Vincentian sailors with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. will not return to the country on Thursday, April 30, as hoped.
The return of the sailors, who have already spent several weeks in isolation aboard cruise ships amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, has been further delayed for weeks.
They are now expected to sail home, rather than fly, and it will be weeks before they set sail, the cruise line has said.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves made the announcement on radio, on Tuesday, when he also disclosed that his government would not permit a Miami airline to land two planes carrying some 300 sailors because Kingstown has no information about their health status.
In a sharp turn of events amidst negotiations with Royal Caribbean to get them to pay for 14 days’ quarantine of each sailor in SVG, at EC$150 per night, Gonsalves, on Tuesday, cited international law and began naming some of the persons involved in the negotiations.
Speaking on WE FM, the prime minister read an email from Bishen John, chief executive officer of the SVG Port Authority, who has been interfacing with Royal Caribbean.
In his email to the prime minister, John said that he had been in contact, that day, April 28, with Captain Hernan Zini, vice president Worldwide Port Operations at Royal Caribbean.
Zini had confirmed that Royal Caribbean has not received approval for the disembarking of crew members from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States of America, the prime minister cited John as saying.
Additionally, Royal Caribbean had not repatriated any of the crew members to any Caribbean destination following the CDC’s new ‘no sail’ order on April 9, 2020.
John further said he was sending the prime minister the names of the executives of the various companies.
“Because there’s a reason why I’m asking for that,” Gonsalves said. “I wouldn’t say why except persons from what I said earlier may appreciate why I need those particular names.”
He said that on Monday, Corsel Robertson, chief executive officer of Argyle International Airport (AIA), received an email from Sany Rivera, ground services programme manager, at Swift Air, an entity in Miami.
In the email, the subject of which is “Swift Air ground handling requests”, Rivera told Robertson:
“The contract to bring nationals home is almost complete. Below please find the updated schedule of the original request.”
Gonsalves said Swift Air had made the original request on April 13 but nothing came of it.
In her email on Monday, Rivera asked Robertson whether the ground handling could occur at the updated times and dates.
Rivera sent a schedule indicating that her airline was proposing to use two 737 aircraft on Thursday, April 30, to fly the Vincentians to AIA.
The flights were scheduled to land at 11:28 p.m. and 11:50 p.m. and leave within an hour of their arrival.
“Well, immediately, that happened, Corsel Robertson sent the information to Simone Keizer-Beache; the CMO (chief medical officer), sent it to me,” Gonsalves said.
He said he contacted John, who, in turn, contacted Royal Caribbean.
“Because these persons are supposed to be Royal Caribbean passengers,” he said, referring to the returning Vincentians that Swift Air was proposing to repatriate.
“When Bishen John contacted Royal Caribbean, Royal Caribbean said, ‘Listen we are not in a position to have any transfers done’,” Gonsalves said, adding that the cruise line cited an absence of approval from the CDC.
“… I said the weekend before, not this weekend, they had sent and said that they couldn’t do anything for a week. I don’t know who is playing games or where any games are being played, if any games are being played, but Bishen John is being told something and Swift Air is sending something else.
“How can Swift Air send yesterday an email, they want clearance to come the airport. Each of these two planes as you want to bring can take up to 150. Originally we’re talking about tonight 200, then 299.
“We don’t know anything about the health conditions, none of the things which we ask about hasn’t been addressed, so you bring them on the airport,” Gonsalves said.
“Thank God when Bishen contacted Royal Caribbean they said no, no, no, no, no, no but you know, look as though the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? I didn’t want to go in as much detail as I’ve gone in here. I could go into more detail. But day by day, Sweet Jesus,” the prime minister said.
“Well of course, Swift Air will not be given permission to land. Their operation would not be allowed to land until they have done the following things; it’s a protocol,” Gonsalves said.
Meanwhile, the prime minister said that Zini subsequently wrote John saying he will send a letter with the latest information.
“The current thing is to do the repatriation by ship. This will take a few weeks before we can even depart from Florida. As soon as we draft our plan, we will send a letter with all relevant details and a formal request to conduct the repatriation,” Gonsalves quoted Zini as saying in an email to John.
The prime minister went on to repeat the protocol that the government has announced for the repatriation of sailors and oil rig workers.
Among other things, under the protocol, the returning nationals must have a certificate of health issued by the authorities in the country of departure. The certificate must indicate their COVID-19 status.
Kingstown must also have advance information about where each sailor plans to undergo the quarantine.
The government has also indicated that it would prefer if the sailors stay at hotels or guest houses.
“Can you imagine 1,000 persons being across St. Vincent and the Grenadines in private homes in a quarantine, how that will stretch the health and security resources of this country. You see the reason why you need to have that more centralised?”
The Prime Minister said there are some 1,300 Vincentians working with Royal.
“And we are grateful to Royal and I want to work this thing out properly with Royal. But remember I have said before, please, I’m asking everybody concerned, including people who are working with Royal do not say or do anything which could undermine the negotiations, the discussions which we’re having with Royal or with any other cruise line for that matter.
“What is this vanity that persons are involved in to prove what? You’re not being helpful,” the prime minister said.
“If they think by doing that can move me from my position and if the opposition wants to play politics with this issue, if they think they can move me from the position which I’m articulating, well they have another guess coming.
“Because I know that the vast majority of the people of this country support the government and support Ralph in what we are doing on this matter. Yes, we want our nationals to come home. But we want the cruise ships also to bear their responsibility.”
The prime minister said there are persons in SVG who have lost their jobs and are only getting EC$300 from social security as an unemployment benefit.
“But there are people who want me to spend over $2,000 for 14 days to keep a seaman or sea woman in a hotel, in quarantine,” he said, although the in-hotel quarantine is a requirement of his government.