–redirects power to Central Board of Health
FOR the first time ever, since the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic in Guyana, the Central Board of Health (CBH) has assumed its full responsibility of issuing and managing COVID-19 regulations, taking that power away from the Minister of Health, in keeping with the 1934 Public Health Ordinance of Guyana.
Despite being a colonial era law, the Public Health Ordinance was enacted in Guyana at a time when the country was dealing with a high number of deaths because of ‘dirt diseases’ including dengue, typhoid, and yellow fever.
With President Ali’s new COVID-19 regulations gazetted Tuesday last, there has been a major shift from the way COVID-19 emergency measures were laid out in March 2020 by former President, David Granger, in favour of a grouping of government ministers only, called the National COVID-19 Task Force. The body had also come in for criticism for being exclusive.
Since coming to office in August 2020, the Dr Irfaan Ali-led People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) government has made the COVID-19 Task Force more inclusive, even opting to include local government representatives.
The original executive order issued by former President Granger is currently the subject of a legal challenge in the High Court, which could come up early next year.
Under the new subsidiary legislation titled “Regulations No. 10/2021 The Public Health Ordinance – (COVID-19) Emergency Measures”, the preamble acknowledges that in March 2020, the arrangements for pandemic management by former President Granger were enacted because “it was not practicable to have a meeting of the Central Board of Health”.
The former A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) coalition government had initially appointed the Central Board of Health in 2015. However, after the body’s statutory limit expired in 2017, no new appointments were made.
By December 2018, the no-confidence motion had crippled the power of the Cabinet of Ministers to act, which effectively left the Central Board of Health defunct until a legitimate government was sworn in after the conclusion of the prolonged March 2020 General and Regional Elections in August 2020.
Under the 1934 Public Health Ordinance, the Central Board of Health included the Government Medical Officer of Health as the Chief Executive Officer of the Board. The body also included representatives of the legislative body, local government, and other persons to be appointed.
The significant changes in Guyana’s political system since 1934 warrants an amendment to the law, which Attorney General and Legal Affairs Minister, Anil Nandlall, SC has already signalled his intention to do so.
Dr Narine Singh, the current Chief Medical Officer, will function as the Chairman of the Central Board of Health. His signature is featured on the new gazetted regulation below President Ali’s.
Under former President Granger’s leadership, the responsibility currently held by Singh was almost mirrored in the COVID-19 Task Force and briefly handed to now Opposition Leader, Joseph Harmon, after he exited his portfolio as Director-General at the Ministry of the Presidency, now Office of the President and into the role of Chief Executive Officer of the National COVID-19 Task Force.
Much of the regulations gazetted by Health Minister Dr Frank Anthony from October 2020 to October 2021 remain the same in newly gazetted November 30, 2021, including the 12:00 hours midnight national curfew.
However, it is the Central Board of Health that must approve special concessions to persons and groups whereas that power previously sat with the Minister of Health.
Where in the past sporting events were approved by the Minister of Health, it is now the Central Board of Health which grants approval.
Likewise, where Amerindian Village Councils previously made recommendations to the Minister of Health to halt mining and forestry operations to protect their communities in public health crises, those recommendations will now go to the Central Board of Health.
Under the new regulations, however, it is both the Ministries of Health and Public works that issue guidelines for mining operations permitted under the COVID-19 Advisory and Worksite Safety Plan for the Small and Medium Scale Mining Community. The Ministry of Health operated solo under the previous regulation.
Under the section of the regulation that deals with offences, the Minister of Health has been removed and replaced with the Central Board of Health which may now issue warnings to operators not in compliance with COVID-19 emergency measures including suspension of business operations for no more than 30 days if non-compliance continues after warning.
Just last month, Prime Minister, Brigadier (Ret’d) Mark Phillips, while acting as President while President Ali was abroad, met with Georgetown Mayor, Ubraj Narine. The Department of Public Information reported an agreement that a representative of the Georgetown City Council would sit on the COVID-19 Task Force. Under the current structure mandated by the Public Health Ordinance 1934, the Georgetown mayor could sit on the Central Board of Health.
With the issuance of this new direction by President Ali, the COVID-19 Task Force and the Central Board of Health now exist with separate complementary functions. The extent of the complementarity, however, is unclear for now.