While the EC$2.1 million lockdown support package, announced on Tuesday by Premier Joseph Farrell, was a good start, Members of the Opposition believe even more can be done to bring relief to residents of Montserrat, sooner rather than later.
Both Opposition Leader Paul Lewis and Opposition member and former premier Donaldson Romeo released statements on Wednesday about the new support package and why it is inadequate for providing the assistance that business owners and the unemployed need.
The package includes unemployment benefits of EC$900 for one month, a one-time EC$150 child support benefit for all children on Montserrat under 18, cash grants for small businesses for one month of basic bills, and payment of the fuel surcharge on electricity bills for all residential properties and water consumption charges for one month.
Opposition Leader Paul Lewis said he is happy that the government announced the financial assistance package, but more was needed as the “hardship for the residents and the business community … did not begin with this second national lockdown. This COVID-19 pandemic and its effects have rattled our lovely island for the better part of a year.”
Lewis said it was heartbreaking to hear Premier Farrell indicate that he had only given instruction to his Financial Secretary at the start of the second lockdown to search the recurrent budget for money which could be allocated to assist the public. This he said shows that “the response given was not based on a realistic or proper assessment of the needs of the people, and our struggling economy here on Montserrat.”
On Tuesday, Premier Farrell said during his announcement of the support scheme that to date, they had no commitment from the United Kingdom for financial support for the public.
Lewis believes that this is because the Government of Montserrat has not been presenting a realistic picture of the hardship being faced on the ground to FCDO. “This is necessary so that a compelling case can be made to get the full share of funding required to truly ease the pain and suffering that people are feeling, beyond a single month of support.” He added that he believe the UK is delaying additional support “because of poor judgement and a misrepresentation of our true state of affairs from this government.”
Former premier and member of the Opposition Donaldson Romeo said, what is needed now are “shovel-ready projects” that can put people to work immediately. He called for Premier Farrell to fast track the port development and the national hospital projects, which are already in the works. “People prefer to work than receive handouts,” he declared. A maintenance programme for government facilities, along with upgrading of public roads, were two other ways that residents could receive a salary in the short to long term.
The Leader of the Opposition said in a written statement that the government has yet to use their allocated EDF11 COVID Support funds of 900,000 Euros, which is equivalent to roughly EC$2.9 million. Lewis urged the premier to access the EDF11 funds as well as consider an 80% salary support scheme to replace the current one-off payment of $900 for unemployed workers.
“Private sector business owners have expressed concern over excluding legitimate business expenses such as loans and mortgages from the business support assistance scheme,” Lewis stated. He called for these to be included in the current offer from government.
“During his press conference yesterday, the premier admitted that COVID would be around for a while. Thus, the mainstay of our economy, which is tourism, would be closed off for the foreseeable future. If he actually believes as he stated, then what support would his administration be providing for businesses and residents who earn their living from this sector and its spinoffs, who would be without employment for quite a while. This concern is shared by workers of other sectors similarly affected. A salary support measure would have been better suited for this situation.”
“I am calling on the government to do the right thing and recognise that this one-off package of assistance, whilst welcomed, will not be enough. I equally call on the UK government to provide the additional funding to make adequate assistance to the people and businesses possible, to alleviate the ongoing stresses that residents and businesses here on island are undergoing,” stated Lewis.