayman and the rest of the world. As you have seen we are acting cautiously and slowly. We hope further steps will be possible and have several initiatives being worked on that can be introduced when we are confident that we can do so safely.