The Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex was quiet on Monday afternoon after plans to reopen the public service this week were scuttled. Earlier that morning, however, redeployed public officers gathered there to collect supplies for delivery around the territory. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Plans to reopen the public service on Monday of this week were scuttled after the death of a Covid-19 patient early Saturday morning, but many public officers now have been redeployed alongside volunteers to help distribute government-funded supplies to residents in need across the territory.

By Monday, the operation was in full swing, and a “Dedicated Essential Supplies Hotline Centre” was open for business, officials said.

Public officers and volunteers gathered at the Ralph T. O’Neal Admistration Complex on Monday before setting out to complete their tasks. On Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Governor David Archer Jr. was helping coordinate efforts to fill trucks with boxes and bags of supplies.

The plan was first announced Saturday night by Governor Gus Jaspert, Premier Andrew Fahie, and Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone.

“Cabinet today decided that we will surge support from across the public service to ensure that we are able to support you best,” Mr. Jaspert said. “The deputy governor is taking forward plans with the [Health Emergency Operations Centre] for public officers to support our food need helpline and to support deliveries to those in need as required.”

Mr. Fahie also stated that Mr. Archer would instruct public officers “to support the Territorial Provisioning Logistical Plan” and encouraged those in need to call the “Food Need Hotline” at 852-7688.

New curfew passes were sup- plied electronically to “public officers and volunteers with further arrangements to be taken forward with the deputy governor,” Mr. Fahie added.

Original plans

The new arrangement was a stark contrast to the original plan to reopen the public service this week.

During a Facebook session last Thursday before the death, Mr. Archer explained the original strategy, giving an idea of how the government is likely to proceed when it does eventually reopen its offices.

90-day plan

While outlining a “comprehensive” 90-Day Public Service Operations Plan,” Mr. Archer painted the situation as an opportunity for needed reform.

“This is not going to be business as usual. The fact of the matter remains that we are living and working with the threat of Covid-19,” Mr. Archer said during the Facebook session, where viewers were able to submit questions. “But along with that threat comes an opportunity: an opportunity for us to do things in a more remote way by utilising technology, but more so keeping the health and safety of our public officers at hand.”

Under the original plan, public offices aimed to be fully operational next Monday after taking this week to make preparations. From Monday to Friday of this week, senior officers were instructed to sanitise offices and put social distancing measures in place to ensure the safety of employees and the public.

Some of the planned measures, Mr. Archer said, would include keeping offices stocked with hand sanitiser and cleaning supplies, seating and markers following social distancing guidelines, and having public service officers that will work remotely.

“The main thing is the work of the government will continue: We’ll deliver services,” he added. “While delivering services is the main priority right now, that doesn’t come before making sure our public servants are safe.”

Acronym

The goals of the 90-day plan were broken down into the acronym PPD, which Mr. Archer said stood for preventing the spread of the disease; protecting employees and residents; and delivering services.

The usual government phone numbers (468-3701 and 494-3701) would be operational, though Mr. Archer stressed that a “big difference” would occur.

“You know, right now you dial 468-3701 and a lovely lady or man answers and says, ‘Good afternoon, government of the Virgin Islands. How many I direct your call?’ Well, that’s going to change. It’s going to sound a little bit differently. It will be, ‘Good afternoon, good morning, welcome to the government of the Virgin Islands Customer Care Centre. How may I support you?’” he said. “That’s significant. So we’re going to be turning what is normally an automated system into a customer care system.”

Callers would be able to report issues like potholes or broken fences through this system, he added.

Remote meetings

Even if the opening had proceeded as planned, Mr. Archer said, public service ceremonies would have been stopped, and meetings would have continued to be held remotely using Zoom or other platforms.

Redeployment of public officers was also likely, Mr. Archer stated, adding that some could be redeployed to aid people in quarantine.

“What we’re seeing is the emerging of a new type of public officer. Jobs in the area of health, jobs in the area of security, jobs in the area of customer service,” he added. “For persons who are not engaged right now, they will be engaged.”

He stressed the importance of officers showing up for work and remaining “gainfully engaged.”

During the lockdown period, he added, government departments were asked to develop a plan of how core services can be performed electronically.

It wasn’t the first time that he had urged public officers to use the pandemic as an opportunity for improvement.

“The current situation,” he said on March 27, “provides us with an opportunity to test these procedures and determine how we can improve to offer greater efficiency within the public service and to ensure we can perfect how we will operate in crisis situations arising in the future.”

At the time, he also assured residents of continuity of services throughout lockdown and again reminded public officers of the expectation to carry out duties while in crisis.

“You are expected to work remotely and be engaged in operations of your office from home,” he stated. “All senior managers, department heads, and senior staff in each ministry and department are required to work remotely during this period.”

The Department of Information Technology is working with department heads to ensure appropriate access coordinate remote services, he added.

Stress on the job

Mr. Archer has also addressed the stress that essential workers may face during this time. In a March 19 circular, he noted that burnout and secondary traumatic stress must be avoided at all costs, and that essential workers must have provisions that allow for breaks during work, exercising, and access to healthy foods.

“Officers with pre-existing health conditions should be carefully monitored during this period,” he added. “Those who are vulnerable should be removed from the front line.”

During a March 19 interview with an information officer, Mr. Archer also introduced “pandemic leave,” which would allow public service workers who need to care for the families, especially children, to take time off. Those with chronic ailments are also included in the arrangement.

The Employee Assistance Programme, which includes one-on-one counselling for workers, has also gone online. Employees can access the hotline and WhatsApp account at 284-468-9889, and the Skype account is eapbvi@gmail.com


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