Maverick Citizen


EC Health Department scrambles to set up new emergency numbers after not paying the phone bill

EC Health Department scrambles to set up new emergency numbers after not paying the phone bill
(Photo: Donna van der Watt)

The Eastern Cape Department of Health was racing on Monday to set up alternative lines for the province’s emergency services ahead of the Easter weekend. This comes as landlines to health facilities and EMS services were cut off last week after the department failed to pay its phone bill.

The Eastern Cape Department of Health on Monday issued a notice temporarily changing the phone numbers of its ambulance bases after landlines to most provincial health facilities and EMS bases were cut due to non-payment.

Department spokesperson MK Ndamase confirmed that they have not paid the phone bill. 

“We can confirm that the contract with Telkom has not been ended. It has instead been suspended because of failure to make payments,” he said. 

“This is due to the financial constraints the department has always been upfront about.

“The department actively engages with the service provider, hoping the phone lines will be reconnected. We hope the department’s commitment to settle the debt at the beginning of the next financial year (April) will receive a favourable response from the service provider.”

Ndamase said healthcare professionals can still use their cell phones issued by the government. However, ambulance bases were only given new numbers after some had been offline for several days. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Budget 2024 fails to address poverty-related health issues and inspire NHI trust – SAMRC

In October 2023, officials also allowed the licences for software used in the department’s call centre to lapse, taking this facility offline for days. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eastern Cape health MEC reports call centre managers to the Public Service Commission over lapsed licences

Private ambulance services reported that people were begging them for help as they couldn’t reach the Emergency Medical Service (EMS) bases in their towns. 

Wesley Bester from Bester Emergency Medical Services said they were inundated with phone calls from people desperate for assistance but were unable to get through to the state services.

“We then tried to get hold of the metro ambulances … but I can tell you we had a few desperate people who put their money together to get a private ambulance because they needed one,” he added.

“This is completely and utterly unacceptable,” said the Democratic Alliance’s Jane Cowley. 

“This is a notorious time for a spike in vehicle accidents and trauma cases. Some people have not had access to emergency medical services for six days,” she said.

“It is catastrophic … There should have been much more planning.”

Cowley said payment for the phone bill could have been sourced from some of the budgets that still had funding.

Even when the phones are working, the province’s EMS programme is woefully underresourced.

Statistics released by the health department late last year showed that it only has 439 ambulances instead of the required 650. Of these, 190 have broken down. 

“The MEC for health and the head of the department must be held accountable for what happened here. They wittingly put people’s lives in danger,” said Cowley.

Trauma cases are usually expected to peak during long weekends. Currently, over a typical month, Livingstone Hospital in Nelson Mandela Bay deals with around 326 assault cases, 25 burns, 35 gunshots, 73 car accidents, 250 falls, 91 stab wounds and five cases of domestic violence. 

In the period between Christmas and New Year last year, the hospital dealt with eight serious gunshot cases, 67 assault cases and 38 car accidents.

In April and March last year, Frere Hospital in East London, which has also lost its landlines, dealt with 777 physical assault cases, 377 car accidents and 21 gunshot cases.

The Auditor-General has made several damning findings against the provincial health department over the past year. This included that the department had “significant internal control deficiencies.”

“Nothing prevented them from temporarily moving money from another programme where lives will not be threatened,” Cowley said. “This could have been prevented.”

Russell Rensburg from the Rural Health Advocacy Project said it can no longer be business as usual in the Eastern Cape. He said the province cannot afford its 97 hospitals.

“We need a serious engagement on what can be done,” he said. “The system is not affordable,” he added. 

“We need a better plan. It is not just about ambulances. The province cannot afford the service in its current form,” he said.

These are the alternative numbers issued for the Eastern Cape’s emergency services for the upcoming Easter weekend:

Joe Gqabi (around Aliwal-North): 051 633 2333; 051 653 1069; 051 653 0393; 051 653 0554 and 051 653 0150.

Alfred Nzo (around EmaXesibeni, formerly known as Mount Ayliff): 039 254 0170; 039 254 0353; 039 254 0550 and 039 254 0026.

Chris Hani (the central part of the province around Cradock, Queenstown): 045 838 1311; 045 838 1451 and 045 838 1657.

Nelson Mandela Bay (based in Gqeberha): 041 354 5404; 041 459 5245; 041 961 5016 and WhatsApp 066 298 0024.

Buffalo City Metro and Amathole (based in East London): 043 721 3156; 043 7267243; 043 7224856; 043 7206 3802 and 043 7262147.

OR Tambo (around Mthatha): 047 531 1948; 047 5315241; 047 531 5240; 047 5315242; 047 532 3386; 047 532 4174; 047 5323612 and 047 532 3391. DM


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