This week, Weekly speaks to Tim Taylor, chairman of Scott & Co Ltd, for his views on the new Covid and Quarantine Acts from a private sector perspective. He gives his opinion on the impact of the Acts on personal freedom and for the business community and comments on the blacklisting of Mauritius by the European Union and the opening up of the country and its borders.
The Covid and Quarantine bills are now Acts of Law. They contain 56 laws, many of which are being contested by unions, the opposition, and large chunks of civil society. What is your reaction to these acts?
Yes, the Covid-19 and Quarantine Acts are now Acts of Law as they were voted by parliament on Friday 15 May and the president gave his ascent the next day. Clearly, a great number of measures included in the Covid-19 Act were necessary to address the issues that have arisen from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I think that it was a great shame that there was such limited consultation with the stakeholders during the preparation of the bills and then such a limited time for parliament to discuss and perhaps bring amendments to the more controversial clauses in the bills.
Which clauses do you see as controversial?
For me, the most controversial clauses are the ones that severely limit our personal freedom and the extra powers that have been given to the police. The Quarantine Act also enormously extends their powers. During a quarantine period, any police officer can arrest, without a warrant, any individual in breach of the Act or in breach of regulations made under the Act. Currently, this would include leaving your house without a Work Access Permit on a day which is not your allocated shopping day. A police officer can also enter your premises without a warrant if he considers you to be in breach of the Act. To my mind, these powers are far too broad and should have been limited, for instance in Clause 11 of the Act if (b) was removed, then the police would only have these extra powers when rendering assistance to a Quarantine Officer.
Aren't you worried about the powers given to the Quarantine Officer himself? After all, he will be nominated by the prime minister in the same tradition we know...
No, not really. The Quarantine Officer is most likely going to be a doctor and there is no reason to believe that they won't do their job conscientiously and to the best of their ability.
What about the powers given to the prime minister?
The Quarantine Act allows the prime minister to declare a quarantine period for as long as he sees fit. Furthermore, during a quarantine period, the Act, among other things, gives him the power to confine anyone and everyone to his place of residence and for as long as he sees fit. If we look at the present case of Covid-19, this will probably remain a threat in parts of the world for at least the next two years and the Act enables the prime minister to confine us for this time period! The problem is that the Act gives no oversight to parliament on these powers given to the prime minister. This is unfortunate to say the least. Also, the penalties for being found in breach of both the Quarantine Act and Covid-19 Act are totally out of proportion to the offences committed. In the Quarantine Act, on conviction, a person can be fined up to Rs500,000 and put in prison for five years. In the Covid-19 Act, the fines go up to Rs200,000 and the prison sentence up to two years!
These are serious threats to the people but not to the business community. In fact, there are some measures which might seem beneficial for the business community such as the possibility to sack people with little compensation. Are they?
Yes, there are clauses in the Covid-19 Act which will be beneficial for the business community and, I think, for Mauritius in general. The Act will make it possible to secure funds to support private sector entities, especially the hotel companies. However, it should not be forgotten that these companies have many thousands of employees and bring in a large amount of foreign currency and it would be to the advantage of no one if these were allowed to fail. The Wage Support Scheme is also a very positive measure, as government, during the confinement, have been refunding companies part of their salary costs, on condition that they do not make any of their employees redundant.
What about the new laws about firing employees?
There are clauses that will make it easier for companies to reduce the number of its employees. However, it should not be forgotten that the Workers' Rights Act passed in October of last year was all in favour of the employees and the trade unions. Frankly, the passing of the Workers' Rights Act has virtually guaranteed that there will be no new factories established in Mauritius in the manufacturing sector. The clauses in the Covid-19 Act go some way in redressing the balance. Employees still have plenty of protection, as companies using the various government support schemes will have no right to make employees redundant. Also, a company will still have to present its case to the Redundancy Board before laying off any employees. Furthermore, Mauritius businesses do not have a hire and fire culture. Making people redundant is always the solution of last resort.
Isn't that 'culture' due to the laws which have now been repealed?
I don't believe so. I have been working in Mauritius for 47 years now, and throughout my career in the various companies in which I have worked, we have always been very reluctant to make good employees redundant, always looking first as to whether they can be redeployed in another role. As employers, we are well aware that there are no unemployment benefits in Mauritius and that a person's job is vital for his/her family's well-being.
The decision of the lockdown was hailed as a great measure that has saved lives. Would you agree with the price paid for it?
I believe the lockdown announced on 20 March and reinforced on 25 March was a brave political decision and certainly saved lives. The cost is the negative effect that it has had on the economy but, in the circumstances, I think there was no other choice.
"There is now no Covid-19 in Mauritius, therefore all shops and malls should be opened, people should be allowed to circulate freely, and the system of Work Access Permits should be abolished. Perhaps social distancing should be maintained, but with no Covid 19 (except the quarantine cases) in Mauritius, this is hardly necessary."
Is there a choice now?
We are now basically in the eye of the cyclone. In the first half, the issue was how to maintain the health of the nation, being battered by the winds of Covid-19. In the second half of the storm, which we are entering now, the challenge will be how to resist and overcome the economic winds, which are going to be much stronger and more devastating than the health winds of the first half. The whole economy of Mauritius is in grave danger. Last Friday, the Bank of Mauritius (BoM) announced that it was taking action on two fronts. It is setting up the Mauritian Investment Corporation (MIC) to help economic operators. As I understand it, they will be providing loans to companies at low rates of interest and with long repayment periods. I consider this a very positive move as many of Mauritius' companies will need financial support over and above that which the banks can offer. The BoM also announced that they were making a one-off contribution of Rs60 billion to government to help stabilise the economy. I, also find this measure, to be positive. However, it is essential that the funds distributed by these two measures are properly utilised. The communiqué of the BoM states that the MIC would operate within the confines of a strict governance structure. It is important that this governance structure is credible. Apart from representation of the BoM on its board, it needs to have properly independent persons as members. These persons should in no way be, or be seen to be, subservient to the BoM or the government.
Going by the nominations so far at the heads of crucial institutions, how confident do you feel that there will be independent and - more importantly - competent people handling these huge amounts of money?
There is a reservoir of independent, honest and competent persons in Mauritius. Let's hope that government will make use of their talents and, if we are to get through this crisis with minimum damage to our economy and our society as a whole, it is essential that we all work together. By all, I mean government, the private sector and civil society, including trade unions... - a big task I am afraid to say. Government need to look beyond family, friends and political agents and use the talents of other Mauritians, most of whom stand ready to work for the good of their country.
All this sounds nice and politically correct but we have seen how the SPVs have been run so far and this is going to be another special purpose vehicle (SPV) with massive funds. Does the fact that it will escape the scrutiny of parliament and even the director of the audit not worry you at all?
Frankly no. As we have seen in the past, the scrutiny of parliament and even that of the director of audit does not necessarily lead to happy outcomes. If we want these funds to be properly used, this can be achieved by putting the right people as directors of the SPV.
If we look at the state of the economy today, which sectors have been hit most and which would need more help from the government?
The economy was shut down, except for the food and pharmaceuticals for two months. Therefore, all sectors have been hit hard. This is because companies have been earning virtually no revenues, but still bearing all their costs, albeit with help from government for the wages. The self-employed suffered greatly as well during this time. This is why it is essential to get the internal economy back on its feet as quickly as possible.
"The penalties for being found in breach of both the Quarantine Act and Covid-19 Act are totally out of proportion to the offences committed. In the Quarantine Act, on conviction, a person can be fined up to Rs500,000 and put in prison for five years."
Clearly some sectors are in more immediate danger than others, aren't they?
It would seem today that it is the tourist industry that is facing the gravest danger. Tens of thousands of livelihoods are at risk. It is essential that the government and the private sector work together to overcome the immediate problems, basically the problem of liquidity. But as importantly, in the medium term, tourists must be attracted back to Mauritius. Mauritius will surely be marketed as a Covid-free destination (a great selling point, I believe). Logistics, particularly flights, must be put in place to allow this to happen and protocols need to be established to protect the health of our visitors and the local population, especially the people working in the hotels. The slow or non-recovery of the tourist industry would have a major negative impact on many other sectors. There would be less spending power, with hotel employees laid off and all the ancillary activities connected to the tourist industry, taxis, commercial pleasure craft etc, receiving less revenue. There would also be a significant drop in foreign exchange earnings, essential to finance our imports.
What about the financial sector, particularly after the backlisting of Mauritius?
The decision of the European Union to put Mauritius on their blacklist is extremely serious. If Mauritius does not take rapid and radical action to overhaul its regulatory structure and fully apply the anti-money laundering laws that are on the statutes, most of the quality business which is currently being treated in our financial centre will leave. The result of this will be thousands of people unemployed and a severe loss of foreign exchange. It is also important that the government get the population on their side. While the population have appreciated the efforts of the prime minister and the government to rid Mauritius of Covid-19, they now feel aggressed with the continual extensions of the lockdown.
I can't speak for the population of Mauritius and their appreciation or lack thereof of "the efforts of the prime minister and the government to rid Mauritius of Covid-19" and you are free to express your opinion. Where do we go from here?
Mauritius has been in lockdown since 21 March. People have only been allowed to go out for work and twice a week for shopping. They have not been allowed to do any exercise outside their homes and children have not been allowed to leave their homes for any reason since this date. We are the only country in the world to have such a draconian lockdown. Furthermore, as stated above, the Covid-19 and Quarantine Acts impose totally unreasonable penalties for breach of these laws. Government need to show compassion. There is now no Covid-19 in Mauritius, therefore all shops and malls should be opened, people should be allowed to circulate freely, and the system of Work Access Permits should be abolished. Perhaps social distancing should be maintained, but with no Covid 19 (except the quarantine cases) in Mauritius, this is hardly necessary. Government should also bring the Covid-19 and Quarantine Acts back to parliament, with amendments to put some limits to the power of the Executive and also reduce the penalties. Also, schools need to reopen as quickly as possible. I fail to see the logic of keeping them closed for another two months, with the absence of Covid-19 in the country.
Are you also suggesting opening our borders?
Yes! The real challenge is now. It is essential that we open up to the outside world as quickly as possible. While there are some actions that we can take to make us more self-sufficient, such as growing more food and encouraging local manufacturing in certain sectors, it is a dangerous illusion to imagine that these actions can in any way replace the jobs that would be lost and the reduction in foreign exchange that would be suffered, if we don't get the tourist industry and the financial sector up and running in the near future.
What about the risks of bringing back the virus to our shores?
The opening up will not be risk free. Once the frontiers are open, there will be no certainty that Covid-19 does not come back to Mauritius, viz. the two new cases last Sunday. However, if in the first instance, quarantine of incoming passengers is maintained, the virus will not re-enter into the population as a whole.
How can you put tourists in quarantine?
It will not be possible to put tourists in quarantine. However, only allowing tourists to fly if they have tested negative and carrying out further tests while they are here (probably at their hotels) coupled with the testing of front liners (hotel staff, taxi drivers etc.) will greatly reduce the risk of reintroducing the virus into the population. It is also extremely important that an effective track and trace system is up and running before we welcome tourists back to our shores. It should be remembered that there are very few risk-free activities in life. While some risks can be reduced by mitigation, that is not the case with all of them and some need to be taken.
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