SICCI: Ensuring that Govt is aware of hardships businesses face

Thursday 2 April, Honiara – In addition to the serious implications for people’s health and the healthcare services, Coronavirus (COVID-19) is having a significant impact on businesses and the economy.

As the peak body representing the private sector in the country, the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) is focusing on business experiences in these challenging times in ensuring Government and its relevant agencies are aware and taking note of the hardships businesses are currently going through.

A business delegation led by SICCI Chief Executive Officer, Ms Atenasi Ata held a third consecutive meeting in as many weeks with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the COVID-19 Oversight Committee on Tuesday 31 March.

In terms of support measures for businesses, the meeting was told that Government’s immediate priority is preparation and response stages once and if the country records its first confirmed case. 

The Ministry of Finance and Treasury and the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Labour and Immigration are still developing the business support package. A Recovery Phase Taskforce will consult with businesses to understand their needs as large-sized operations and as small-sized ones looking at what is required immediately, and for the medium term.

CEO Ms Ata said SICCI will be conducting a survey within its membership which will enable the Chamber to capture valuable information from member businesses to input into the consultation process.

It was also noted from the meeting that for now businesses are encouraged to continue trading, however to be mindful of the need for plans as a lockdown will be enforced once the country records its first confirmed case, and that this can happen at any time.

On immigration and permit services, MCILI Permanent Secretary updated the meeting that there are businesses with workers on permits that are possibly coming up for renewal and extension. The understanding is that work permits will be extended. 

“The Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Labour and Immigration is working out its Standard Operating Procedures to activate this commitment and businesses are encouraged to keep checking with the Immigration Department and to get in touch with SICCI if they are having difficulty getting answers on queries related to worker permits.” 

Ms Ata also highlighted that during the Labour Advisory Board (LAB) meeting on 26 March, the Commissioner of Lands noted that they have been receiving queries from businesses on what to do with workers. 

“The general advice is that workers and employers agree on what works for them. There is agreement that the types of leave that can be accessed should start with annual leave, and then any other leave accumulated and as stated in contracts.”

Businesses are also informed that Government has implemented a public-service wide scale down which means that non-essential workers as distinct from essential workers defined in the Essential Services Act are immediately on one month leave from work. The exceptions are for Permanent Secretaries, Under Secretaries, Directors, through to Human Resource Managers, and the Ministry of Finance and Treasury.

On Friday 27 March, Prime Minister Hon Manasseh Sogavare introduced for the country, the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Regulations 2020.

CEO Ata noted that the regulations are a necessary legal instrument that will now be followed by various orders defining conditions and restrictions that will impact on movement of people and goods, and accessibility of public spaces. 

“We understand that there is a planned simulated lock-down for Honiara likely in the coming week as well as introduction of curfew restricting movement between hours of 6:00pm and 6:00am however the dates are still to be confirmed.”

The SICCI CEO reiterated that, when a first COVID-19 case is confirmed, a lock-down will be enforced.

“We understand that a notice-period would be given before the lockdown and also that the lockdown will last as long as necessary for Health workers to do contact-tracing and isolation with estimates of 7 days to 14days.” 

“Acknowledging that residents will need access to replenishments for food, for medicine and other supplies, and also for money, we have told businesses who are prepared to mobilise extra resources and precautionary measures that SICCI is ready to relay their submissions for exemptions to operate in a lock-down situation,” Ms Ata said.

She said residents will be less likely to go into panic buying mode when they are assured that access to food, to pharmacies, to clinics, will remain.

“Unnecessary and unhelpful fear and anxiety will also be minimized when people are assured that when the infrastructure behind mobile banking, cash power and cash water  and Top-up, fail due to some technical issues, our ATMs will still be serviced, that they can still access selling points for these basic utilities.”

“We know that this access might be at reduced operating hours depending on the lock-down conditions, but the perception of availability is a very powerful one that has played out in other countries with panic-buying of basics like toilet paper, cleaning products, rice, canned food. Therefore, we appreciate the understanding the Oversight Committee also shares in this regard,” Ms Ata said.

Member businesses are advised that for Honiara township, the St Johns Ambulance Service is the only authorised provider to transport suspected COVID-19 cases. Businesses and the general public can contact 25256 or 115 if they see that a co-worker, family member is showing symptoms of COVID-19 associated with recent overseas travel or contact with someone who has recently returned from affected countries. 

A health surveillance team will make an initial assessment and if the person needs a detailed test, the ambulance can transport them to where detailed tests will be conducted. 

“The final point to make here is that preparatory efforts we are making now is a luxury only Solomon Islands and a small handful of countries still have.

“Once we enter into a response phase, we need to understand that lock-downs might become a norm as containment takes precedence each time a new case is registered. This is not a cause for alarm, but a call for collaboration and a willingness to learn from mistakes as we as a country have to become resilient to the impacts of COVID-19.

“I’d like to assure members, the wider business community, and our people, that we are all in this together, and I trust that during these challenging times we continue to support each other of course hoping for the best, but at the same time planning for the worst,” SICCI CEO, Ms Ata, said.