AG: Govt open to more talks on public sector vaccine policy

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday


Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi –

Legislation that would transform government agencies into quasi-safe zones is still being drafted as the Attorney General (AG) is still considering submissions from stakeholders.

Speaking to Sunday Newsday in a telephone interview, AG Faris Al-Rawi said he is open to suggestions and the Cabinet has to consider further drafts. Therefore, a date is not yet set for the legislation to go to Parliament.

Al-Rawi said the December 18 announcement by the Prime Minister that public servants had to be vaccinated by mid-January to work was a warning to the public that the step was being considered rather than a mandate.

“The fact is, it is only a law that will guide this process. This isn’t even a mandate. The Prime Minister provided the government policy and, in December, gave people the heads up or the notice that this is what was being considered. And then I engaged in the consultative process. This will not be implemented or regulated by any other method than by way of an act of Parliament that must be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“In the Prime Minister’s announcement, it was important to bear in mind you have to give people forewarning of where you stand. This was done in the context of the covid surges demonstrating a near 100 per cent bed occupancy in the high dependency and intensive care units. So it isn’t as is being portrayed.”

He said the people in TT were in a difficult situation as people were getting sick but could not be placed in hospital beds because of lack of space, people were dying, and some people held heartfelt beliefs for or against vaccination.

He stressed that the government did not want to cause people discomfort but it had to make policy decisions.

Al-Rawi repeated the call for members of the public and organisations to bring submissions as he and his team continue to draft legislation to amend the public health ordinance.

He expressed disappointment with trade unions who said they were not against vaccination but had not provided the authorities with useful information on promoting the use of vaccines and encouraging their members to get vaccinated.

On Friday, he sent a 15-page letter to the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) in response to a December 29 letter from the union, which he received on January 3. In it, he said he answered all of their questions and showed data that the country’s difficulties in treating people were mostly occurring around the unvaccinated.

“The JTUM group has not given any submissions. What they have said is, ‘Withdraw and provide medical, statistical, scientific evidence that said that the covid19 vaccine would result in no infections or transmissions,’ and I have responded to that. But we did receive a number of very useful submissions from a number of other entities.”

In the letter, he responded to the group’s question on why the recommendations by Industrial Relations Advisory Committee (IRAC) were not fully implemented, and why the committee was not recalled if there were challenges with its recommendations.

He noted that the recommendations in the paper, Covid19 Vaccination in Workplaces of TT, were made from deliberations during March–July 2021, before the third wave of the virus. Even so, the report recognised covid19 vaccines were, to date, the only available long-term option out of the pandemic.

It added, “There are sound legal arguments and growing precedent establishing that mandatory covid19 vaccination through legislation is appropriate and lawful, whether assessed from constitutional, human rights or labour law. While industrial relations law remains silent on vaccination in the workplace, employers through its workplace policies can consider mandatory vaccination at minimum for high-risk employees in the public interest, which currently, is weighing more heavily than individual interests.”

He said because of the rapid spread of the virus, it was not feasible to take the time to redo the process as time costs lives.

“That short answer is that we are now in a whole different ball game where daily deaths are not abating, the voluntary vaccination programme has not resulted in an adequate level of uptake, and the vast preponderance of persons hospitalised and dying are not fully vaccinated. It is therefore now imperative that the next logical step of mandatory vaccinations be taken.”

He also noted the cost of the pandemic to the government saying the Ministry of Health spent $822,471,134 on the covid19 response – including $666,958,137.31 for the Regional Health Authority (RHA) response, $12,687,395.37 for the RHA vaccination programme and $142,825,601.32 for vaccine procurement.

He also responded to the unions’ question of who would do the work “when the Government removes all these public sector workers” from their jobs?

He said the law would be drafted to allow workers time to get vaccinated if they wished. It will also include provisions for workers to get medical exemptions and deferrals. In addition, the government believed “good sense will prevail” and they would realise remaining unvaccinated put their lives in danger.

Al-Rawi told Sunday Newsday he met with the chief medical officer and others at the Ministry of Health on Tuesday to go through the details of the proposed legislation and discuss issues raised by stakeholders.

“I can confirm that we discussed the permutations and combinations on a number of matters. They include the vaccination regime when it is deemed to be started when it is deemed to be legitimately interrupted when it is deemed to be completed. Those will fall under what we call transitional provisions in the law.”

They also worked on the liability of the state if someone gets sick from the vaccine and how the initiative would be rolled out and other concerns.