This announcement is to review our COVID response and make some important changes to our strategy. But before we get into those details, we want to speak briefly on the serious flooding brought by heavy rains in the West.
A total of five schools have opened as evacuation centres; three schools in Ba, one in Lautoka, and one in Nadi. Heavy rain is expected to continue till mid-week and flash and riverine flooding will be an issue in the coming days for the Western Division and some places in Vanua Levu.
This, unfortunately, has had some unexpected implications for the primary school students in the West who we know have been looking forward to returning to their classrooms and seeing their friends and teachers.
Due to the flooding, all primary and secondary schools in the West will be closed for the next week. We know that’s disappointing news for students who have all been preparing for their return to the classroom, but the weather has taken a very poor turn and it’s safest we wait another week until the rains clear up.
The Central, Eastern, and Northern divisions are not impacted by this decision which means that all schools in these divisions will be open as scheduled and will be welcoming back teachers and students. But, if the rains do pick-up in any of these areas, we’ll have no choice but to close the schools.
And, in the interest of fairness, we are pausing Year 13 exams and deferring the remaining exams until next week nationwide. Year 12 exams all over Fiji are deferred to next week as well.
Now, let’s review where we stand on our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the day the pandemic arrived in Fiji, we have lived under some form of COVID-19 restrictions. Think back to that day –– 19 March 2020 –– and everything that the world has endured since; outbreaks of the virus, lockdowns, 5.7 million lives lost around the world, as well global economic devastation. In Fiji alone, we lost over 100,000 livelihoods.
This has been a once-in-a-century crisis by every measure. And have confronted it through the greatest mobilization of resources –– both human and financial –– in Fijian history.
500 million dollars in assistance was paid, directly, by the government to Fijians whose employment was affected. Over 66,000 food ration packs were delivered to families who were isolating in their homes. 1.3 million doses and counting of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered. Today –– thanks to policies like no jab, no job –– over 90% of Fijians over the age of 15 are fully-vaccinated.
We did all of this –– averting a socioeconomic catastrophe and readying ourselves for a recovery –– while managing the devastation of adverse weather, including storms, floods, and four cyclones: Harold, Yasa, Ana and Cody.
We were guided by a strategic vision to free our country from the grip of the pandemic. That strategy demanded decisive leadership from government, and it demanded discipline, compassion and solidarity from every Fijian. Together, we saved lives –– thousands of them –– while government worked diligently behind-the-scenes with our friends from Australia, India, New Zealand and the US to secure COVID-19 vaccines. Then, we restored jobs –– thousands of them –– by becoming one of the world’s most vaccinated societies, earning back our freedoms and re-opening our borders to the world.
We were guided every day by our Hon Prime Minister’s direction, who reminded us that “Our journey to the new normal is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to move forward in step with the science at a careful and responsible pace.” And we did so by instituting measures that were proportional to the threat the virus posed, easing them when appropriate and strengthening them when necessary, including when the Omicron variant arrived at our shores.
While Omicron produced a less severe disease than past variants, its highly contagious nature posed a threat to the capacity of our healthcare system. We upped our enforcement of COVID-safe measures in response while we continued to deploy booster doses to enhance our community immunity. Unlike many more advanced countries, our ICU capacity was never overwhelmed by the third wave of cases thanks to our high vaccination coverage and our stepped-up enforcement of COVID-safe measures. And we avoided a crisis in the delivery of outpatient care by quickly opening up private GP clinics to members of the public, with the costs covered by the government. And we plan to open more private GP clinics to the public.
Ladies and gentlemen, the science says today that the worst of the Omicron wave is behind us. Hospitalisations are falling and the number of boosted Fijians is rising every day. It’s time for a new direction; one that is guided by the same principles our Hon Prime Minister set out, one that considers the lessons we’ve learned, and one recognises that –– while the pandemic is not over –– it has entered a totally new phase.
What this means in practice is that we no longer need to look at the world solely through the lens of COVID-19. We are moving to a stage where we can remove our blinders and treat COVID as an endemic disease instead of a pandemic, not unlike the common flu. COVID cases aren’t going away, but our focus –– from a health and policy standpoint –– will be on particularly vulnerable groups, while the rest of our society more or less live normally as we rebuild our economy and focus on addressing the other challenges affecting the lives of ordinary people, for example, non-communicable diseases. For the past several weeks, we have been carefully reviewing the Omicron variant’s impact on our healthcare system, consulting our experts and crafting a new phase for our response that takes the nation forward at the responsible pace our Hon Prime Minister asked of us.
We have far more certainty than we did two years, or even one year, ago. Still, it is important to mention there are a number of variables we’ll continue to monitor over the coming months. But we promised the Fijian people that we will only have restrictions if they are truly necessary, and we’ll lift them as soon as we can. That is what is happening today.
From Monday 7 February, which is from midnight tonight, the curfew will be lifted. Not moved. Not shifted. Lifted, completely.
The curfew was implemented to prevent non-essential gatherings that can spread the virus and allow for reliable contact tracing at certain hours in the evening. In some ways, it served as the national barometer of progress towards normalcy, as we moved the start time from 6pm, hour by hour, to midnight in recognition of reaching our vaccination targets. Now, it’s removed entirely.
We recognise that the curfew had other benefits unrelated to the virus itself. We’ve spoken with many households, in particular, who have told us that they were grateful to have their children and loved ones at home more often because of the curfew. These are benefits that came unexpectedly, and hopefully, most people will continue to spend more time with their loved ones, at home, and take care of their community.
Of course, we can’t justify the continuation of a curfew for the sake of just these benefits. But we want to highlight them nonetheless. Because if you are someone who found they spent more quality time at home, became more productive or studied more, you can make the choice to keep those good habits. The pandemic has taught us all some hard lessons and the more insights we take out of it the better –– lessons from the hard times but also the good times we have had with our families and loved ones.
The curfew also meant less movement and therefore fewer opportunities for criminals. We’ve taken this matter very seriously and we’ve been in discussions with the Fiji Police Force for weeks to review their capacity and strategy to contain criminal activity. With the curfew lifted, our Police are adopting a new posture to uphold public safety, putting more boots on the ground in communities and high-traffic areas to crack down on criminality. The Commissioner of Police, who is here with us, will elaborate further on their strategy.
Even though the curfew is removed, nightclubs will not be allowed to operate. However, taverns, many of which used to be licensed as nightclubs, may open until 1am at 80% capacity throughout Fiji, provided that seating is properly spaced out, dancing is not allowed, and all areas are well ventilated.
As for our other health measures, the following changes take effect from tomorrow:
Public Service Vehicles can operate at full capacity, which include buses, mini-buses, carriers and taxis however we will continue to enforce mask-wearing onboard all vehicles.
Indoor and outdoor sporting events, including competitive sports, may be held with spectators at 80% capacity provided those spectators wear masks.
Businesses, venues, and houses of worship may open at full capacity, with the exception of high-risk businesses, which must operate at 80% capacity. High-risk businesses include cinemas, bars, taverns, gyms, hairdressing and salon services, tattoo parlours, and gaming venues.
The careFIJI App and QR will not be required for entry into businesses and venues anymore because we are not presently relying on contact tracing as part of our COVID-19 response. The careFIJI App may be required again in the future if the epidemiological situation changes, so please keep the app on your phone so it is easily available if needed.
The Vax Check tool is also no longer required for use by businesses given that Fiji is a highly vaccinated society. However, the high-risk businesses that we’ve just listed out and all Care Fiji Certified businesses will be required to check the vaccination cards of their patrons and customers.
It is the responsibility of businesses to enforce COVID-safe behaviour on the premises. The fines for violations remain in effect.
There is no more restriction on informal gatherings, including gatherings at home, effective immediately.
We’ve also developed clearer guidance on where masks are required to be worn. The full guidance on mask-wearing will be published online.
Australia recently made a change to its testing requirements for their citizens returning from international travel by accepting rapid antigen tests as an alternative to PCR tests. We’re adding that same option.
Travellers 12 years and above entering Fiji from a Travel Partner Country may produce a negative Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) taken within 24 hours of the flight’s scheduled departure. In other words, the more expensive PCR tests are no longer required to board flights to Fiji.
Details of acceptable test-kits are published online. The Ministry of Health and Medical Services, will continue to monitor the global epidemiological situation and may re-introduce more stringent risk reduction measures if required.
We’re also reviewing the requirement of a three-day Care Fiji Certified Accommodation requirement for arrivals into Fiji in favour of an entry system that allows passengers to submit confirmation of a booked COVID-19 test in Fiji within 48 hours of landing in Fiji. Before we make that change, we need more testing sites open in Fiji. We’ve put out an Expression of Interest for the private sector and we encourage more people to apply so that we can open as many testing sites as possible. We’ll have more details to announce on that policy shift soon.
All Care Fiji Certified hotels, transport operators, and businesses must welcome this flexibility with stronger adherence to the measures that are required to maintain their certifications. If you fail to meet the high bar of COVID safety we’ve set for our visitors, our COVID safe Ambassadors and Police will shut you down. We cannot tolerate one bad apple in our tourism sector spoiling the bunch for all those who are following the rules.
These easings of restrictions mean a great deal for our economy and for the restoration of livelihoods. With the ease of restrictions locally and testing requirements made easier and more affordable, we’ll create more local economic activity and attract more tourists. That means more business, including for micro and small businesses, more demand, and more jobs for our people. And it will further consolidate our path towards record-breaking economic growth.
We would like to thank you all for your compliance, getting vaccinated, and acting in a true patriotic spirit helping those in need as a community. With this effort from all of us we are able to lift most restrictions and welcome back a sense of normality to our lives.
But there are some people, a tiny minority, who are not yet vaccinated. We urge them to get vaccinated. We are only able to rollback these measures because of the high rate of vaccination we have achieved, but there’s more we want to be able to do, including getting our cinemas, hair salons, gyms, tattoo parlours and all the other businesses currently operating under capacity restrictions to fully reopen and get back more jobs for Fijians.
So to those who are not fully vaccinated, our message is to please get it done. And those who are eligible for boosters, please get boosted. Getting vaccinated and getting boosted is the best way we can protect the progress we’re announcing today and ensure that none of these health protection measures need to come back into force. Let’s also please use these new freedoms responsibly and continue with the common-sense measures, like mask-wearing, physical distancing and good handwashing and sanitising, that can keep us safe.
Let us close by wishing our friends in New Zealand a happy Waitangi Day. This week, 244 tonnes of aid donated by Fijians, NGOs, faith-based groups and our Tongan Community in Fiji arrived on Tonga’s shores aboard a Fijian vessel funded by the New Zealand Government. That shared act of Pacific solidarity speaks volumes of the shared values of our people. Needless to say, we’re all looking forward to 14 March, when we can safely welcome visitors from New Zealand to Fiji.
I’m here with The Minister for Education, Heritage and the Arts, the Commissioner of Police and the Permanent Secretary for Health and Medical Services.
Minister Kumar and the Commissioner have some brief updates for us on school closures and exams deferments. Then, we’ll take some questions
(Source, Fijian Government Website)