ADDRESS BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE
HONOURABLE ANDREW A. FAHIE
An Economic Boost for Virgin Islands on the Horizon: The Construction Industry
9th August, 2020
My dear Virgin Islands people, a pleasant good day, and God’s blessings to you and your families.
This evening, I come to you to give an address on the economy, titled: An Economic Boost for Virgin Islands on the Horizon.
Your Government’s objective is to share information on our efforts in sustaining different sectors of the economy, in the absence of the tourism sector, which is not fully functional, as with the rest of the world, at this time, due to COVID-19.
This evening’s address will be done in a phased approach.
Your Government is feverishly working towards finetuning and finalising details to present to you the people, in short order, on various sectors of the economy.
Your Government intends to inform you about the plans and efforts to revitalise all sectors of the economy. This is to say; we will be speaking about different sectors of the economy in a phased approach.
This evening, on behalf of your Government, I will inform you about what is happening with the construction industry.
So tonight address is titled: An Economic Boost for Virgin Islands on the Horizon: The Construction Industry.
Before I address our efforts on what is happening in this industry, I must give some information as to where we are with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In this light of this, I must interject that I hope that you were able to enjoy the Emancipation Festival Season and that you were able to spend some quality time reflecting on the journey our forefathers made from Slavery to Emancipation, and beyond.
I hope that you have seen, as I have seen, the important role that we all have now as the present generation in preparing our country for our generations yet unborn.
As we have learned from our forefathers, blessed is the nation that has GOD as its God.
In many respects, this year’s Emancipation celebrations were a bit low-keyed; and we know why. It is not anyone’s fault.
COVID-19 has caused many disruptions in our lives over the last few months. And now it is preventing us from having events that would involve large gatherings.
Like you, I also missed having some of these events, where we would get to relax, enjoy our culture, and meet and socialise.
As your Premier and Minister of Finance, I felt it necessary to share a few thoughts with you and do my best to help you remember that we must keep hope alive.
Our economy has seen unprecedented challenges.
Your Government is confident that with God’s help and guidance, together we will continue to reboot and revitalise our economy, while at the same time diversifying our economy amidst this ongoing worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Can I tell you that we are in unconventional times?
Thus, it will take unconventional measures to accomplish our mission in regards to our economy and our safety in this New Regular.
Our Faith in God teaches us that while weeping may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning.
So, let us work together so that, at the end of this COVID-19 pandemic era, what should have been the worst of times would turn out to be the best of times.
May I respectfully remind you that over the last few months of the pandemic, your Government has continued to work tirelessly to find ways to neutralise the negative impacts of COVID-19 and to put measures in place to drive the turnaround and recovery of our economy in order to assist on bringing you the relief, comfort, and stability that you seek.
I cannot emphasise enough that for your Government, our highest priority is the safety and health of each Virgin Islander and resident.
While we all will agree that material things have their place, we all can also agree that human life is most precious above all material things. For us, each life matters, and every life must matter.
That is why your Government cannot afford to take unnecessary risks that can lead to our loved ones getting sick, or worse dying.
We cannot take unnecessary risks that can cause our medical facilities to become overburdened.
And, we cannot take unnecessary risks that can trigger another complete lockdown.
An internal assessment has shown that if we end up in another Territory-wide lockdown, the money that we have for rebooting the economy will have to be used instead for social support. And when that is over, we will not have any money left to reboot the economy.
So, we are walking a very fine line. It is a tight-rope. It might not seem so at the moment because we are able to move around and to conduct some of our business activities.
The entire world is going through economic hardship as a result of COVID-19. Right now, unfortunately, this the reality. And, the BVI is not immune.
All the countries of the world are trying every method possible to balance their economy while trying to keep their residents safe and not succumbing to the pressures of those who are putting wealth in front, and above health.
And again, in this respect, the BVI is not immune.
Your Government has seen representation by a few persons who are calling for the immediate reopening of the borders. They are saying we can let visitors and persons that are not belongers in with testing and other protocols. But, I want to break this down for you.
Firstly, there are no reliable rapid tests available to date. None! The only reliable tests are the lab tests, which are not instant.
A person can go into a lab and not be confirmed as positive for COVID-19 up to the moment of taking the test. And the second they walk out of the lab, they can be exposed to someone who has the virus.
So, they will have a certificate saying they have tested negative, but they will be carrying the virus – and some of these persons can land on our doorstep.
If you look around the Caribbean region, and other countries, many countries that rushed to reopen their borders or who have been taking in large volumes of returning nationals are presently experiencing second waves and spikes. Some are experiencing significant community spread.
So one must ask out loud, is this what we want for the BVI?
Is this what we want for ourselves and for our loved ones?
Secondly, we are faced with the reality that the majority of people do want to bear the cost of quarantine. In addition, the misbehaviour of some individuals who were allowed to return – and not just in the BVI, but in many other countries – where they were refusing to self-isolate once they landed, means that measures became necessary to prevent arriving persons from going around and risking everyone else’s life.
With the scarcity of resources and the fact that your Government’s focus to ensure that the economy can survive through this pandemic allows that certain questions be considered.
These are the questions we have to ask ourselves continually.
Does the employer have any work for those who they have on work permit and are desirous of them returning at this time?
Are the employers willing to pay the cost of quarantining their employees who want to return to the BVI?
Or are the employees prepared to bear these costs?
At the same time, can I tell you that the same debate is going on over the proposals for persons to be tested?
No one wants to bear these costs.
In fact, they are saying that the BVI taxpayers must bear these costs.
Do you think BVIslanders should bear all of these costs?
My people of the Virgin Islands, we are aware that our borders will have to be reopened at some time.
We are working towards having the dates and the protocols to be announced shortly.
However, all the concerns raised above and more are being taken into consideration so that we do not compromise the health and safety of our people of the Virgin Islands, while trying to stimulate the tourism sector of our economy.
In a few weeks, I will return to you the public with the details of our progress in this area.
Needless to say, now is the time for us to help one another and to look out for each other.
For those persons who are within the Territory and who are in need of work, help is not too far away.
You will not have to wait much longer for our latest programme of economic stimulus measures to come fully into place.
Everything is almost in place for you to begin experiencing the full results of the work your Government has been doing to reboot the BVI economy.
We have been working through the red tape to reach to the point where the money can start being disbursed in a transparent way on behalf of the people.
As you know, red tape is there for a reason, which is to make sure everything is done transparently.
Going around this red tape is not something that your Government has discretion in, nor something we would want to do. Because at the end of the day, we must be able to account to you for this money.
As I would have indicated from the beginning, the economic sector I will be informing you about this evening is the construction industry.
I will explain shortly why we moved forward with the construction sector at this time.
As you will remember, we started rebooting the Financial Services Sector.
I would have already given two updates on 27 March 2020 and 14 July, 2020 on our efforts in this area of the economy. Our efforts in this area of our economy will continue to intensify.
But, I want to remind you that the BVI’s economic response encompasses other sectors and I will be coming to you in due course with further announcements concerning the details of our plans for those different sectors of our economy.
You would recall that a part of your Government’s Phase 2 COVID-19 Economic Stimulus response package is linked to a $40 million grant from the BVI Social Security Board. A portion of these funds are for infrastructural projects.
Further, together with the diligent work of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Board and management, as well as the BVI Ports Authority Board and Management, we have been able to identify funds to commence the long-overdue East End-Long Look Sewerage Project.
This project, you would recall, has been stillborn because the funds that were allocated for it under the previous administration were diverted to other purposes.
Your present Government has been fully aware of how important this project is to the people of East End-Long Look. With the funds being put in place now, we will solve the public health concerns of the residents.
But there is more.
Your Government has been working over the past few weeks to develop a procurement regime that would allow greater participation by local contractors and service providers, while at the same time adhering to the principles of international best practice and assuring quality, value for money, transparency and accountability.
Professionals in these fields will testify to some of the challenges our local contractors face; problems that lock them out from being even considered for projects that they are capable of delivering.
Even the petty contract system has been fraught with challenges. And the situation is made even worse because of the precautionary measures that became necessary due to COVID-19.
We need our infrastructural work done, our local businesses need economic activity, and our people need jobs.
In the Ministry of Finance, and together with our partner agencies, we have designed a procurement policy recently approved by Cabinet for times of emergencies, such as natural disasters, catastrophic events and pandemics, that will overcome these obstacles and allow us to engage local contractors, while having a rigorous system of checks and balances operating throughout.
We have completed the policy framework and we have been discussing it with funding partners such as international lending agencies. This is because we would need their approval to change conditions attached to those funds so that it would allow more qualified local contractors to benefit from these opportunities. By doing this we would be allowing the monies to stay in the Territory and circulate numerous times to positively contribute to the national flow of income.
The feedback has been positive and your Government is feverishly working with the Attorney General’s Office to get the legislative changes, that may be necessary, submitted. After which, approval by both the Cabinet and the House of Assembly will be sought.
This process will open many doors of opportunities for all our contractors in the BVI amidst COVID-19 era. This is a Government working for its people. This is a Government that cares.
This course of action fits directly into what I meant when I said in the 2020 Budget Address that we must use what is in our hand to bring more prosperity to our land.
One important feature of the new emergency procurement policy is that it will allow for, in some cases, the subdivision of larger projects into smaller packages. In this way, more local construction companies – including our smaller contractors – would be able to share in the opportunities that are created by your Government to stimulate our economy through construction, among other areas.
This is a Government working for its people. A Government that cares.
I am happy to report that your Government can say at this time that the East End-Long Look Sewerage Project is one project that we are looking at for subdivision and spreading the benefits. It is one, but it will not be the only one.
So, our contractors should begin preparing themselves and their workers immediately. Get yourselves ready, especially with all your needed paperwork, because once all the legal steps are finished with this new policy, we want to hit the ground running, and with momentum.
Some persons may ask why we are placing so much emphasis on construction and not, for instance, on barbershops, hair salons, and other businesses.
The simple reason is that these projects and these funds are a booster shot into the economy.
When we apply this booster shot in the construction sector, the Territory is able to get some value from the expenditure of this money, and the money will spread into our other sectors which will benefit as well.
There will be a market for goods, construction materials, transportation services, as well as many other spinoff areas of our economy.
I am calling on the people to be innovative and think about what is needed. Remember we must use what we have in 'our hand' to bring more prosperity to our land.
No doubt, the workers will have the need for meals and the spending power to support our food vendors and other businesses.
When they earn their salaries, their entire families will benefit. The family is now able to spend the money in the supermarkets, the salons, the barbershops, and the other stores and businesses, and be able to pay their rent and even build homes for themselves.
An added benefit is that we are going to keep the money circulating in the local economy for a longer period than what obtained previously, when more foreign-based contractors were used, which is where the money would leave our shores as soon as it is released, thereby benefit no one in our local economy.
This is the time when we will help our local contractors to step up and prove they can deliver the quality goods, and for us to redefine the dynamics of these sectors in favour of Virgin Islanders in an accountable and transparent manner while maintaining quality and value for money.
Now is the time for our contractors to employ those in the Territory. Now is the time for those who are not employed to capitalise on these different opportunities being created by your Government to benefit you, so that you too can help improve your quality of life, and in turn this economy.
We are all in this together.
This is a Government that is working for you. This is a Government that cares.
Your Government continues to mushroom the opportunities available in the construction industry through the signing of many development agreements with the private sector for hotels and other properties in the Virgin Islands within the last few months. And there are more to be signed.
We have not stopped there. Your Government is continuing to train our local contractor so that they can move to a higher level each time. And, your Government is creating more opportunities in the construction field through the signing of a contract for over $17 million dollars with a local contractor through the Social Security Board to construct more than 40 affordable homes at Joes Hill, Tortola BVI.
Through this project many local subcontractors will be given an opportunity to display their skills, while helping to build the economy.
This is a Government that is working for its people. This is a Government that cares.
Your Government through other Government Agencies, has further expanded construction opportunities to boost our economy with projects such as the housing recovery and repairs initiative:
- Repairs to the Honourable Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex in Tortola;
- Repairs to the John E. George Administration Building in North Sound in Virgin Gorda;
- Repairs the Flax Administration Building and the Vanterpool Administration Building in the Valley Virgin Gorda;
- paving of public roads in Anegada;
- paving of public roads in Jost Van Dyke;
- repairs to the Anegada Fire Station;
- repairs to the Bregado Flax Education Centre in Virgin Gorda;
- construction of a new multipurpose port facility building at Jost Van Dyke;
- repairs to the Jeffery Caines Sports Arena in The Valley, Virgin Gorda;
- resurfacing and repairs of public roads, of which the same will be done in the East End-Long Look area in a few days;
- repairs to the Carrot Bay reservoir; and
- repairs to the Zion Hill reservoir, among many other ongoing construction projects and those that will be on the horizon in the near future.
These construction initiatives are important as we look at addressing, the reconfiguration of our economy and increasing our resilience and self-sufficiency, in a meaningful way.
As is evident, your Government is not sitting on its laurels. Rather we continue to work towards achieving what we set out as the goals in the 2020 budget, even amidst the major setback with COVID-19.
Clearly, our construction industry is alive and well and is getting better.
Your Government will continue to work to ensure that it holds trust for all sectors of the economy.
So, let us keep the faith, and let us keep working to prepare ourselves for the brighter days that are on the horizon, and let us stay prayed up and remain laser focus for our brighter days are on the horizon.
All we have to do is to use what is in 'our hand' to bring more prosperity to our land.
May God Almighty continue to light our path in the BVI and may He continue to shield us in His Love for this beautiful Virgin Islands.
I thank you.