Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves is defending his government’s vaccinate or test policy for public sector workers, saying that every employer has a duty to provide a safe working environment for staff.
“We have to take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of public officers. This duty includes, among other things, ensuring that the place in which a public officer works is safe.
“Therefore, in keeping with its common law obligations, to ensure that the workplace is safe, the government may impose a requirement on public health and public officers to take the COVID-19 tests as a safety precaution to eliminate, as far as possible, the risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the workplace.”
Gonsalves was speaking, on Wednesday, on NBC Radio as his government continues to face opposition from labour unions over the policy.
The policy says that public sector workers who do not take an approved COVID-19 vaccine must be tested for the virus up to once every two weeks.
The unions, at a press conference on Saturday, which was attended by their legal counsel, suggested that the policy could offend constitutional rights.
Gonsalves said that the policy does not offend Constitution rights, adding that the evidence is that COVID-19 could present a potential threat to the workplace and the test is, therefore, justified.
“I repeat, there is a strong justification for the imposition of the test, given the impact of the pandemic on the health of the nation, and the need for a safe system, and place of work to be found in the face of the ever-evolving pandemic,” Gonsalves said.
He said that the potential impact of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the workplace necessitates that steps be taken to reduce such an eventuality.
Gonsalves said that this duty of care is not limited to an employer.
“The employee, worker, also has a duty; public officers have a common law duty to take care of their safety and health and that of other persons and to cooperate with his or her employer. That’s their common law duty also.”
He said these duties are also in statutory form.
“But even without a law specifically being passed, these are common law duties through common law obligations. The Constitution permits it, the Public Health Act permits it, administrative law permits it, the Public Health Act, and the declaration of a public health emergency even makes it more compelling,” he said.
The prime minister, citing official statistics, said that some 11,000 doses of vaccine, representing about 11% of the population have been administered.
He said that some 16% of teachers and 20% of healthcare workers have taken the vaccine and an even larger percentage of each group has been tested for the novel coronavirus.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines has recorded 1,766 cases of COVID-19, of which 152 cases were imported and eight import-related.
Ten persons have died of COVID-19, 1,627 have recovered and 129 cases remain active.
Gonsalves said that persons who have been vaccinated have been contacting him, raising the question of the state’s obligation to provide a safe work environment.
“‘How can we have a safe place for work, we, having done all what we’re supposed to do, when other workers are not being mandated to take the test?’” he said, quoting the persons whom he said had contacted him.
The prime minister, who is also a lawyer, added:
“So now, suppose those persons get lawyers to write and say, ‘Well listen to me, we’re not going to work, because the place of their work is not safe?’
“… This thing cuts both ways.”
Gonsalves said that according to the 2012 census — the most recent — the central government employs 8,731 people — 21.4% of the working population, while 1,081 — 4.1% — are on the payroll of statutory entities.
He said the private sector, including employees in private homes, employees about 49.4% or workers.
A further 22% operate their own businesses, while the remainder is made up of “dribs and drabs elsewhere — volunteers, unpaid family labour and so on and so forth.
“Both the state and the private sector should encourage persons and in our case … to put the teachers and the public servants to say, ‘Listen, you have to take the test, it’s for everybody’s safety; we must do it.’ And the employers should do the same thing,” Gonsalves said.