New Year’s Day Message
by Honourable Andrew A. Fahie
Premier and Minister of Finance
Thursday, 31 December, 2020
My dear people of the Virgin Islands, a pleasant good day and God’s blessings to you and your families.
I trust you are having a safe and enjoyable Yuletide Holidays, and that you are continuing to be vigilant to protect your loved ones and the wider community by adhering to the health protocols.
As we close 2020 and we look forward to the New Year, we do so with Hope that comes from our covenant with our Almighty God, who reminds us in 2 Chronicles 7:14, that in the face of pestilence and hardship:
"If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
2020 has definitely been a year that will be difficult for us to forget.
It was a year that brought many unprecedented challenges – beginning with the COVID-19 global pandemic, which spiralled into an economic crisis. Globally, economies were hit very hard as the inter-relatedness of routine daily activities and interdependency of countries and markets became ever more apparent. Things we are accustomed to taking for granted, became luxuries overnight.
One of the most direct and harsh impacts of the pandemic has been the impacts on jobs and businesses, which are essential for putting food on tables and roofs over heads. Of course, we were all placed in the difficult position of having to find the balance between lives and livelihoods - a situation for which it is impossible to find an ideal solution because everyone’s vulnerability is different. This means, while we were all required to make sacrifices, this was easier for some to do than others.
But, with your cooperation and commitment, and that of your Government and Public Officers across all Ministries, Departments and Agencies, as well as the business community, we have managed to hold it together.
We have been able to save lives, keep people safe, and secure the local economy from catastrophic damage. We have given everyone the opportunity to see the New Year and to have hope of a brighter tomorrow.
Let me take this opportunity to express condolences, on behalf of myself and my family and on behalf of your Government, to those who have lost loved ones during the past year, or suffered some other kind of loss.
In all the negativity that has pervaded 2020, it is easy to lose sight of the positives that came out of these months of discomfort, uncertainty and hardship.
For one, COVID-19 has shown us that we are capable of a lot more that we imagine. For the greatest part, our management of the pandemic has been done by local personnel and BVI talent, using BVI funding and resources.
Immediately upon the declaration of the pandemic on 11 March, 2020, your Government convened a COVID-19 Economic and Fiscal Stability Task Force, comprised of public and private sector stakeholders and BVI public health experts. This task force mapped out projections of the impact of the pandemic on the Territory based on different scenarios.
This was vital in guiding your Government in how to manage the pandemic situation and how to plan for the reopening of our tourism industry and the rebooting of the economy. It is our BVI people who have developed the protocols that are keeping us safe as we reopen for international arrivals.
The Public Health Ordinance (Cap 194) places responsibility for “prevention, treatment, limitation and suppression of disease” as well as, “the publishing of reports, information and advice” concerning public health matters, with the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer (CMO). In this regard, it is our own Minister for Health, Honourable Carvin Malone, and Chief Medical Officer, Dr Irad Potter, who have been leading our efforts in the Public Health aspect of our COVID-19 response, guided also by the Quarantine Act and the Infectious Diseases (Notification) Act.
It is a remarkable achievement for our people that we have endured almost 10 months of this Global Public Health disaster, and even though restrictions, quarantines and curfews were necessary as precautions, not once did we have to invoke the Emergency Powers (Disasters) Ordinance 1970 and declare a State of Emergency. Here we are living and working in peace under the New Regular. I attribute this to our BVILOVE – our love for our Virgin Islands and for each other.
Our resilience and our capacity to adapt have been proved by our swift embracing of the New Regular. We must be extremely proud of our BVI businesses – from the most humble to the most elaborate – that have achieved Gold Seal accreditation for implementing COVID-19 mitigating strategies into their operations – and doing so in a very short time. Larger, richer, more developed countries have failed to achieve what we have done – and continue to do – here in the BVI.
The disruptions from the pandemic allowed us to improve our use of technology for work and school. Many tech novices are now pro’s. Some of the measures that increase the efficiency of doing business will no doubt be retained.
As unfortunate as the pandemic is and as tough as the precautionary restrictions have been, this period has allowed families to spend more time together and to rebuild and revitalise the bonds within households and communities. This also has been an opportunity for persons to get some quiet time for rest and introspection. When people are able to build themselves it helps us to build a better BVI.
For so many reasons and more, we have all earned the right to feel proud of our BVI and our BVI people, and to have confidence in ourselves – especially when we are tempted to doubt our people.
It is approaching one month since we began the Phase III of the rebooting of the BVI economy – the phase of a managed reopening of our air borders to international arrivals including holiday-makers. All our agencies are working in harmony to make this a success. They have collaborated and worked with private businesses to develop and implement the various protocols - from arrivals at the airport, clearing Customs and Immigration, transportation to approved quarantine facilities, monitoring of persons in quarantine and more.
Our systems, with the BVI Gateway App – implemented and managed by the BVI Airports Authority – at the core, are producing good results so far. We are continually improving the system.
So far we have welcomed approximately 2,500 travellers into the Territory, with about half of those persons being tourists. What we are seeing is that in a vast number of cases, tourists are willing to work with our health protocols in order to vacation in the BVI. With vaccines becoming available to persons who are willing to take them, there is a possibility that more persons may become able to and willing to travel in the months ahead.
We continue to work positively towards the managed and controlled reopening of our sea borders to international arrivals in early 2021. We recognise that perfection is unattainable, but we still have to do our best to get the logistics as right as we can as COVID-19 is fluid. We have arrived at this point by being careful and deliberate in how we make our decisions. And our objective is to get the sea borders open to welcome visitors as soon as it is safe to do so.
So, the outlook for the New Year is encouraging, once we are able to manage the COVID-19 situation on our islands and once there are no more global disruptions. For us in the BVI, we must continue to be vigilant and to practice public health safety.
Your Government, with the help of the BVI Social Security Board, was able to provide some economic stimulus and support to some individuals and businesses over the past few months. We have also passed a 2021 Budget that will continue to provide an enabling environment for local businesses.
The 2021 Budget was passed by the House of Assembly and has received Assent from the Acting Governor. This clears the way for your Government to begin rolling out these initiatives. A number of major infrastructural projects such as road construction, upgrade of the water network and reservoirs, upgrade of sewer systems throughout the Territory and repairs to Government buildings, will improve the quality of life for residents while creating jobs and economic opportunities for our people.
This approach to procurement, which has received the approval of local and international sponsors of the funding, will allow more of the funds spent in projects to circulate in the BVI economy and to benefit residents and local businesses in a more meaningful way.
We are also optimistic that obstacles to the establishment of our own Medical Cannabis industry in the BVI will be overcome without any lengthy delays, and that we will soon accelerate establishment of our gaming and betting industry. All of these efforts should mature in time for when tourism begins returning to higher volumes, and the result will be economic opportunities for our people.
Increasing the resilience of the BVI economy, by – among other measures – diversifying our footprint and developing new industry opportunities, is a major priority for your Government as we head into 2021.
2020 has reminded us in a very powerful way that diversification is something we can no longer postpone.
As you would be aware, Mr. Jeremiah Frett assumes the role of Acting Financial Secretary from 1 January, 2021, and I am pleased to say that Mr. Frett has hit the ground running and is full of enthusiasm and ideas.
In my briefing with him today to prepare for his assumption of office and for ensuring continuity and a smooth transition, the new Acting Financial Secretary, has already advised your Government on initiatives that should be taken to achieve the streamlining of the economy and making it more resilient. To this end, he has recommended that robust revenue initiatives must be carried out at this time to make way for the 2022 Budget.
Hence, on the advice of the Acting Financial Secretary, we will be moving to establish a two-tier Revenue Committee. The first tier will be comprised of Government agencies, Departments and Ministries.
The second tier will be a consortium of business people representing various sectors of business industries with the mandate of creating new revenue streams from current and new industries, including introducing of revenues with linkages to the Tourism industry and also strategies for improving the current revenue streams and making them more efficient.
The Acting Financial Secretary has further advised your Government that in order for us to be able to sustain the economy and remain in surplus budget we must streamline expenditure with a view of becoming more efficient and use best practices in cost cutting and saving measures which may include but not limited to centralisation of purchases and other best practices solutions that are currently being practiced regionally and internationally.
In this vein the Acting Financial Secretary has further advised that a special committee be formed immediately to inspect, review, and recommend measures that will allow for more efficiency in our recurrent expenditures.
The Government of the Virgin Islands is adamant on Going Green with no delay. In this vein your Government has secured the services of an energy consultant, Mr. Henry Creque, to advise the Premier's Office on the way forward with clean energy to replace fossil fuel and further to ensure that by mid-2021 persons are using natural resources to sell to the grid at the BVI Electricity Corporation.
We must protect our environment at all costs and put measures in place to be the first island in the region to be fully operational on clean energy thus respecting the environment. All these efforts will strongly assist in strengthening the 2022 Budget and beyond.
As we look toward optimising our position in tourism, the Junior Minister of Tourism will be given the full authority and mandate to complete the National Tourism Plan by year-end 2021, so that this can be incorporated in the revenue stream for 2022.
The Junior Minister will have a senior Tourism Advisor and a special committee would be formed which she will Chair.
This special committee will include the Director of Tourism and the Chair of the BVI Tourist Board; President of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College; the Financial Secretary; the Managing Director and Chair of the BVI Airports Authority; the Managing Director and Chair of the BVI Ports Authority; Town and Country Planning; Head of Survey; President of BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association; Sister Islands member from Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda and Anegada; the Taxi and Livery Association, as well as representatives from Oil Nut Bay, Necker Island and many of our other resorts, a Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park representative; a Crafts Alive representative among other representatives on this committee.
The role of the committee would be to review the Draft National Tourism Plan once it is completed.
I must say that while development to a National Tourism Plan has been on the agenda of the Virgin Islands Government for some time now, there is something to be said about the timing.
Discussions on the National Tourism Plan prior to the emergence of COVID-19 did not conceive of the changes to the operating environment that could be triggered by a global pandemic. Additionally, the last few months of living and working with the pandemic has highlighted the importance of domestic markets, whereas we have traditionally been focused on the foreign visitors.
What we have learnt is that our National Tourism Plan must be able to stand the test of any pandemic or disaster, and it must have a contingency plan built into it where initiatives such as Stay-cations will be more structured and be part of our national plan. This plan is also expected to address seasonal tourism.
Also this year, the Junior Minister of Trade will be spearheading the implementation of the Trade Commission which will pave the way for the implementation of the Consumer Protection legislation.
The Junior Minister of Trade will be given full responsibility and assistance from the Premier's Office to ensure that this comes to fruition between the first quarter to mid-year 2021. This measure is intended to protect you the public from any intentional bad business practices.
As part of your Government’s manifesto, we promised to strengthen the arms of Good Governance.
In this vein, two of such ways of doing this are the introduction of both the Contractor General Legislation and the Integrity in Public Life. Your Government is committed to the principle that we must be accountable to the House of Assembly and ultimately to the people of the Virgin Islands.
We will be bringing the Contractor General Legislation before the House of Assembly in the first quarter of the New Year. This much-anticipated legislation is designed to strengthen and ensure trust in our public procurement processes through the highest standards of transparency.
Your Government is also delivering its pre-election promise to pursue the adoption and implementation of Integrity in Public Life legislation. Your Government has taken decisive action to ensure that a draft Integrity in Public Life Bill 2020 has been introduced to Cabinet.
Cabinet has agreed to a set of final measures that will include consultations with stakeholders so that the Attorney General’s Chambers can make final adjustments to the wording of the Bill. Once this is done, the Bill will move to the next step of the legislative process which is consideration by the House of Assembly.
The Integrity in Public Life Bill 2021 will establish a framework for holding all public officials accountable, guard against corruption in public affairs, and introduce a Code of Conduct that will set the standard for acceptable conduct by public officials.
Another top priority that is being secured by your Government at this time is our Category 1 Shipping Registry rating. Director of the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry (VISR), Mr. John Samuel, is spearheading an initiative that will ensure that VISR meets the requirements for compliance with the International Maritime Organization III Code and our commitments under the Red Ensign. The timetable for these activities will see us completing the necessary work well inside the targeted deadlines.
The trials of the last few years continue to remind us that we, as Virgin Islanders, have to use what is in our hand. This is what our fore parents did, especially when they found that they had only their own selves to rely on.
One powerful resource that we have in our hands is our culture. And as a bonus, our culture keeps us rooted in our heritage and gives us strength and confidence through remembrance of where we have come and what we have been through to make it today.
We have been saying that we need to reinvigorate our culture and for our people – especially the younger ones to reconnect with our history; and 2021 is the year for us to do this.
In 2021, we have to reset the clock because COVID-19 stopped the clock in 2020 as it relates to our reinvigoration of our culture.
Emancipation Festival is a cultural thing. And we have to craft our Festival celebrations as a vehicle to bring our Virgin Islands culture back to the centre.
We have to use what is in our hand with activities such as tart competitions, peas and rice competition, and so forth.
If we don't bring back our Culture then we have nothing. So, it is not about Festival but rather our Culture. Our Culture is what took us out of slavery through the drums and the dancing.
This is a very important step for us in 2021, and your Government is putting everyone on notice from now, so that we will be able to promote it heavily through the BVI Tourist Board, among other private and public agencies. We must, of course, bear in mind that our plans depend on the way we contain COVID-19 in 2021. But, we must push ahead with confidence and we must do the planning to ensure success.
To provide some extra motivation to our artistes, we will be holding singing competitions in a number of categories with attractive prizes.
There will be competitions for Soca Monarch and Calypso Monarch. There will also be a Local Gospel competition - both for groups and for individuals.
In each of the four categories above, the first prize will be $20,000. Second prize will be $15,000 and third prize will be $10,000. And again, these are for each of the four above categories.
The prize for Road March will be $20,000.
So, I want to encourage all of our creative composers, singers and musicians to get to work as we aim to put our best talent on display.
As they are accustomed to doing, we look forward to the business community helping us to fund these initiatives which are aimed at our cultural development.
The New Year will see us accelerating activities for Constitutional Review. It is important that we approach this exercise with unity and with a view to strengthening our Territory’s further development. All Virgin Islanders should participate actively in this Constitutional Review because it will impact on all of us in our aspiration to becoming a more self-determined people, and because another Review will not be conducted for at least another 10 years.
In this journey, through the triumphs and tribulations, we are in this together. Nation building is more easily achieved when we come together with common understanding and a shared vision and purpose.
I wish to thank you the people of the Virgin Islands for giving me this opportunity to serve you and to serve our Territory as Premier. I also wish to thank my wife, Sheila, and our daughters for the support they have given me to fulfil this mandate and for their understanding.
I must also thank my Ministerial colleagues as well as their families and all my elected colleagues on the Government side and on the Opposition. Indeed, this role is a very demanding one and does not leave as much room for family time as we would like. And therefore, I am extremely grateful to them, including my mother, for their continuous encouragement.
I must also thank the Cabinet Secretary, the Cabinet Office, the Acting Governor and the Governor’s Office, for their hard work in ensuring that we have been able to hold Cabinet meetings during this Holiday period and keep the important work of the people going right down to the end of the year.
As we look towards 2021, let us continue to remain BVI Strong. Our awareness of the capabilities that we have displayed over the last year and how much we have grown as individuals and as a people, along with the prospects for economic opportunities and improved quality of life as expressed in the 2021 Budget, are reasons for us to keep hope alive and for us to keep pushing forward with optimism.
Our Faith in our God has sheltered us through many challenges in the past, and we are confident He is always present with us. We must fear not because He will heal unemployment. He will heal domestic violence. He will heal abuse. He will heal social ills. And He will heal the economy; as long as we humble ourselves and call His name.
As we look towards the New Year, I ask you to join with me in praying that God continues to bless and protect His Virgin Islands people, and that each and every Virgin Islander will have a happy, safe and prosperous 2021.
In BVILOVE, I thank you.