Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and National Security Minister Stuart Young are defending the fairness of this country’s COVID-19 exemption policy in the face of stinging criticism that their children were allowed to jump the exemption queue. However, Rowley is also indicating that the Government plans to revisit and make changes to the policy.
Their defence comes after Guardian Media revealed yesterday that the 21-year-old son of Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi was granted an exemption and entered T&T on November 13, after spending two months abroad.
Rowley’s daughter Dr Sonel Rowley-Stewart was also granted an exemption and is currently home for the Christmas period. She applied for her exemption on November 4, three days before policy changes were announced and was granted an exemption to return from New York on December 16.
In a text exchange with Guardian Media yesterday, Prime Minister Rowley said more changes to the policy were coming in the new year and not everyone would be happy.
“As we make revisions in the new year, that is no guarantee that the grumbling will be eliminated because these restrictions by their very nature will adversely affect some people more than others,” Rowley said.
Rowley said there will always be criticism of himself and his Government but that would not change the facts.
“Picking on my family or the minister does not change the facts that once the border is closed and we are managing the inflow, there will be enough stories and grumbling and lies to fill the many voids,” he said.
“We just keep on doing the best as we protect the national population in a very difficult situation.”
Rowley said despite all the work being done to bring nationals back home, there will always be “grumbling.”
“I did say a few weeks ago that the borders and the schools are our biggest managed challenges. That remains so,” he said.
Young took a similar stance but noted the current system was never “first come, first served.” He also denied suggestions that relatives of Government Ministers were allowed to jump the line.
Noting that by July 29 there were 5,539 applications made to enter T&T, Young said, “As at December 23, we had granted 9,557 exemptions to enter Trinidad and Tobago. This shows that the vast majority of people who were genuinely stuck outside as at March 22 were granted exemptions to return.”
Young said from day one it was announced that applications would be considered on a case by case basis “and this continues to date.”
“At the Ministry of National Security, a system was developed that considered many factors and prioritised the granting of approvals to enter Trinidad and Tobago. This was always managed, bearing in mind the ability to safely quarantine persons who returned to the country, balanced with the capacity of the parallel health care system’s ability to manage positive cases, without collapsing,” he said.
He detailed those factors:
• date of application
• elderly and sick nationals
• families, especially those with young children
• persons who went for a vacation of a few weeks and got stuck outside; and
• persons with medical issues.
Young said the Government later added students who wanted to return home.
“Approvals were never granted on a first come first serve basis alone. Additionally, at every stage, we maintained a discretion for emergency cases or expedited cases,” Young said.
He said every Caribbean Airlines flight leaving over the past few months to Miami, New York, Barbados and Canada had nationals on them and many of these persons then applied to return to T&T.
“These people know that the borders are closed when they leave the country but still turn around and apply to return,” he said.
He said there are students who left in August and September “to go back to schools away and then applied to come back for Christmas or due to a change in their schooling circumstances.”
He said in and around October/November, most of the nationals who were stuck outside when the borders closed and persons who lived abroad, had lost their jobs and wanted to come back to T&T were cleared.
“The Government announced we would increase state-supervised quarantine and facilitate some people returning for Christmas. It was very clearly stated that not everyone would be able to be accommodated. This was done over the past month and a half and hundreds of nationals returned for Christmas, but not all,” he said.
“There are still nationals applying to return. Many were accustomed to going and spending months away and then returning to spend months in Trinidad. They were not nationals who were stuck outside due to going out for a short vacation.”
Regarding the farmworkers in Canada, Young said they fall into two separate categories. There are those who were in Canada when the borders were closed on March 22 and those who went to Canada after the borders were closed (in their hundreds).
“The workers who went to work in Canada after the borders were closed were warned that if the borders remained closed when they wished to return, they would be subject to the Government’s existing border management policies. They signed agreements agreeing to be bound by this and also acknowledging the risk they were taking. Nevertheless, as soon as these workers finished working in Canada they demanded to return,” he said.
He said the Government has been liaising and working with the Canadian government to facilitate the nationals and have begun repatriating them.
“We are now dedicating flights and facilities for these workers to return to Trinidad and Tobago. It is to be noted that over 90 nationals have indicated that they wish to stay in Canada even though we are making arrangements for their return to Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.