Sands on the record

Behind-the-scenes details on what led to his departure from the Cabinet of The Bahamas, the purported breach of protocol and what the Bahamian people can now expect from the country’s newest backbencher are among issues discussed by former Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, who sat with Perspective for an exclusive virtual interview just over a month after his resignation.

His revelations raise new questions on whether events surrounding the landing of an April 29 donor flight bringing COVID-19 test swabs constituted a breach of protocol, and unmasked a resignation from cabinet that was not without its share of intrigue.

Focus on the matter returned to the forefront last week during Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis’ COVID-19 press conference; the first held since Sands’ resignation, wherein Minnis chose not to provide answers to media questions on the donor flight, insisting that the issue was finished.

In our interview conducted several days prior to Minnis’ press conference, Sands was at times resolute and at other points reflective, and did not shy away from questions, including our query on the protocol followed by cabinet ministers in the event approval was sought for the entry of a flight during the ongoing state of emergency.

What was the protocol?

Sands disclosed, “There was an acknowledgment that there was delegated authority. The recognition was that there was delegated authority and if you wanted to get anything done, then you had to speak with the relevant ministers with the expectation that this was shared responsibility.”

In the case of flights such as the donor flight, that delegated authority was understood to rest with Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar, according to Sands, from whom he both sought and received approval of his request to have the COVID-19 test swabs brought in.

Perspective had sight of the communication between both ministers to this effect.

The Emergency Powers Orders in effect at the time stated that all airports, including private airports and fixed-base operators (FBOs), shall be closed to incoming international flights carrying any visitor “except with the prior written permission of the competent authority”.

Exceptions to this were provided for flights including cargo and emergency flights, which could be granted permission to land with the approval of civil aviation.

Nevertheless, Sands said there was never a statement to cabinet by the prime minister that the existing protocol of working through relevant ministers ought not be followed.

“Certainly there was never any statement [by the prime minister] to the contrary,” he noted, “and so the understanding was that if you needed a flight to land in The Bahamas then what you need to do is provide that tail number to the civil aviation authorities — typically the minister — who would then respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

“And if there was a problem, the minister would then say what the problem was, what information was needed, and you would get that information.”

Sands highlighted previous approved flights bringing COVID-19 testing supplies as well as personal protective equipment from Panama for the country’s healthcare workers, and said the existing cabinet protocol was used for a flight bringing in workers engaged by Bahamas Power and Light (BPL).

A week after Sands’ resignation, Minnis advised the nation that the BPL workers, whom he described as “three work permit holders being skilled technicians contracted to conduct specialized emergency work for utility services”, were among “six people” who were permitted to enter the country during its external border closure.

One such person was revealed days earlier to be Lyford Cay resident Elizabeth Dingman, who told Eyewitness News she received her approval from “the highest office in the land”.

Sands continued, “For instance, the issue with BPL’s [workers] that needed to come in, the minister of works would have spoken to ministers including immigration and aviation, and he would have spoken to me, and he would have informed me that he would have already spoken to those other ministers and they would have given their concurrence, and he was now seeking mine as to how they would be managed in terms of their quarantine in order to ensure that there was no public health issue.”

Minnis amended his emergency order after Sands’ resignation, announcing that responsibility for all incoming flights and the entry of passengers would be “consolidated in the Civil Aviation Authority in the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation” — an amendment that appears to mirror the protocol that was already being followed for most flights.

Since the cabinet protocol for the entry of the donor flight was not unlike what was followed for previous flights, Sands said he later assumed his purported breach must have been that he authorized the donors to self-quarantine as opposed to going to a government facility, though the government’s quarantine facility was not yet ready for occupants.

But it was the total number of passengers on board the donor flight that also sparked controversy due to the fact that Sands, during the Ministry of Health’s weekly COVID-19 press conference on April 30, advised the nation that “a couple” had been permitted to deplane, which the prime minister later announced was six passengers rather than two.

The Americans on board

As to the lead-up to the flight’s arrival, Sands maintained, “I didn’t have any idea who these people were or how many there were.

“I had no reason to know who these people were or how many there were,” he indicated, “but in the [April 30] press conference statement that I would have given, there was a statement that it was ‘a couple’.

“I didn’t know that it wasn’t a couple, I had no reason to believe that it wasn’t a couple, and seeing that it said it was a couple, that was good enough for me. I had no reason to second guess what was in my press statement.”

That press conference statement was prepared by the Office of the Prime Minister, which Sands said was the case for other statements prepared during the COVID-19 response.

Explaining further, he said, “I proofread all of my statements, but as you proofread, you will review it on the basis of information you know in your head to be true or not to be true, but if you see something that you have no reason to second-guess, it would not raise any red flags.”

Perspective had sight of communications beginning April 26 when former parliamentarian Obie Wilchcombe contacted Sands about a “donor” who could provide the country with test swabs, and ending April 29 when Sands – at D’Aguilar’s request – communicated with Immigration Director Clarence Russell on the morning of the donor flight’s scheduled arrival.

The number of passengers was not indicated in those communications.

Sands said it was only after initial questions by The Nassau Guardian regarding the flight’s arrival that he made inquiries and learned the names of the donor couple, but added that when the Guardian later suggested during the April 30 press conference that more than two passengers deplaned, he “was taken aback” and “had no way to rebut it because I did not know how many passengers were on board”.

According to Sands, his focus was to get the swabs, whose inventory was running dangerously low.

“The mission was primarily to solve a problem of inadequate capacity for testing,” he pointed out, “so you ask the question of what turned on that, and at the end of the day my focus was to allow The Bahamas to be able to continue to test for COVID.”

For his part, Sands reckoned that he could have “micromanaged” the situation to find out how many people were coming, but the occasion never arose as it “never became a part of the conversations”.

“My focus was that we are going to be able to stay in this fight,” he insisted, adding that staying in the COVID-19 fight necessitated the acquisition of test swabs which “were virtually impossible to access on the international market”.

“So, if there was a basis for leniency,” Sands resolved, “I didn’t have a problem with that, but clearly this was something that became a big, big issue and I couldn’t extricate myself from responsibility.

“I thought ultimately that this was a health-related mission, and therefore anybody else who would have performed in a statutory role, would have done so on the basis of my request, so I take responsibility for that.”

The resignation

When the prime minister declared that a breach of protocol occurred and that the health minister would make a statement on the same the following day, it was an announcement Sands says took him by surprise, since Minnis had not told him that he viewed the matter as a breach and what he determined the breach to be, nor what Sands as minister was to make a statement about.

Regarding events on the day of his May 4 resignation, Sands revealed, “A statement was prepared through the Office of the Prime Minister ostensibly, for my consideration and review.

“It was sent to me, I looked at it and while in principle the general theme was okay, there were certain specific issues that I wished to be revised. I communicated that, and I asked for an opportunity to revise the statement. I sought the advice of the attorney general, who concurred with my position.

“As I am sitting at my computer making a revision to a document that I had said to the competent authority I was not prepared to affix my signature to, it shows up on social media.”

An individual who forwarded the document to him inquiring about its authenticity, claimed to have forwarded it from the Killarney Free National Movement (FNM) WhatsApp group in which the person is a member, Sands added.

He said he then phoned Minnis to express his concern.

Notably, the circulated document included a purported statement by a “deeply apologetic” Sands stating, “I offered the prime minister my resignation from the cabinet. He graciously refused to accept it, citing that it would be a disservice to the Bahamian people during this pandemic and national health crisis.”

Sands said, “There was no effort to disassociate the document which was in circulation from the government of The Bahamas or the Office of the Prime Minister, and since it had not come from me, I thought it was important for the people to know this was not a legitimate document.”

He did so via postings to his official Facebook accounts on the afternoon of May 4, which advised that the circulated document was “not legitimate”, and that he would post his statement “shortly”.

“I then wrote my response, I submitted it to the prime minister, and then made an appointment to hand deliver it, and then posted it as promised,” Sands stated.

His social media postings set off a firestorm of speculation followed by expressions of sadness, confusion and upset from online posters who expressed hope that the prime minister would not accept Sands’ resignation.

He indicated that his decision to tender his letter of resignation with immediate effect was both a matter of principle, and a matter of his discomfort with what he was being asked to sign off on.

“Fundamentally, a document purporting to be from me that has no input from me can’t stand,” he pronounced.

“So, even if I wanted to change a comma or a period or a hyphen, I could say that I have had input into this document, but this document had no input from me at all — none.”

Continuing, he explained, “You’re talking about something which is not an insignificant event in national life, because you’re talking about the resignation of a cabinet minister, and how that is worded and how that is communicated becomes very important for posterity because a confession has implications, so you want to know exactly what it is you are confessing to.”

Sands’ subsequent resignation letter which was accepted by Minnis, cited his reason for resigning as his belief that his continued presence in the cabinet “may serve as a distraction” from the COVID-19 effort.

He referred therein to the donor flight controversy as one the prime minister “termed a breach of protocol”, and accepted responsibility for the breach, acknowledging that he acted “outside the scope” of his authority in the matter.

“I’m not a child; I am a man,” Sands added with calm resolution, “and I am certainly able to acknowledge what I am comfortable with and what I am not comfortable with, and if I say there is something that I am not comfortable with, then give me the respect to make the changes, because this is not a [statement] coming from the Office of the Prime Minister.

“That opportunity could have come in [the prime minister’s] speech made the day before. The prime minister has every right to make a statement about his view of what transpired.”

Of Minnis’ foreshadowing of a statement by him, Sands offered pointedly, “Well, if you asked me to write a statement, let me write the statement.”

Sands’ interview with the Tribune published the morning of what would become his resignation day was a clear indication of his intent, which was that he planned to continue his ministerial work “for the Bahamian people”.

But that desire was not meant to be, and we asked Sands how he came to terms with what he described as an unexpected turn of events.

“I had to go back to my roots as a surgeon,” he responded, “and that is that sometimes you can give it your very best and it doesn’t work out; the patient may do poorly or may even die.

“The only way that you are able to live with yourself, is if in a moment of quiet reflection you can look yourself in the mirror and say that you gave it your best.”

Expressing his happiness that he chose to “thoroughly invest” himself in the affairs of the Bahamian people as health minister, Sands conceded his regret that, “I wasn’t able to do more to improve healthcare for the average Bahamian; there is still a lot of work to be done.”

And that work would have been no easy feat for whomever assumed the chair, considering that longstanding and significant underfunding for the Public Hospitals Authority (PHA), particularly on the capital expenditure side, continued throughout the Minnis administration’s term.

Sands conveyed, “My foray into politics was indeed a health agenda. I wanted to make the opportunities and the quality of care that everyday Bahamians get in the public health sector better. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years and which I will continue to do.”

Notwithstanding the turn of events, it is a cabinet opportunity Sands says he is grateful to the prime minister for.

“Who knows what other opportunities I’ll have and what arenas I will get to fight,” he noted rhetorically, “but I think what I put into health and into my role as a cabinet minister, I gave the Bahamian people value for money spent and their investment in me was worthwhile.”

The leadership question

During a recent Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) press briefing, party Chairman Fred Mitchell opined that the prime minister used the pandemic as an excuse to “get rid of Duane Sands”, thereby eliminating “his rival” in the FNM.

When asked his take on this sentiment which has also been expressed by observers and pundits, Sands was unwilling to take the bait.

“I don’t have any actual knowledge of what’s going on in the mind of the prime minister,” he replied, “and people have the right to speculate, and I’m sure that political pundits will do exactly that; they will speculate and they will create mischief.”

To be sure, ambition is part and parcel of politics and in and of itself, is not a threat to progress or the democratic process.

In a frank and measured commentary on his political aspirations, PLP Deputy Leader Chester Cooper, for example, recently indicated a desire to one day serve his country as prime minister.

When asked if he also shares this ambition, Sands said, “Sure. I think any true politician sees himself or herself in roles of increasing influence and involvement, and if you don’t see yourself that way then it’s unlikely that you are going to be terribly effective in whatever role you are in.

“But [that] certainly did not stop me from playing the role of supporting cast as minister and I had no problem playing that role, supporting the prime minister, supporting the cabinet, supporting this government and I will continue to play that role albeit in a different capacity [as] I am now a backbencher.”

No longer bound

FNM backbenchers have made waves this term for their stances that have run counter to the party line — a dynamic that is commonplace in parliaments inclusive of the “mother” parliament of Britain, where backbenchers play a critical role in impacting the government’s legislative agenda.

Sands reminded that, “Collective responsibility [of cabinet] limits your ability to say certain things at certain times, and there is only one remedy for disagreement and that’s resignation, and now that situation is already there.

“So, I think Duane Sands should be a powerful voice for progress, innovation, improvement and national development, and an approach to The Bahamas that will set it in the right position to thrive.

“I think the government is owed my honesty and my continued integrity; they need to know exactly how I feel.”

Since the start of the current parliamentary session, two former FNM backbenchers have moved to the center aisle while a third remains a firebrand within the party.

Though Sands gave no indication of a desire to stoke controversy for its own sake, he assured that he is not averse to departing from the party line in Parliament — albeit respectfully — if it is for the greater good.

“I have no problem with that at all,” he affirmed. “As a matter of fact, I think that my constituents would expect it, my conscience would demand it and I think if it’s going to result in a better outcome for the people of this country, there is no other choice.

“And will there be some obligatory tension? Yes. I have tremendous affection and respect for a number of my colleagues in government and in the FNM party and that’s not going to change.

“But I think that the role that I will play ought to make us a better government, and to assure that the outcome for the Bahamian people is even better than anticipated, and there’s some things I will say when I give my budget contribution that are not consistent with the views of the executive. I’ve conceded that already.”

What lies ahead

In the aftermath of his resignation, Sands describes the support from his constituents and people throughout the country as “nothing short of unbelievable”.

Taking a more reflective tone, he paused and shared, “You know, the day before my resignation, I was adamant that I was not going to resign because I did not see a reason to. And then something happened and you ask, ‘Why did it happen that way?’

“In retrospect, it was probably what was supposed to happen.”

Sands applauded his FNM constituency association executives for “standing in the gap” during his absences due to his work as minister of health, noting that a new juggling act is in play now that he has returned to full-time medicine, meeting the high demand for cardiovascular surgery in the country.

Consistent with Article 49 of the Constitution, government successfully put forward a resolution seeking consent of Parliament to exempt Sands from vacating his seat; enabling him to resume his contractual position with PHA as a consultant surgeon.

While as health minister, Sands performed what he estimates as between 120 and 150 pro-bono surgeries for public and private patients on New Providence and Grand Bahama, which he said allowed the “massive backlog” of cases to be better managed.

Prior to his resignation, The Bahamas flattened the curve of its confirmed COVID-19 cases, a testament to his work together with that of the country’s health professionals.

As he looks to his future in public life, the Elizabeth MP maintains a sober optimism and a resolve to serve.

“I would like to believe that when my obituary or epitaph is written, that it is said that I gave it my best shot in the interest of the people I love, and that is the people of the country, the only country to whom I swear allegiance,” Sands avowed.

“As I look at the challenges facing The Bahamas in 2020 they are many, and whatever role I can play in whatever capacity the people would have me, I would play that role; as little or as large as it turns out to be.”

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