Moultrie: Parliament has no COVID-19 contingency plans

Moultrie: Parliament has no COVID-19 contingency plans
House Speaker Halson Moultrie (FILE PHOTO)

At least 10 MPs in at-risk age group for severe cases

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – There is currently no contingency plan for the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) among parliamentarians, said House Speaker Halson Moultrie, who has categorized the possibility as a “constitutional crisis”.

At least 10 members of Parliament are at-risk for developing a severe case of the virus, due to age.

These include Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, House Speaker and Nassau Village MP Halson Moultrie, Carmichael MP Despond Bannister, South Beach MP Jeffrey Lloyd, Golden Gates MP Brensil Rolle, Fox Hill MP Shonel Ferguson, North Eleuthera MP Rickey Mackey, Golden Gates MP Michael Foulkes, Opposition Leader and Cat Island and San Salvador MP Philip Brave Davis, and Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin.

Last week, Attorney General Carl Bethel insisted that there is nothing in the constitution that prevents the Parliament from meeting remotely.

Bethel said this will likely be the case.

To date, The Bahamas has recorded 29 confirmed cases of the virus and authorities have confirmed community transmission.

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis ordered a complete shutdown this weekend – the latest in sweeping measures to fight local spread of the virus, including a 24-hour curfew, border shutdown and social distancing protocols.

Health officials say people over 60 and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, liver disease, cancer) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

“We feel that we have a constitutional obligation to be in Parliament and another constitutional obligation to be representatives of the people that elected us to be here,” Moultrie told Eyewitness News, when asked about the heightened risks to some parliamentarians.

“So we’ve taken a decision to effect the physical distancing so as to minimize any risk in terms of any of the members of Parliament contracting the virus form each other.

“If that should happen, that is a difficulty for us, that might present a constitutional crisis”.

Pointing to advice from professionals, that anyone who comes in contact with anyone with the virus should be quarantined and tested, Moultrie said, “I don’t think any member of Parliament would be exempt from that”.

“We would have to find some means of functioning as a Parliament within that restricted time frame,” he said, referring to the advised 14-days of quarantine under such circumstances.

“We have fully ventilated that issue to determine how that would be done, but certainly we would have to find a way to do it either by teleconferencing or some remote procedure.”

Last Monday, the house shifted its normal structure to accommodate social distancing protocols.

Tables were placed in the gallery, where some members sat and the usual seating on the floor of the House chambers were spaced out.

Moultrie advised that members had agreed to rotate seating whenever another member was scheduled to contribute. The remaining MPs stayed either in the Smoker’s Room, the Minority or the Majority Rooms.

Countries worldwide are continuing to battle the respiratory illness which originated in China back in December and has claimed the lives of nearly 62,800 people.

The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary for Health Matt Hank have both announced they tested positive for COVID-19.

Yesterday, Johnson was taken into hospital.

He had been working from home and chaired his Cabinet meeting via Zoom.

Moultrie noted that The Bahamas could take a similar approach.

“That would be the only reasonable approach and the only healthy approach to take,” he said.

“We would have to find some remote way of being able to participate and to continue the affairs of Parliament and the affairs of the government from the executive branch should such an occurrence happen.

“We are hoping and praying that it doesn’t, but there is a possibility that it can, and I believe that the solution that Boris Johnson took in The United Kingdom will be adopted here in The Bahamas.”

Among additional emergency measures announced on Sunday to maintain  the spread of the virus was a restriction on individuals 75 and older leaving their homes and those between 65 and 74 are required to work from home.

While elderly people are believed to have a higher risk of severe illness, people of all ages can be infected by the virus.

WHO advises people of all ages to take steps to protect themselves from the virus by good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene.