Premier Andrew Fahie answered questions from the media during a press conference on Friday. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

A new United Nations Development Programme office headed by National Coordinator Patlian Johnson will focus on completing the territory’s National Sustainable Development Plan, Premier Andrew Fahie announced during a Friday press conference.

“Your government looks forward to working closely with Ms. Johnson and the UNDP as they provide critical support for the implementation of the [NSDP] and as we move towards the achievement of the [UN Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030,” Mr. Fahie said.

Also during the press conference, he gave updates on laws designed to improve governance, and he promised e-government services and direct flights between the Virgin Islands and the mainland United States this year.

Governance laws

Mr. Fahie’s update on legislation included news about the Integrity in Public Life Act, the Contractor General Act, and more.

“Discussions are continuing between the premier, the attorney general and the governor to move forward the legislation for the Human Rights Commission, the amendments to the Registrar of Interests Act, and the Freedom of Information Act,” he added. “These legislations and others that your government has brought forward and gotten passed in the House of Assembly — such as the Whistle Blower Act, the new Public Procurement Act, and the Ministerial Code of Conduct — were long overdue.”

Mr. Fahie said that applications to fill the position of contractor general closed on Monday and that the HOA would move next into the selection process.

Additionally, government is in the process of choosing members for the commission established by the Integrity in Public Life Act, according to the premier.

“We have received some of the nominations and we hope to receive the rest within the next week, so that by the middle of this month the commission can be appointed and be functional,” he said.“Under the Integrity in Public Life Act, there is a code of conduct for all persons in public life to whom this law will apply. … The act creates offences for such things as abuse of office, misconduct and neglect of duty.”

Online services

The premier went on to say that government is working to offer e-billing, online payments, and online bookings for government services.

“Through e-government, we will dramatically increase efficiency of the service delivery because everything will be managed digitally,” he said. “So, for in- stance, we will increase the efficiency of the services in customs, immigration, labour, police and all government departments and statutory bodies.”

Such efforts, however, have been attempted before without success. Last July, for instance, government rolled out an online system to tackle a backlog of thousands of work permit applications, billing the project as a forerunner of broader e-government services.

But in February, the work-permit system was shut down due to several issues, and it hasn’t resumed operations.

On Friday, Mr. Fahie acknowledged hardships that some residents have endured to access services, including processing licences and permits. Sister island residents, he added, routinely have to take a ferry to Tortola for such errands.

“Over the years, we have heard the familiar complaint from persons that they submit- ted applications for different types of services in government … and it takes too long to get these transactions processed and even to get an update,” he said. “Sometimes, as just stated, you cannot get an explanation or update because the paper file has to be located or only the specific officer dealing with the matter has the information. But, with e- government, every step of the process can be tracked, and information can be accessed at the push of a button.”

When answering questions from the media later, he said the system would be tested in the next four or five months.

He added that it is still a work in progress, but that government hopes eventually to offer “top-notch” service online.

Direct flights

Moving on, Mr. Fahie stated that government is still in discussions with airlines to bring direct flights from the United States mainland to the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport in Beef Island.

He said the flights would ac- commodate the current runway length at Beef Island, and he promised such flights by the end of the year at the latest.

The premier also called for a national three-day period of fasting and prayer, which began on Sunday. As reasons to participate, he cited the upcoming hurricane season, the Commission of Inquiry and the pandemic.

Pushed by the media to speak on the COI report, which Governor John Rankin and UK Overseas Territories Minister Amanda Milling are currently reviewing, Mr. Fahie was adamant about staying quiet until the 1,000-plus-page document is released to the public.

“I will be saying more about that when the time comes,” he told the media.

Mr. Fahie also said he was unable to answer questions about how much funding is left in the $65 million Caribbean Development Bank loan that government has used to fund hurricane-recovery projects.

The funded projects, he said, may need more money than government initially estimated.

“We will have to wait and see,” he added.