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Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis arrives at President’s House for the appointment ceremony for Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar yesterday.

The new Parliamentary term will be launched on Friday with another “weapon” in the COVID-19 war.

The upcoming 12th Parliament of T&T begins with a change of tradition as Parliamentarians get right down to work on debating proposed legislation to make mask-wearing mandatory.

And Senators will finalise the legislation on Saturday also to ensure all of T&T’s wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 by next week – if not Sunday night.

Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis yesterday confirmed the plan to debate an amendment to the Public Health ordinance to make masks mandatory. She’s tipped to continue as Leader of Government business in the Lower House.

Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who was appointed yesterday, also confirmed the Opposition would examine the proposed legislation.

Both spoke after the Prime Minister’s Office (OPM) yesterday announced that instructions had been given to the President to do a proclamation for the opening of the new Parliament term. This follows the recent General Election where the PNM beat the UNC 22-19.

The new term is scheduled to start at 10.30 am and will be ratified at today’s first Cabinet meeting of the new Government. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley is expected to speak after that meeting.

Robinson-Regis told T&T Guardian she’d spoken to Persad-Bissessar out of courtesy to apprise her of Friday’s debate on face masks as it was unusual to have a debate sitting on the same day a Parliamentary term is launched.

“But it’s necessary in the circumstances of the pandemic. We wanted to let her know what we’ll be doing as we’ll have to suspend Parliament’s Standing Orders for the debate. It’s very important to pass the amendment to assist with dealing with the COVID situation,” Robinson-Regis said.

The spiralling COVID pandemic brought the number of positive samples yesterday to 1,252 with 1,059 active cases. Health authorities have been pleading with citizens to follow COVID protocols and wear masks.

The amendment being debated Friday requires a simple majority vote for passage and can be passed by Government votes alone if necessary.

Robinson-Regis said the Senate will meet Saturday to pass the amendment there to put the law into order quickly, likely over the weekend.

Scaled-down Parliament launch

An outline framework of Friday’s function received by Guardian Media yesterday indicates Parliamentary term opening will be a scaled-down affair due to the pandemic.

All attendees will have to observe Parliament’s COVID protocols. This will include the taking temperature on entry, masking up and social distancing, including seating, plus limited numbers where possible.

The event is unlikely to involve a ceremonial opening. Guests from various quarters, including the judiciary and other sectors, are being drastically reduced. But all 41 Members of Parliament and the senators (Government, Opposition and Independent) who have to take an oath of office will be present.

President Paula-Mae Weekes will announce appointment of nine Independents, while the Opposition is yet to announce its six Senators. Government announced its 16 senators last Wednesday.

For Friday’s function, the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament will convene in their respective South and North chambers of the Red House for the swearing-in of members.

In the Senate, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat is tipped to be Government’s Senate leader, although some officials said Franklin Khan may continue as Senate Leader.

Lee for UNC whip again

Yesterday, Opposition Leader Persad-Bissessar said the UNC MPs have recommended David Lee to be Opposition whip again. He served in the post in the last term. She said decisions are still being made on some aspects.

Meanwhile, UNC PRO Anita Haynes yesterday couldn’t confirm speculation on possible UNC senators.

Among those tipped to be senators are attorney Rishi Tripathi and defeated candidates Sean Sobers, David Nakhid, Jearlean John and Taharqa Obika. Some UNC sources tipped former UNC senate leader Wade Mark to return.

Former MP Suruj Rambachan said his view was that if Persad-Bissessar was serious about having new young representatives, this should be reflected in both Houses of Parliament. He said Sobers, Ahloy Hunt, John and Nakhid should serve since they did well in elections and would bring value to UNC. He also suggested attorney Larry Lalla be given an opportunity.

Rambachan agreed Lee should be reappointed as Whip since he did well, including with dealing with the Speaker. He was critical of the expected reappointment of Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George, which Rowley confirmed last week. Both Government and Opposition have the opportunity to nominate choices for Speaker, for whom votes are cast. But since Government holds majority votes in the Lower House, the PNM’s choice is a given.

Rambachan felt she needs to reflect on how she handled matters in the last term and her “treatment” of the Opposition.

UNC’s Haynes said, “We’re well prepared. We stand ready to represent the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for UNC and the thousands who didn’t votes in elections and are looking on.”