Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says his government will seize the passports of 25 Vincentians if they do not refund the state the money it paid for their hotel quarantine after they claimed they were unable to do so.
Gonsalves, speaking on NBC Radio on Wednesday, said that the persons claimed to be unable to pay for five nights’ hotel accommodation when they arrived in the country from the United States last Saturday.
The government has mandated at least five days’ quarantine at a state-approved hotel at personal expense for all persons arriving from the United States.
The decision was made after an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases in SVG, after international flights resumed on July 11, after a four-month hiatus.
The country has confirmed 52 cases of COVID-19, with 39 recoveries and no deaths.
However, some persons have ignored the protocol, which initially imposed no quarantine for persons arriving from the United States with a negative PCR test for COVID-19 done three days prior.
Passengers without a PCR test result were allowed to quarantine at home for 24 hours while awaiting the result of a test done by the state.
However, some persons broke the quarantine, resulting in the government announcing the new measures one week before the July 25 flight from Miami.
Gonsalves said that while the government had the option of suspending the flights altogether, it was “privileging” its nationals by allowing them to return, adding that the bulk of persons arriving on the flights were Vincentians.
In order to be allowed onto last week’s flight, each passenger had to have a PCR negative result for COVID-19 and evidence of a booking of at least five nights at a government-approved hotel.
“… more than one or two people, they did the booking and then cancel the booking,” Gonsalves said. “So they have email showing that they got a confirmation, they have a booking, and then they cancel it.”
He said that 140 persons were booked to travel and 95 were allowed to board.
“And for those who didn’t get on for one reason or another, I feel really sorry about it,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves’ government had failed to enforce against persons who broke the quarantine in an earlier period, a law passed in Parliament this year that prescribed a fine of up to EC$2,000 for each day that quarantine is breached.
He said that when the passengers arrived in St. Vincent last Saturday, some of them did not want to be swabbed nasally.
“They read somewhere that you can do it on your tongue. But it’s more reliable if you go nasal. That’s what I am advised the science says,” the Prime Minister said.
“There are some people who say they have no money. They have no booking, some say they’re not going to the hotel. This is after they know what the protocols are.
“In any event, those who complain that they learned of the protocols late, the protocols always say that these are subject to change, even at a short notice. It happens all over the world because of the moving nature of the parts with the COVID. So it is your responsibility if you are traveling to keep checking your protocols,” Gonsalves said.
“I understood that that was the position that some were going to say that. I said the government will pay but on the understanding that your passport will be taken and the passport will not be given back to you until you reimburse the government, if the government pays and you will have a timeline.”
He noted that the passport is the property of the government and can be cancelled electronically even if not in the actual possession of the state.
Gonsalves said that while he had not received the final number, the government had to pay the hotel bills for at least 25 persons who said they could not afford to do so.
“That would be another story when you hear, when they can’t get back their passport… You wouldn’t want to risk the cancellation of your passport,” he said.
The prime minister said that some persons were willing to abide by the protocols in the United States but are ready to disregard local health officials.
“Listen, just change your attitude, the recalcitrant minority, small number, but you’re making it difficult for everybody,” he said.
The prime minister said that the passengers included six seafarers, a category of travellers which is considered high risk for COVID-19.
Gonsalves also responded to the complaint that armed police officers are stationed at the hotels where the quarantining is taking place.
He said that a firearm is part of the equipment of every police officer in New York.
“So you come from New York and you complaining that you see a policeman come with gun. Clearly, you don’t live in the New York that I go to,” Gonsalves said.
He said that if one should listen to some of the passengers, one would think “they would have come through some terrible incarceration or some awful experience.
“They came in to a nice airport, met friendly people. But if you want to be recalcitrant, the rules have to be applied. And if you want to play a bad john, the one or two who want to behave like that, well, the state has coercion at its disposal; legitimate coercion, lawful coercion.”
He said that some of the persons went to the hotel bar and restaurant soon after they were checked in, which is against the quarantine rules.
“So, the hotel authorities called the police. And in these exercises, you don’t send rank and file police; you send in a specialised unit — either SSU or RRU. And everybody knows that once the SSU or the RRU are mobilised, they have firearms. That’s why they’re a specialized unit. In fact, the SSU is a paramilitary unit. I’m just giving the public the other side, the true side of the story,” Gonsalves said.