The opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) says it will discontinue any subsisting appeal in the COVID-19 vaccine mandate lawsuit, if elected to office at the next general elections, constitutionally due in February 2026, but likely to be held by November 2025.
Opposition Leader Godwin Friday made the announcement today (Monday) shortly after the High Court ruled against the government in a lawsuit that public sector unions brought challenging the vaccine mandate, which led to hundreds of public sector workers losing their jobs in December 2021.
High Court judge Esco Henry ruled that the special measures rules made under Statutory Rules and Orders 28 of 2021 — the vaccine mandate law — is unlawful, unconstitutional and void.
She further held that none of the public sector workers who lost their jobs under the law ceased to be entitled to hold their respective positions and are entitled to all benefits that were due and would become due to them.
Immediately as the decision was handed down, a lawyer for the government announced their intention to appeal.
Friday, speaking on his weekly appearance on New Times, his party’s show on NICE Radio, noted that the government announced its decision to appeal even before seeing the written judgement.
“… well, I don’t see how they could talk about appeal and they haven’t even seen the entire judgement yet or consulting, I would suppose, with his lawyers,” said Friday, who is also a lawyer.
“When you talk about appealing now, it’s just a reflexive spiteful reaction which will not go down well with the people of this country. It’s time to settle this matter. It’s time to let the people go back to their work. It’s time to give them back the benefits. It’s time to show them the respect that they deserve,” he told listeners.
“In any event, any appeal that they do, an NDP government, we will discontinue that because it’s simply not the right thing to be doing this time to people who are struggling and suffering still from the government’s misguided, hard-headed, arrogant policy that they know everything that is right and not listening to everybody else,” said Friday, whose NDP captured the popular vote in the 2020 polls but lost the election 9-6 to Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party.
Friday welcomed the court ruling, noting that the NDP had always opposed the mandate.
He said the judgment “is a monumental, a huge vindication of all the work and faith and the position adopted by the unions and their leadership”
The Police Welfare Association, Teacher’s Union and the Public Service Union brought the challenges against the government on behalf of their members who were dismissed under the mandate.
The opposition leader said that the individuals in whose name the lawsuit was brought are “determined and brave members who stood up and said that they will challenge the matter in the court and they will wait for the judgment of the court which you felt would vindicate their position”.
He noted that the opposition had left Parliament on Aug. 5, 2021, when the mandate would be passed into law, to inform protesters in the streets outside about developments in the national assembly.
“… there was a demonstration against the legislation, we urged the government not to do it because it was the wrong approach to adopt. It was fundamentally unfair to the people who were being penalised,” Friday said of the law.
The law was passed in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 6, hours after Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves was injured when he was struck in the head as he walked among protesters on his way back to Parliament.
Friday noted that the government had at one point praised public sector workers as heroes for performing their duties in the height of the pandemic – including before vaccines were available locally.
He noted that Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves did so again in his Budget Address in January.
“And then they turn around and tell them they can’t come on their property anymore; they must go home because they didn’t take the vaccine,” the opposition leader said.
“So, the decision recorded today says to those people, that they had a right to refuse what they (the government) did under the circumstances, that they were treated unfairly and in a disgraceful manner by the Gonsalves government.”
He said that the court recognised what was highlighted by many, including the NDP, “that the government was fundamentally wrong to adopt the course that they did.
“And this came about and no other government in the Caribbean.”
He said the government had moved from being dismissive of the novel coronavirus to “taking draconian measures against people, taking away their work.
“You know, the hardship so many people have suffered because of this in terms of their own financial circumstances? But also people who had served in the public service, in the police for so long, and to be told that you are discardable, that you are disposable, that if you don’t follow the government’s policy, that you gotta go and overnight, from hero to zero you throw them out.”
Friday said that the government refused to listen.
“It didn’t listen to the unions, didn’t listen to us in the opposition; they kept holding that it was lawful, not even considering the possibility that they were wrong. Even if they had a doubt but illegal position, the hardship that people were experiencing; it didn’t take that into account.
“But now, the court has ruled this morning that … the government basically was wrong,” he said, noting that the court rejected the government’s arguments in almost every element of the case.
Friday called on the government to meet with the public sector unions immediately.
“The court has said that you’re wrong. It took a long time to get to this point, people are still suffering. They must engage with the unions, get those people back to work, reinstate them and ensure that they receive all the benefits, treat them with the respect that they deserve, which is a lot of respect, because they were performing their duties.”
The opposition leader said that the workers affected by the vaccine mandate were ready to continue to perform their duties but the “government’s policy, the government in its decision, its draconian decision to fire the people that didn’t take the vaccine stopped them from doing that”.
Many of the teachers who were dismissed and are still at home would prefer to still be in the classroom teaching students, Friday said, adding that some teachers continued to provide lessons to students outside of the classroom after being fired.
“… they should be commended and I commend them very highly for their bravery. Their courage, their resilience, sticking to their conscience and holding to their beliefs,” Friday said.
He noted that the court decision comes on the eve of National Heroes Day, which celebrates Joseph Chatoyer and his resilience and fortitude to keep the country free from colonisation in the late 18th Century.
“… it is telling and appropriate that today those persons who stood up have been vindicated and they are heroes in their own right for holding their ground,” Friday said.
The opposition leader said the government does not listen to the people but must do so in this case as there has been “enough pain and hardship.
“This can’t be a matter where you’re grandstanding just as a matter of pride. We are the country. If the court says that you’re wrong, move forward. Everybody is now learning to adjust and to live with COVID.”
He said it is time for the government to accept that it “made a wrong decision.
“Correct it. The court has given its decision in that respect. Make it right for the people who are so terribly and painfully affected and let us move on as a nation.”
He said the court ruling “shows, quite frankly, that the government was so out of touch with the people on such a fundamental issue that they made such a terrible error.
“How can you trust them to have proper judgment in this matter going forward or in any fundamental matter affecting the people of this country because they are guided by arrogance rather than by what is just, what is fair, what is right and what the people want.”