The UK “Yes Minister” television series should be standard viewing for any politician as it is an abject lesson in not taking oneself too seriously. It lampoons ministers and public servants alike in dealing with complicated policy issues. In Season 2 Episode 7, permanent secretary Humphrey Appleby explains the five standard excuses that could be deployed to respond to difficult and probing questions from parliamentarians and public alike. The excuse need not be true to be usable.
The number of nationals stranded abroad because of COVID-19 is a thorny matter. T&T is not alone in this. The sole authority for approvals to allow nationals to return home resides with the National Security Minister. Minister Young initially said he could not divulge the criteria for approval since people might argue that they qualify under one or another criterion. The criteria were eventually disclosed pursuant to a Freedom of Information request.
However, the provisions were so vacuous as to amount to no criteria. Humphrey’s first excuse applied in this instance ie “that there is a perfectly satisfactory explanation for everything, but security forbids its disclosure.” (Delcy Rodriguez’s visit?) Now that the election is over, Dr Rowley has said the administration must address the repatriation of stranded nationals. How is this to be arranged? In what time frame? What are the priorities?
The second excuse is that because of budget cuts, staff and supervisory resources are stretched to their limit. No doubt this excuse can be used to explain why those Vat refunds have not been received by many businesses, or why many of those applying for the COVID-19 related grants, (food, salary, rent, gas etc) have not received them. The excuse used to date is that many applications were fraudulent, and this delayed the process. A single parent turned away noted that staff were not even prepared to give her an application form, far less process one.
Citizens are often exasperated at the snail pace of government bureaucracy especially in dealing with urgent matters. Speaking to a sister of one of the early COVID-19 deaths last weekend she was understandably upset that no one answered any of the COVID-19 telephone “help” lines when the family was frantically looking for assistance. Whilst we are regaled with options, the reality is the State machinery often fails in dealing with simple basics, the chain and its weakest leak.
The foregoing are two practical instances of what is meant by “the ease of doing business.” Making processes easier and more readily accessible is not only about facilitating the business sector. Perhaps these failures are explained by Humphrey’s third excuse; “It was an unfortunate lapse by an individual which has now been dealt with under internal disciplinary procedures.” (Darryl Smith? T&T’s vote on Dominica’s waiver at the OAS?)
Dr Bratt, Debbie Jacob and Ryan Hadeed all touched the double standards and mixed messages in government’s approach to COVID-19. Debbie Jacob in her article (Newsday August 31) reported that reporters repeatedly asked whether the Government saw any increase in COVID-19 cases related to political meetings. “In the media conferences that I saw, the Government conveniently sidestepped the issue by saying none of the people who tested positive admitted to being at a political meeting. The problem is we saw those political gatherings on social media, and we know that the Government did not enforce its own rules.”
From the best in class to also ran in one dangerous leap. Avoidance and denial are good political techniques exemplifying Humphrey’s fourth excuse. “It occurred before certain important facts were known and couldn’t happen again.”
The move away from state sanctioned quarantine centres to self-quarantining at home brings us to Humphrey’s fifth excuse. “It was a worthwhile experiment, now abandoned, but not before it had provided much valuable data and considerable employment.”
The 2021 Budget Speech will provide the opportunity to put T&T’s economic situation under the spotlight and to identify and deploy measures to address same. Whilst the speech will address the country’s fiscal position, it is even more important to outline the action plan to achieve a turnaround. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 will be used as the excuse for the economy’s current weakness when more direct action in 2015 would have put us in a better position.