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Govt looking at alternative legal measures to fight COVID-19

Six months after the Minnis administration declared a state of emergency in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Attorney General Carl Bethel said the government is looking at alternative measures that would be just as effective in battling the virus.

“Nobody likes living under a state of emergency,” Bethel said in the Senate yesterday.

“And I assure the Bahamian people that we are looking at alternative legal frameworks, but the suggestion made opposite in that other place that we could use existing law is simply unachievable.”

He added, “It was the competent authority that instructed my office, me, to commence that process. And we’ve commenced it over the last several weeks.

“There is a draft that we are working on.

“I am fortified in this endeavor to create a legal framework that will arm this government and future governments with powers under the rule of the constitution to effectively address future viral or pandemic emergencies. At the time when this thing exploded onto this world stage and exploded in The Bahamas, there was no other effective way to do so than to utilize the state of emergency.”

Bethel said, however, that the amendment of the Health Services Act would not be the best way to go about providing the necessary legislative framework.

“To amend it would be tantamount to rewriting the entire law,” he said.

“So, we are looking closely at other alternative measures that will fit within the ambit of our constitutional arrangements other than a national emergency.”

However, Bethel was critical of MPs who opposed the resolution to extend the state of emergency on Wednesday. Former Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands was among those who did not support the resolution.

“To oppose the ability of a government to humanely and effectively address this pathogen, is really, I think, unfortunate,” he said.

“It does not reflect well. And I am shocked at some of the others who joined in either voting against the resolution or abstaining,” he said.

Bethel’s comments came as senators debated and later passed a resolution to extend the state of emergency to the end of October.

Governor General C. A. Smith declared a state of emergency on March 18, three days after The Bahamas confirmed its first COVID-19 case.

A “procedural oversight” in the Office of the Attorney General led to the inadvertent expiration of the first state of emergency on June 29, leading to the governor general’s declaration of a new state of emergency on the same day.

Had that error not occurred, the six-month period permitted by the constitution for a state of emergency would have expired this month.

While the government has said the June emergency proclamation provides for a fresh six months, some legal observers have argued that the constitution does not envision a second proclamation — and by extension a new six-month period — for the same emergency.

Over the course of the last six months, there have been numerous lockdowns, curfews and other restrictive measures to fight COVID-19 in The Bahamas.

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Rachel Knowles

Rachel joined The Nassau Guardian in January 2019. Rachel covers national issues. Education: University of Virginia in Charlottesville, BA in Foreign Affairs and Spanish

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