Government's management of the repatriation response to COVID-19 driven by Public Health and Science
December 29, 2020, Port of Spain: The closure of the borders on March 22, 2020 was a public health measure designed to protect the population of Trinidad and Tobago from the global pandemic of COVID-19. This measure of border closure was done to protect the population present in Trinidad and Tobago and to allow a managed repatriation of nationals back into Trinidad and Tobago. This has allowed the health care system in Trinidad and Tobago not to be overwhelmed.
From day one it was announced that applications will be considered on a case by case basis and this continues to date.
At the Ministry of National Security a system was developed that considered many factors and prioritized the granting of approvals to enter Trinidad and Tobago. This was always managed, bearing in mind the ability to safely quarantine persons who returned to the country, balanced with the capacity of the parallel health care system’s ability to manage positive cases, without collapsing.
Some of the factors that were considered in granting approvals were:-
o date of application;
o elderly and sick nationals;
o families, especially those with young children;
o persons who went for a vacation of a few weeks and got stuck outside; and
o persons with medical issues.
Later on as these categories of persons were addressed, we also added students who wanted to return home, in addition to others.
Approvals were never granted on a first come first served basis alone.
Additionally, at every stage, we maintained a discretion for emergency cases or expedited cases.
It also became apparent that there were many Trinidadians who had chosen to live abroad, who, perhaps due to changes in their circumstances, e.g. job loss or who were working away illegally, decided that they wished to come back to Trinidad and Tobago. There are many applicants who fall into this category, including those with dual citizenship who now wanted to come back to Trinidad and Tobago. It would have been unfair to prioritize this category over those who may have traveled on a short vacation before March 22 and become stuck outside when the borders were closed.
National Security has worked closely throughout with the Ministry of Health to ensure that we maximized the number of repatriations always considering the state of the parallel health care system and being mindful of not overwhelming same.
We eventually also introduced the state supervised quarantine facilities where persons could pay for quarantine thereby allowing us to increase the numbers of persons who could be repatriated in each cycle.
As at July 29 there were 5,539 applications made to enter Trinidad and Tobago. As at December 23, we had granted 9,557 exemptions to enter Trinidad and Tobago. This shows that the vast majority of people who were genuinely stuck outside as at March 22 were granted exemptions to return.
The number of persons applying to enter has continued due to a number of factors.
Every Caribbean Airlines (CAL) flight leaving over the past few months to Miami, New York, Barbados and Canada has nationals on it and many of these persons then apply to return. These people know that the borders are closed when they leave the country but still turn around and apply to return.
There are students who left in August and September to go back to schools away and then applied to come back for Christmas or due to a change in their schooling circumstances.
In October/November when most of those nationals who had been stuck outside when the borders were closed, as opposed to those who had a change in their circumstances and wished to come to Trinidad and Tobago e.g. persons who lived away and may have lost their jobs and wanted to come back to Trinidad and Tobago, were cleared, the Government announced that we would increase state supervised quarantine and facilitate some people returning for Christmas. It was very clearly stated that not everyone would be able to be accommodated. This was done over the past month and a half and hundreds of nationals returned for Christmas, but not all.
There are still nationals applying to return. Many were accustomed to going and spending months away and then returning to spend months in Trinidad and Tobago. They were not nationals who were stuck outside due to going out for a short vacation.
There is a separate category of nationals who went to Canada to work on farms. These workers fall into two categories, those who were in Canada when the borders were closed on March 22 and those who went to Canada after the borders were closed (in their hundreds). The workers who went to work in Canada after the borders were closed were warned that if the borders remained closed when they wished to return they would be subject to the Government’s existing border management policies. They signed agreements agreeing to be bound by this and also acknowledging the risk they were taking. Nevertheless, as soon as these workers finished working in Canada they demanded to return.
The Government has been working with the Government of Canada to facilitate these nationals and has been repatriating them. We are now dedicating flights and facilities for these workers to return to Trinidad and Tobago. It is to be noted that over 90 nationals have indicated that they wish to stay in Canada even though we are making arrangements for their return to Trinidad and Tobago.
Challenges to the Policies
Throughout the management of the borders, a measure designed as part of the country’s COVID-19 response, a number of persons have challenged the system in the High Court. I have been sued as the Minister of National Security on numerous occasions. To date, the courts have upheld the system and the policies of repatriation. The system is designed to be as fair as possible and there is no discrimination as we try to repatriate nationals safely.
The system does change as required. For example, we recently introduced the requirement of a negative PCR test 72 hours before arrival in Trinidad and Tobago. This allowed us to reduce the time in state quarantine or state supervised quarantine to 7 days down from 14 days allowing us to have quicker cycles of repatriation.
Additionally, the Government has made money available to various embassies and missions to assist and alleviate hardships of our nationals abroad as they await repatriation.
I will continue to do my duty without fear or favour, malice or ill will as the Minister of National Security. The Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is dynamic and driven by public health and science.
Border closure remains a pillar of the COVID-19 management at this time and has proved effective in protecting our population in Trinidad and Tobago.
Stuart R. Young, M.P.
Minister of National Security and
Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister