The parliamentary opposition, on Thursday, used a little-used standing order to force Parliament to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby allowing the opposition leader to address lawmakers on the matter.
It is said that it was the first time that Standing Order 14 was used in about two decades, and Godwin Friday’s invocation of it seemed to have caught the government off-guard.
Carlos James, a former senator and deputy speaker, who was on his first day in the chair as speaker, seemed somewhat at a loss as to how to handle the matter.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a bipartisan agreement as part of efforts to keep the meeting brief and to have the government provide written answers to the questions that had been submitted for oral responses.
After Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves had informed Parliament of that decision, the opposition leader stood and said:
“Mr. Speaker, Madam Clerk, I hope we can be brief on this, but I wish to invoke Standing Order 14 — ‘An Adjournment to address the House on an Important Matter of Urgent Public Importance’.”
Friday added that he believes that the procedure is to bring this to the attention of the house to have the adjournment decided by the speaker or to be supported by five members of the house.
“And it’s for you to make a judgement, Mr. Speaker, as to the matter, when I bring it to your attention.”
James then asked if there was any objection “to the point which is being raised by the Leader of the Opposition”.
Deputy Prime Minster, Sir Louis Straker then stood and said maybe he was not paying attention and asked what Friday was seeking to accomplish by invoking “Article 14”.
Friday then rose and said he was seeking an adjournment of the house “for the purpose of addressing a definite matter of urgent public importance.
“I think this is the place in the standing orders where it is raised. It is not a debate, as such, Mr. Speaker,” the opposition leader added.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves then stood and noted that the rules say that the opposition has to hand to the speaker a written notification of the matter that he wishes to discuss.
Gonsalves added: “So that when there is a written notification, then we will take it from there …”
Friday said that he had the written notification and proceeded to hand it to the clerk, who, in turn, handed it to the speaker.
James spent about a minute and half reading the document from the opposition leader, before holding it in one hand while consulting a document on his desk, presumably the standing orders.
About a half-minute later, the prime minister rose and asked the speaker if there was “a motion”.
James then said there was: “A notification of an intention to debate an issue on this occasion — which indicated that pursuant to Standing Order 14, the definite matter of urgent public importance, the Leader of the Opposition is hereby giving notice that the definite matter of public importance to be discussed upon the adjournment of the house is the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and urgent need to close all airports and seaports in St. Vincent and the Grenadines to protect the people in the country against further importation and spread of the coronavirus in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”
After some discussion about how the matter was to be handled, there was bipartisan agreement that the matter should be discussed immediately, rather than at 5 p.m. in keeping with the rules.
The opposition and the government also agreed that the debate would be confined to the one hour provided in the rules and that each side would be allowed 30 minutes.
However, the speaker ruled that each side would be given 25 minutes to make a presentation to lawmakers.
‘why take the unnecessary risk’
During the discussion, the opposition leader, who spoke first, reiterated his party’s position that the nation’s borders should be closed to all but essential travel and cargo.
“The question or the point that I wish to raise is that why take the unnecessary risk. Everywhere, the wisdom, the experience seems to be teaching us if you bet that somehow this disease, this problem may pass us by that it will not be as bad as we fear that those countries have made that bet have lost in a spectacular way. Very, very serious consequences and were they to have the opportunity that we do still have to say, let’s take these drastic measures.”
He said that these are drastic measures to take because they limit human freedom and create serious economic disruption.
“But where you have that opportunity now, I can bet that countries such as Italy, and France would say, let’s go for those drastic measures now, prevent the spread, prevent the death, prevent economic disruption, and give us an opportunity to return to a level of normalcy sooner,” Friday told Parliament.
But, the prime minister maintained his government’s position, saying that his government would take a measured approach and close ports as necessary.
“It is true as I also mentioned and the Leader of the Opposition said today that countries are closing down — airlines not coming in; yacht companies not allowing their yachts to come.
“Well, it’s a question of demand,” he said, adding that if the flight that was from Canada that was scheduled to land in St. Vincent that day had not been cancelled, all the passengers would have had to be quarantined.
“… maybe that’s a control mechanism. That’s a surveillance mechanism,” Gonsalves said.
The prime minister said he would work closely with Friday, who is MP for the Northern Grenadines, MP for the Southern Grenadines, opposition lawmaker Terrance Ollivierre, and MP for East St. George, Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves, and MP for Central Leeward, Sir Louis, all of which constituencies have ports of entry.
“… and if there is information in addition to the intelligence which I have, you can say to me — not what somebody fears and is telling you and is not supported by evidence as to what is taking place — I would either strengthen what is happening there or if it’s something which is systemic that I have to close it, I will close it and I give you that assurance,” Gonsalves said.
The prime minister, who is also Minister of National Security, however added:
“… in all the circumstances, we have to manage the risks appropriately and we take accelerated measures as we have taken in many instances as the circumstances demand and admit.
“I’m very shocked that right now up to this morning in Britain, flights are going in from Italy and the United States and from Iran. Though of course, they are doing certain things where the numbers which are infected and the numbers who are dying are declining.”
Friday night, the government announced that the prime minister had ordered the closure of the ports in Union Island, Canouan, and Bequia.
Gonsalves ordered that all yachts and other vessels entering the country’s territorial waters clear at one of three ports on St. Vincent Island.
The government said that the decision was taken after four incidents on Friday, including “aggressive conduct towards the State authorities” by the captain and crew of a US-registered vessel.
SVG recorded one case of COVID-19 on March 11. Minister of Health Senator Luke Browne said Friday night that the patient tested negative after treatment.