By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
Duane Sands does not plan to resign from Cabinet over his actions related to six permanent residents who arrived in the country last week with COVID-19 supplies and were allowed to self-isolate in their homes. “I intend to continue my work for the Bahamian people in my capacity as minister of health and I will do it to the best of my ability,” he told The Tribune yesterday.
His statement came after Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis, during a national address yesterday, confirmed that six permanent residents, not two, disembarked an aircraft last week Wednesday with test supplies.
He said the protocol for allowing Bahamians and legal residents to enter the country was breached during the episode and that Dr Sands will issue a statement on the matter today.
Former Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe connected Dr Sands to the donors who supplied 2,500 swabs that cost $11,250 and current Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar, who has responsibility for aviation, approved the arrival of the N-578GC aircraft that brought the supplies and its passengers to the country.
Dr Sands informed Mr D’Aguilar of the aircraft and the Freetown MP ensured that the Civil Aviation Authority satisfied the request to let the aircraft enter.
Mr D’Aguilar, when contacted yesterday, said civil aviation approved the flight with his support “given the dire need for swabs necessary to conduct COVID-19 testing.”
The Tribune understands that in the process of preparing for the flight’s arrival, Mr D’Aguilar told Dr Sands he needed approval from the Department of Immigration for the passengers.
Dr Sands then reached out to Immigration Director Clarence Russell, telling him the country needed the supplies badly and that the passengers will be quarantined on arrival. Captain Russell approved Dr Sands’ request.
The controversial episode is not the first time people have been allowed to disembark in the country since Dr Minnis implemented a lockdown several weeks ago, though officials have resisted telling this newspaper exactly how many have been granted entry since the lockdown began.
This newspaper understands that Mr D’Aguilar told Dr Sands officials had been insisting that people coming to the country during the lockdown provide a negative COVID-19 test to gain entry. However, Mr D’Aguilar left it to the minister of health to make the call on this matter. Ultimately, the residents were not tested until last week Thursday, a day after they arrived.
Dr Minnis said yesterday they have tested negative for COVID-19. He suggested that the COVID-19 protocol requiring that passengers obtain a negative RT-PCR COVID-19 test from an accredited lab before being allowed entry to the country was breached during the episode.
Pressed on why last week he said two passengers disembarked the flight and not six, Dr Sands said he did not familiarise himself with passenger details. He insisted he did not know the identity of the donors until some time after they had arrived.
“I did not know who the people were,” he said. “The issue of who they were and how many were on the plane, I had no idea. After the question was put to me (during the press conference), that was when I went back to the surveillance team to find out how many people were on board and who they were. When you are in the middle of doing this and that, the significance of some things do not arise. It’s after someone asks you a question that you then try to determine what the answer is. I was focused on getting supplies, not on who these people are.”
Dr Sands said the episode reflects how flights during a national crisis, be it Hurricane Dorian or COVID-19, are handled.
“You get a call, a WhatsApp message, an email, and it’s bam bam bam, no sitting down, no stopping and asking whether if I ask somebody to approve flight they will get vexed. A week before this we had a donation of 500 test kits from Cat Cay that we had to go send a plane to collect. I asked D’Aguilar to approve it and he did, the plane landed, they dropped off the stuff and they left. We had two such deliveries like that. Having had that happen at least two times from the United States previously, why would I think this was anything different? If you put the people who were on this flight in front of me, I wouldn’t know any of them.
“I am quite frankly shocked at how far to the left this conversation has gone. When you’re trying to solve problems for the public, sometimes it requires you to dig deep, to beg and we’ve done a lot of begging based on relationships that you have established over the years with individuals and institutions and universities and countries. It’s called networking. Failing that, you cannot mount a response.”
For his part, Mr Wilchcombe said he does not believe Dr Sands knew the donors before he connected them.
He said his contacts were people in the medical and science fields, which allowed them to secure the supplies.
“The minister said we are having difficulties getting the test kits and the call has been to find them, wherever you find them, fly them and get them in. I know (the donors), they said they wanted to help, they called me up and we went from there. I passed it on to the government,” he said.
“Are we testing our people efficiently? No, we are not. I think we’ll be able to have a clear and definite picture as to where we are once we test more people because we could have low numbers that could mean you simply weren’t testing enough. The donations will help with this.”