Prime Min­is­ter Dr Kei­th Row­ley and Na­tion­al Se­cu­ri­ty Min­is­ter Stu­art Young are de­fend­ing the fair­ness of this coun­try’s COVID-19 ex­emp­tion pol­i­cy in the face of sting­ing crit­i­cism that their chil­dren were al­lowed to jump the ex­emp­tion queue. How­ev­er, Row­ley is al­so in­di­cat­ing that the Gov­ern­ment plans to re­vis­it and make changes to the pol­i­cy.

Their de­fence comes af­ter Guardian Me­dia re­vealed yes­ter­day that the 21-year-old son of At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Faris Al-Rawi was grant­ed an ex­emp­tion and en­tered T&T on No­vem­ber 13, af­ter spend­ing two months abroad.

Row­ley’s daugh­ter Dr Sonel Row­ley-Stew­art was al­so grant­ed an ex­emp­tion and is cur­rent­ly home for the Christ­mas pe­ri­od. She ap­plied for her ex­emp­tion on No­vem­ber 4, three days be­fore pol­i­cy changes were an­nounced and was grant­ed an ex­emp­tion to re­turn from New York on De­cem­ber 16.

In a text ex­change with Guardian Me­dia yes­ter­day, Prime Min­is­ter Row­ley said more changes to the pol­i­cy were com­ing in the new year and not every­one would be hap­py.

“As we make re­vi­sions in the new year, that is no guar­an­tee that the grum­bling will be elim­i­nat­ed be­cause these re­stric­tions by their very na­ture will ad­verse­ly af­fect some peo­ple more than oth­ers,” Row­ley said.

Row­ley said there will al­ways be crit­i­cism of him­self and his Gov­ern­ment but that would not change the facts.

“Pick­ing on my fam­i­ly or the min­is­ter does not change the facts that once the bor­der is closed and we are man­ag­ing the in­flow, there will be enough sto­ries and grum­bling and lies to fill the many voids,” he said.

“We just keep on do­ing the best as we pro­tect the na­tion­al pop­u­la­tion in a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion.”

Row­ley said de­spite all the work be­ing done to bring na­tion­als back home, there will al­ways be “grum­bling.”

“I did say a few weeks ago that the bor­ders and the schools are our biggest man­aged chal­lenges. That re­mains so,” he said.

Young took a sim­i­lar stance but not­ed the cur­rent sys­tem was nev­er “first come, first served.” He al­so de­nied sug­ges­tions that rel­a­tives of Gov­ern­ment Min­is­ters were al­lowed to jump the line.

Not­ing that by Ju­ly 29 there were 5,539 ap­pli­ca­tions made to en­ter T&T, Young said, “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.”

Young said from day one it was an­nounced that ap­pli­ca­tions would 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 pri­ori­tised 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,” he said.

He de­tailed those fac­tors:

• date of ap­pli­ca­tion

• el­der­ly and sick na­tion­als

• fam­i­lies, es­pe­cial­ly those with young chil­dren

• per­sons who went for a va­ca­tion of a few weeks and got stuck out­side; and

• per­sons with med­ical is­sues.

Young said the Gov­ern­ment lat­er added stu­dents who want­ed to re­turn home.

“Ap­provals were nev­er grant­ed on a first come first serve ba­sis alone. Ad­di­tion­al­ly, at every stage, we main­tained a dis­cre­tion for emer­gency cas­es or ex­pe­dit­ed cas­es,” Young said.

He said every Caribbean Air­lines flight leav­ing over the past few months to Mi­a­mi, New York, Bar­ba­dos and Cana­da had na­tion­als on them and many of these per­sons then ap­plied to re­turn to T&T.

“These peo­ple know that the bor­ders are closed when they leave the coun­try but still turn around and ap­ply to re­turn,” he said.

He said 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.”

He said in and around Oc­to­ber/No­vem­ber, most of the na­tion­als who were stuck out­side when the bor­ders closed and per­sons who lived abroad, had lost their jobs and want­ed to come back to T&T were cleared.

“The Gov­ern­ment an­nounced 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,” he said.

“There are still na­tion­als ap­ply­ing to re­turn. Many were ac­cus­tomed to go­ing and spend­ing months away and then re­turn­ing to spend months in Trinidad. They were not na­tion­als who were stuck out­side due to go­ing out for a short va­ca­tion.”

Re­gard­ing the farm­work­ers in Cana­da, Young said they fall in­to two sep­a­rate cat­e­gories. There are 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,” he said.

He said the Gov­ern­ment has been li­ais­ing and work­ing with the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment to fa­cil­i­tate the na­tion­als and have be­gun 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,” he said.

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