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Opposition parties voice concern over ‘secrecy’ of government’s Covid vaccine roll-out plan

(Photo: Images / LightRocket via Getty Images / Wikipedia)

Opposition parties voiced their concern about Parliament’s lack of knowledge of the government’s vaccination plan during a debate on the roll-out in the National Assembly. The ANC responded that there is a plan and it is well under way.

Opposition parties the Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party, Freedom Front Plus, African Christian Democratic Party, African Transformation Movement, Good and Al Jama-ah have raised concern about the apparent “secrecy” around the government’s vaccine roll-out plan and lamented Parliament’s lack of insight and oversight on the matter.

The DA’s Siviwe Gwarube opened Tuesday’s debate by pleading with members of Parliament to forgo party alliance in order to unite and ask “tough questions” of the executive. 

“Requests for executive accountability are seen as an attack… rather than a chance to rise to excellence,” she said.

The DA’s Chief Whip, Natasha Mazzone, has been requesting a parliamentary debate on the vaccine plan since the end of December 2020. Last week, the party withdrew its court application to compel the national government to present a Covid-19 vaccine roll-out plan. In an answering affidavit, the government did just that and the challenge was withdrawn. The party vowed to head back to court if “the government’s actions show it is incapable of delivering on its commitments”.

Gwarube said Parliament cannot be treated as an “inconvenient stop” for the executive and that a “codified plan” needed to be tabled in the House for scrutiny. The party called for the establishment of an ad hoc committee to account to Parliament and demand deadlines, efficiency and transparency from the executive. Gwarube described this as a “watershed moment” for Parliament.

Following this, the ANC’s Dr Kenneth Leonard Jacobs said the ruling party would not spend the debate “lamenting” like the opposition. He assured the House that there is a plan and that it is based on the latest science produced by South African researchers. He applauded the executive for appointing committees to advise it on Covid-19 strategies.

Grace Tseke of the ANC argued that a plan is already in place and is being carried out, as seen by the delivering and administering of vaccine doses to healthcare workers. She applauded the president’s efforts to assist other African countries during the pandemic. She said Parliament should welcome the ability of the government to adapt to the latest sciences.

Mkhuleko Hlengwa of the IFP said the party welcomed the information contained in the answering affidavit, but that it brought little comfort. He argued that information about the plan is not being communicated to the public effectively. He asked how healthcare workers without internet access must register for the vaccine, and how facilities will cope if greater numbers of people arrive to be vaccinated at once. He also asked what will be done to protect vaccines in cold storage if Eskom implements load shedding. He said these practical concerns need to be ironed out before the next batch of vaccines arrives.

The Department of Health and the Treasury have proposed a mechanism that will compensate any citizen who experiences an “adverse effect” from the J&J or Pfizer vaccine. Mkhize said more details would be contained in Wednesday’s Budget speech.

The Freedom Front Plus’s Philippus van Staden asked: “What programme? Where is the programme? And why is it kept a secret if such a programme does indeed exist?” He commented that “the government cannot be proud of this mess”. He argued that the Portfolio Committee on Health does not know what the Covid-19 vaccine plan is.

Steve Swart of the ACDP called for proper parliamentary oversight to prevent corruption, while Thandiswa Marawu of the African Transformation Movement said, “This Parliament has been robbed of meaningful input [on the vaccine roll-out plan]. 

Shaun August of the Good Party urged parties to work together to get through these “unchartered waters”. 

Mogamad Ganief Ebrahim Hendricks of Al Jama-ah warned that “we will look back and ask why Parliament was not consulted”, but voiced his support for the plan.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize was the last to address the House.

He announced that another 80,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will arrive in South Africa on Saturday 27 February. As of 6pm on 22 February, 23,059 healthcare workers had been vaccinated. He said South Africa is on course to have vaccinated 40,000 people by Wednesday. So far, 54,865 healthcare workers have been infected in the public sector alone. 

Mkhize said that “we were never asleep” in the roll-out of the vaccine and this is why the sudden emergency of the new virus variant had not “derailed” the vaccination plan. 

We chose a strategy that was guided by science as we did not have the financial muscle to make unhedged bets. Our approach has paid off as we have been able to be nimble and precise around the tricky issue of the variant,” he said. 

The government had signed non-disclosure agreements “with most of the leading manufacturers”, he said. He explained that this allowed insight into the supply chains, manufacturing plans, prices, volumes and timelines. He said this includes the question of indemnity. He assured that this is being attended to, and that the National Treasury will approve the contracts.

The Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines has recommended that the J&J, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be used now, he said. Orders have been placed for J&J and Pfizer, while negotiations with Moderna are continuing. 

The committee recommended that more information should be gathered about the Gamaleya Insitute’s Sputnik V vaccine and those made by Sinopharm and Sinovac. All three have made submissions to the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), he added. He said the vaccines from AstraZeneca and Novavax are not suitable for immediate use. He announced that South Africa’s doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been sold to the African Union to be distributed in the coming days to 20 countries.

The Department of Health and the Treasury have proposed a mechanism that will compensate any citizen who experiences an “adverse effect” from the J&J or Pfizer vaccine. Mkhize said more details would be contained in Wednesday’s Budget speech.

He turned his attention to “misunderstandings” about the roll-out plan.

“While many continue to grandstand, spreading myths and misinformation around the vaccine roll-out strategy and the effectiveness of the vaccines, we have procured the vaccines that are good for us and have successfully started with the vaccination of healthcare workers across the country.”  

He said the acceptance of and demand for the vaccine is high and that “most of the teething problems [in administering the vaccine] have been resolved”. DM/MC

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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