MAYOR of Portmore Leon Thomas yesterday blasted the Andrew Holness-led Administration, insisting that it should be blamed for the spike in COVID-19 cases in the country, with St Catherine shaping up to be the epicentre of the local outbreak.
The mayor’s harsh criticism of the Government comes amid a sharp increase in the number of cases stemming from a breakout at the Portmore-based Alorica call centre, where more than 50 workers have so far tested positive for the disease.
Yesterday, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton reported an additional 18 COVID-19 cases, pushing Jamaica’s confirmed cases to 143. It is believed that some of the cases are linked to contacts of Alorica workers who have tested positive.
“The prime minister is ordering an investigation at Alorica. The prime minister should be held accountable for it because from the get-go we know that we have a situation where we have over 1,000 workers or even more in some of these facilities and we are saying that they should practise social distancing. That is the first thing we should have done and we did not do it and they have the authority to do it. They are the persons who should make certain and don’t leave it up to the management at Alorica or any call centre in Jamaica,” Thomas said yesterday in an interview with the Jamaica Observer.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Tuesday indicated that the management of the call centre breached the protocol that was instituted by the Government when it allowed workers to operate under the conditions which led to the outbreak.
At that time, he announced that the police and health authorities have been instructed to launch an investigation into the circumstances under which the outbreak at the call centre occurred and to pursue charges, where appropriate.
But Thomas yesterday countered the prime minister’s decision, claiming that the Government and health officials failed to listen when he first raised concerns about the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector.
He told the Observer that his concerns were raised during a meeting with health officials last month, after learning that BPO workers at some entities were using the same station during a shift and were issued with one mask which they were reportedly told to recycle for three days. In some instances, he said, workers were not given masks.
Thomas said that he had personally observed workers not practising social distancing.
“…So we made the call at a meeting with the chief medical doctor of the parish and we further had a discussion with the minister of health on the matter. We were told, I am not certain, that a team of health workers went to the BPO centres and carried out inspections. But I was told by employees that when they arrived there what management did was to space them out. So it appears when they visited they felt satisfied.
“So I called for the minister to put a team in place to have unannounced visits because when I actually visited I saw where the workers are congregating. The space that they give them to have lunch also was not adequate and from day one when the virus was being talked about in Jamaica, we knew that when it hit Jamaica and if we have these BPO centres open, given the fact that they are running a three-shift system, we know that from one person catch it, it would spread. That is the reason we were asking the Government to put in tighter restrictions before it happened and they did not pay us any attention at all until it happens,” said Thomas.
Asked if he felt that the sector should have been ordered closed, the mayor said that operations should have been scaled down.
“What they should have done was to have proper monitoring of the BPO centres before the outbreak, but the Government did not put anything in place to protect the workers at the BPO centres. Noting at all, no consideration [was given] to it and that is the reason why [this] is happening now,” he said.
Last month, the prime minister noted that it was important to manage both the health and economic challenges facing the country carefully.
“We cannot shut down the economy; this would create another type of crisis where people cannot access the goods and services they need,” he said then.
At the same time, he said the BPO sector, which employs some 38,000 workers, is critical to keeping the economy going.
Holness said: “We’re still doing this balancing act of trying to keep the economy going and keep economic activity because we recognise that if the economy goes the very thing that you are trying to address you won’t be able to address and if you don’t address the epidemic then your economy goes. So it is a very difficult balancing situation, but I believe we are finding the right balance.”
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