Fri | Jul 3, 2020

Editorial | Where is the task force’s report?

Published:Friday | May 29, 2020 | 12:24 AM

PRIME MINISTER Andrew Holness has a pithy little phrase that sums up the dilemma. “… We don’t want to survive the pandemic,” he said, “and die in the recession.”

The possibility for the latter, metaphorically, is palpable. Since the advent of the novel coronavirus and the recession caused by the Government’s efforts to contain its spread, thousands of Jamaicans have lost their jobs outright, or are working part-time, including sometimes on reduced salaries.

This week, the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) confirmed that the island’s economy could decline by up to six per cent this fiscal year, which would be its deepest contraction in 35 years, after the 4.6 per cent of 1985.

Indeed, Wayne Henry, the PIOJ’s director general, reported that gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 1.2 per cent in the first quarter. In the second quarter, up to the end of June, output will slump between 12 per cent and 14 per cent, compared to the corresponding period in 2019, as the effects of the recession begin to really bite. The crisis ended 21 quarters of consecutive growth for the Jamaican economy.

That is why there is majority sentiment, we discern, for a structured effort to get the economy as close as possible back to full capacity, without setting off an accelerated community transmission of COVID-19. Yet, this newspaper is concerned at what seems to be insufficient coordination between the various players – the Government, private sector and civil society – preparing for next week’s relaxation of restrictions on free movement, and in the conduct of business.

Or, put another way, we feel neither force nor energy from the Economic Recovery Task Force that is supposed to be advising the Government and developing the protocols for this eventuality. That, we suspect, isn’t because they are doing nothing.

When Prime Minister Holness announced the 21-member task force a month ago, under the chairmanship of his finance minister, Dr Nigel Clarke, he made it clear that the Government’s intention was to get “our economy working again”. The mandate of the corporate bosses, policymakers and public intellectuals who comprise the group was to determine how this could be done safely.

“Let me state that this task force is not a talk shop,” Mr Holness said. “This is about the nuts and bolts – putting in the logistics. It is about getting to the nitty-gritty of the subject.”

The group broke itself down into eight subgroups, each, we expect, with access to public-sector bureaucrats and official data, to help inform their work. Concurrently, some sectors, at least tourism, have their own magisterially established working groups, whose efforts, this newspaper assumes, would feed into the task force’s work.

Prime Minister Holness has consistently made clear that returning to the economic normality, or as close as possible thereto, cannot be without adhering to appropriate protocols and a good dose of common sense. How this was formally articulated, he has said and implied, would be based on the task force’s work.

However, when nearly a fortnight ago the PM disclosed June 1 as the start of the return to normality, he made no mention of the recommendations that may have been made by the task force, including whether the announced date was within their optimal time frame.

NO PUBLIC UPDATES

Moreover, there has been no public updates about the work of either the full committee or its constituent parts. And only days before thousands of employees are expected to be back at their workplaces, there are no details of what, if anything, the task force has recommended for specific environments, or how enterprises might graduate their reintegration. Which is not to suggest there will be chaos, for much of this, as the PM said, will turn on common sense.

But in some sectors guidance is critical. Tourism, which requires opening the island’s borders to visitors, is one of them. Tourism interests, some of whom sit on the ministerial sector committee, have been clamouring for a date when their guests can begin to come, and the circumstances under which this can happen. They have received support from Keith Duncan, president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, who is a member of the overarching task force as well as chairman of its ‘local services’ subgroup.

If Mr Duncan has, as it appears, problems with the flow of information, what ought to be the complaints of the rest of us?