No healthcare worker is being made to work without the necessary and required protective equipment, said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in court papers on Tuesday.
Mkhize was answering an urgent court application by the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) to the labour court over a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) against Covid-19 in hospitals across the country.
The union wants the court to order a “meaningful engagement” between the union, the health and labour departments and the provincial health departments. And, while this “engagement” proceeds, the union wants the court to say that the relevant workers cannot be forced to work without the protective equipment.
“For each day that this continues, thousands of employees and members of the public are at grave risk of infection,” Zola Saphetha, Nehawu’s general secretary, said in an affidavit.
But Mkhize said the application was an abuse of the court because it “ignored the hard facts on the ground”.
“Nehawu has clearly not done a fact checking exercise before making unfounded, wild and spurious allegations about unavailability of PPE in the provinces. I do not suggest that things are moving at an ideal pace. But exaggerated claims based on speculation should really not be tolerated. These allegations cause unnecessary stress and panic,” said Mkhize in his answering affidavit.
He said his legal team had interviewed every provincial MEC and head of department in all provinces except the Western Cape, which has its own legal team. “In each case, comprehensive data has been produced which disproves the claims made by Nehawu.”
In Nehawu’s founding affidavit, Saphetha said that, after the announcement of the lockdown, Nehawu had “observed and recorded many cases of healthcare workers, including its members, working in circumstances which expose them to occupational risk without the necessary PPE.” He listed a number of hospitals and clinics at which healthcare workers were without the proper protective gear — some had no gowns; others had no masks and sanitisers.
But Mkhize said that, although there was a global and national shortage of protective equipment, those hospitals listed by Nehawu either had no shortages at all or “if they do, it is not of the type that would warrant this application because it can be resolved administratively by simply placing additional orders, or shifting resources from the hospitals which have more stock”.
In his affidavit Mkhize goes through each province and the hospitals mentioned by Saphetha and details the number of masks, gloves, gowns and sanitisers they have. In one case, where Saphetha referred to Kennedy Phalanda Hospital. Mkhize answers: “To both my and the provincial health MEC’s knowledge and records there [is] no such hospital in Limpopo.”
In relation to some of the hospitals, Mkhize acknowledged “supply pressure” and detailed what has been done to alleviate it.
Mkhize also refuted Saphetha’s allegation that he has refused to have discussions with Nehawu, detailing the history of the interaction between his department and the union. He also details the discussions at provincial level between the unions and provincial departments.
“It seems that there is a disjuncture between Nehawu at provincial level where productive engagements are ongoing, while at national level Nehawu alleges that there has been no meaningful engagement with them. Perhaps, with respect, the national office is out of touch as to what is transpiring on the ground at provincial level,” said Mkhize.
Mkhize said a problem did arise with staff members at healthcare facilities “who are not meant to receive such PPE and are demanding such. The provincial health department issues PPE in accordance with WHO [World Health Organisation] guidelines on issuing PP,” he said.
“I reiterate once again that no individual working in the health sector is made to work without being provided with the necessary and requisite PPE,” he said.
Mkhize said Nehawu’s threat that some of its members would withhold their labour was “unfortunate at this critical time in our country. What is important right now is to ensure that each and every one is focussed on the task of combatting the virus.”
Nehawu still has an opportunity to respond to Mkhize’s affidavit before the case is expected to be heard on an urgent basis by the labour court.