Coronavirus

Health department says it will get protective gear to workers as union goes to court to force government to comply

By Greg Nicolson and Pauli van Wyk 3 April 2020

Nurses in Tygerberg Hospital's Covid-19 isolation unit during a media tour. (Photo by Misha Jordaan/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla has assured the public and unions that government departments are working together to secure protective equipment for healthcare workers at the forefront of fighting Covid-19. Phaahla’s comments come as the health workers union NEHAWU files court papers to force government to comply.

Multiple government departments are working with the private sector and the Chinese government to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for South Africa’s healthcare workers as they continue to serve on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19, Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during a media briefing on Friday.

“Government is very much committed to making sure that personal protection equipment is provided to all our health workers, both in the public and also in the private health services.”

Coronavirus is spread by respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces. It is transmitted from infected people by cough and sneeze droplets, which land on surfaces and hands. The correct use of PPE by frontline medical staff blocks transmission from infected patients to healthcare workers. PPE includes goggles, visors, aprons and gloves.

Phaahla said the Covid-19 pandemic had led to a global shortage of PPEs, which was exacerbated by the slowdown in manufacturing hub China, high international demand, logistical challenges due to lockdowns across the globe, and the weakening rand.

He said the departments of health, trade and industry, international relations and Treasury were collaborating to secure PPEs and medical equipment and was in consultation with the private sector and the Chinese government.

“We have very firm commitments now in terms of equipment that will be coming into the country over the weekend and early in the week and we are very confident that as we start the next week going forward we will be able to get adequate supplies,” said Phaahla.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) has approached the courts to force the government to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and provide a comprehensive and budgeted plan detailing how its members who continue to work during the lockdown would be protected.

“Scores of our members, who are nurses, doctors, pharmacists, cleaners, dispensary and reception clerks, community health workers, potters, ambulance and morgue workers, community care workers, laboratory technicians and other allied health personnel have thrown themselves to the frontlines in carrying out their duties to save the lives of our people in the face of this unfolding national epidemic,” said the union in a statement this week.

In its court papers filed on Friday, Nehawu claims to have evidence from several of its members – including doctors, nurses, cleaners and laundry workers – that they are not issued with the necessary PPE in order to perform their jobs without putting their own health at risk.

Where there are shortages, doctors and nurses have often supplemented the inadequate government-issued PPE with PPE procured at their own cost, Nehawu said.

When the private sector is asked for help, they “want to do so at exorbitant charge”, a doctor in KwaZulu-Natal reported.

The union further accuses government of not adhering to standards and measures about PPE put in place by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The ministers of health and labour, as well as the MEC’s for health in all nine provinces, are yet to reply to the accusations.

Nehawu is asking the labour court to direct government to “meaningfully engage” with Nehawu about measures to mitigate the risk of infection to employees, the measures taken to date and the contingency plans initiated to ensure employees are provided with PPE where required. Government must then file a report to the labour court on the progress and outcome of the meaningful engagement.

Nehawu further wants to ensure that their members would not in the meantime be subjected to disciplinary measures or threatened or treated unfairly for refusing to treat coronavirus patients without the appropriate PPE. Nehawu lastly asks the court to direct the minister of Labour to prohibit the performance of any duties that endanger or risk the health and safety of employees.

These directives sought from the court are necessary, Nehawu’s General Secretary Zola Saphetha said, to “mitigate the real risk of infection and the safety of employees, including members of Nehawu, and members of the public they come into contact with”.

Saphetha accuses minister of Health Zweli Mkhize of having failed to ensure that healthcare workers are provided with PPE and also that he did not develop and issue guidelines or protocols for how services should be rendered in the absence of proper PPE.

Healthcare workers are at risk of infection with potentially fatal consequences, Saphetha argues. Each passing day increases the risk for healthcare workers and the public. Nehawu said it invited the minister to engage with the union about PPE and protocols, but that he neglected to engage and failed to respond to the union’s letters. 

The matter is, for the moment, reserved for argument on Tuesday 10 April at 10am.

Phaahla, during Friday’s ministers’ briefing, said he was confident the government and unions would “find each other”.

The deputy minister could not detail the supply of PPEs currently available. He said the department of health had provided financial support to the provinces and they could place orders on a centralised procurement system of qualified suppliers.

“Most of the provinces have made orders based on the suppliers who have qualified,” he said.

Phaahla was speaking alongside ministers in Cabinet’s economic cluster who provided updates on the recent amendments to the State of Disaster regulations.

Small Business Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said 81,000 businesses had registered on the SMME database since it opened on 24 March 2020. Registering on the database allows the government to check that a business is currently operational. After registering, a business can then apply for debt relief and business growth support. Over 2,000 such applications have been submitted.

Ntshavheni said while the new regulations allow informal food traders to operate, only those selling fresh produce, not prepared food, will be permitted. She said the government was still discussing its promised support package for the broader informal sector.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula warned the taxi industry that going forward it will only be able to transport passengers from 5:00-10:00 and 16:00-21:00 after the regulations were relaxed this week to allow people to collect their social grants. Taxis can only be filled to 70% of capacity.

“Any taxi operator which will be found to be in violation of these regulations will be brought to book. Your car will be impounded because you’re breaking the rules,” said Mbalula.

Mbalula has announced multiple changes to rules for taxis this week and he said they were necessary to ensure the industry continues to operate while making a loss and to make things more convenient for commuters.

“Taxis indeed in this period of the lockdown are making a loss. That is the truth of the matter. They are only unable to respond like all other SMMEs to get some relief funding because they are not regulated. As government we are looking at that matter but we have not reached finality on it,” he said.

Ntshavheni said there was no taxi relief scheme in existence yet and proposals would depend on available finances. She urged taxi owners to reschedule loan payments with banks if necessary.

Mbaulula said South Africa is “a nation that is prone to breaking the law” but citizens had to accept the rule of law during the lockdown.

On Thursday alone, the minister said, 17,395 vehicles were stopped at 146 roadblocks across the country. A total of 231 vehicles trying to leave Gauteng without permits were turned back. Mbalula said 56 taxi drivers and 32 e-hailing drivers were caught for breaching capacity regulations. DM

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