It is a matter of survival in every sense of the word.
This was the message from Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, as he responded yesterday to the debate surrounding the authority of police to enforce Covid-19 regulations at private residences.
He again asked that the population obey the latest Covid-19 public health regulations.
In a statement yesterday, Rowley said the courts will ultimately decide.
His comments followed a war of words between the Law Association and Police Commissioner Gary Griffith over the issue, with the Law Association adamant that no regulations can be made to regulate conduct on private property.
Rowley said on Thursday that police can intervene in situations where activities at private residences can be detrimental to the public interest.
The Law Association argued that this would amount to an abuse of power and a breach of constitutional rights, while Griffith insisted that police can enter private properties if people are flouting Covid-19 regulations.
But Griffith slammed the Association, saying police had no interest in regulating family and small gatherings or barging into private homes without good reason, but were authorised to regulate mass gatherings, inclusive of payment, that effectively transformed private residences into public spaces.
He said the Association’s comments were irresponsible.
In his statement yesterday, Rowley said he has taken note of the discourse and criticisms which have been of little use in the fight against Covid-19.
“As Prime Minister, I respect and support the Constitution, the rule of law and due process, and I am insistent that law enforcement must act within the confines of the law,” he said.
“I am also duty-bound to point out that the laws of our country, including the Public Health Ordinance, the Public Health Regulations, the Police Service Act and other laws can, in certain specific circumstances, cover the enforcement and management of laws in private premises via public health officers with or without aid of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service.”
Rowley pointed to Section 133 of the Public Health Ordinance, which states:
“For the purposes of this Part of this Ordinance, any person authorised to act under the provisions hereof or of any regulations made in pursuance of any authority contained in this Part of this Ordinance may at any time, with or without assistance:
(a) enter on lands and buildings and inspect and examine the same and all things thereon or therein;
(b) do on any land or in any building any sanitary or other work authorised or directed;
(c) generally do, with respect to persons, places, land, building, animals, or things, whatever is necessary or expedient in order to carry out the foregoing provisions of this Part of this Ordinance, or any direction or requirement given or arising thereunder.”
Over the past few months, police have had to intervene to bring an end to so-called zesser parties being held at private residences, in contravention of the regulations limiting gatherings.
Griffith said previously that such events can be deemed to be public events if guests are paying a cover charge for entry, even if it takes place at a private residence.
Yesterday Rowley said it is well known that activities on private properties are abundant and of concern.
He said he respected the views of stakeholder bodies, but encourage them to support the general call for compliance “and to resist from taking a general and correct statement about the law out of context”.
“Ultimately our courts will function as the arbiters of any law and its enforcement,” he said.
“For my part I encourage that the letter of the law be applied and upheld within the spirit of the law. Let us all see the forest and not just the single tree.”
Rowley noted that other jurisdictions have implemented states of emergency where constitutional rights are suspended and go as far as limiting the number of people permitted in private settings as well as the nature and type of activities permitted on private properties.
“Trinidad and Tobago has obviously not done the same, but has instead successfully utilised other measures to manage the pandemic which have thus far resulted in a hard-fought balance between saving lives and livelihoods,” the Prime Minister said.
He added that these are exceptional times, and he called on the public to shoulder the burden of the temporary restrictions and measures.
“For those of us who are directly affected, words are of little comfort and this is why the Government has expended billions in financial support which it cannot sustain indefinitely,” he stressed. “We are striving to save lives until the relief of vaccines can give us herd immunity.”
Rowley said the Government has engaged every manufacturer and supplier of vaccines and has pending orders submitted across multiple sources.
He said T&T is in the same position as other Caricom nations which are also fighting for equality in the vaccine distribution process.
However, he said the situation is only temporary, as the pandemic will eventually end and the restrictions and hardships will fade away.
“I am deeply conscious of the need for survival in every sense of the word,” he stated. “As Prime Minister, I must take the advice of our medical experts and balance all interests. I must ensure that death sentences are not read to thousands by a failure to act and take hard and sometimes unpleasant decisions.”
Rowley once again urged the public to limit their movement as much as possible and behave responsibly in both public and private settings.
He urged citizens to cook at home while restaurants and other businesses are temporarily closed.