Judge dismisses Nehawu's PPE case against Health Minister

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The Labour Court on Wednesday refused to allow the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) to withdraw its urgent case over protective gear for health workers. Instead Judge Benita Whitcher dismissed the case, saying she would give reasons at a later stage.

According to a Mail & Guardian report, her decision followed arguments from Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Western Cape Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo – that the court should vindicate them by insisting that the case be heard – despite a notice from Nehawu that it was withdrawing its case, which arrived late on Tuesday night.

Nehawu had gone urgently to the Labour Court, saying the health and lives of healthcare workers were at risk because they were not being provided with personal protective equipment for dealing with COVID-19. In an affidavit, the union’s secretary general, Zola Saphetha, listed hospitals and clinics around the country at which he said there were shortages of protective gear. Sapthetha also said attempts by the union to hold discussions with Mkhize, his department and the provincial health departments had been “rebuffed”.

But in an answering affidavit, Mkhize disputed the claims, saying that Saphetha was not aware of the facts on the ground. The minister said he had checked each province and every hospital Saphetha had referred to and “in each case, comprehensive data has been produced, which disproves the claims made by Nehawu”. Mkhize also disputed that he had rebuffed the union’s attempts to meet him.

Witcher found in favour of the government and dismissed the case with costs.

Speaking at an event to mark the arrival of the first consignment of protective equipment procured from suppliers in China, Business Day reports that Mkhize moved to assure health-care professionals that they would have all the equipment they needed to protect themselves against COVID-19, promising that no-one would be forced to work without proper gear. "No member of staff will ever be forced or harassed to go and work where they don’t feel they are properly protected," the minister said. "We want to assure all unions and staff that our health-care workers’ safety (is) of paramount importance."

The equipment was procured with donations from the Solidarity Fund, billionaire Patrice Motsepe’s philanthropic organisation, FirstRand and Naspers.

The total order book is worth R750m, with the first consignment valued at R69m, according to Business SA (BSA) health work group head Stavros Nicolaou. BSA had worked closely with donors and the government to source, procure and distribute the equipment, he said. Nicolaou said South Africa was not short of personal protective equipment, but the supplies that were available needed to be distributed more judiciously to ensure frontline health workers were prioritised.

According to a report in The Star, Nehawu has accused the health departments across the nine provinces of forcing healthcare employees to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, without PPE, endangering their lives. The report says healthcare workers at Dora Nginza Hospital in Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape downed tools over the lack of PPE.

In court papers, Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha said the union has observed front-line workers operating under circumstances that exposed them to the disease without the necessary protective gear – which included gloves, face masks, face shields, gowns, aprons, hair covers, respiratory protection and goggles.

“While the Minister has publicly pronounced that the safety of healthcare workers is a priority and that they should be issued with PPE, it is also a matter of public record, including admissions by the government that not all healthcare workers who require PPE are issued with what is required to safeguard their safety,” said Saphetha.

The report says Nehawu also slammed Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi, who was listed as the third respondent in the papers for failing to ensure compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act within the public health-care system.

Health professionals have been forced to buy their own PPE, according to a Sunday Independent report. And, Nehawu has insisted, there was no evidence that health facilities were taking any steps to address their inability to provide PPE and that the government was taking any steps to assist the health facilities to solve the problem.

Saphetha said that Nehawu, the Public Servants Association of SA, the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA, and the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA had an emergency teleconference with the head of the KwaZulu-Natal Health Department, Dr Sandile Tshabalala, and it was confirmed at the meeting that steps were being taken to address the problem but that private service providers willing to assist were charging exorbitant prices.

Other provinces, including Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Mpumalanga, had also reported a serious lack of PPE, according to Saphetha.

At least 25 public healthcare facilities across the country are without basic PPE such as gloves, masks and gowns for healthcare workers, reports City Press. At Kennedy Phalanda Hospital in Limpopo, for instance, doctors, nurses, porters and cleaners don’t have N95 masks.

At the Madadeni Regional Hospital in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, doctors and nurses are working without protective gowns. At the Sizwe Tropical Diseases Hospital in Edenvale, Johannesburg, health workers have to work with no gloves or masks. While at the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, in Westbury, Johannesburg, healthcare workers have to treat pregnant women and those who have just delivered without gloves, masks or sanitisers.

The report says the situation is reportedly much the same in the Eastern Cape, where healthcare workers at the Mpilisweni Hospital in Sterkspruit lack sanitisers, gloves and plastic aprons.

Also, health-care workers at a Durban private hospital have apparently complained the hospital has strict rules on the use of masks. A Daily News report says a health activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had received calls and complaints from staff at Lenmed Ethekwini Hospital and Heart Centre saying they were not allowed to use masks, with only one ward being able to do so.

However, hospital GM Niresh Bechan said all employees, doctors and support services were provided with the relevant PPE and associated guidelines applicable to their role in the hospital. “Hospitals have been divided into low, medium and high-risk areas. Everyone working in a designated area is provided with and has been trained on the relevant PPE for that area,” said Bechan.

He said patients with severe coronavirus symptoms such as shortness of breath were requested to call ahead to the Accident and Emergency Department to arrange for an assessment or possible admission. Those with mild symptoms or wanting to be tested were to contact their GP for advice.

Meanwhile, Dr Chris Archer, CEO of the South African Private Practice Forum, said since there was a shortage of surgical and N95 masks, these should be restricted to health-care workers working in the front line, treating critically ill patients with the virus. These health-care workers include doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and all support staff in facilities that provide health-care.

Meanwhile, a Sowetan report says a group of eight paramedics in KwaZulu-Natal allegedly refused to transport a COVID-19 patient last month after claiming that they were not provided with protective gear and adequate training. They told their superiors on 243 March that they were ill-equipped to handle patients who had tested positive for COVID-19. This was after they were instructed to transport a patient from a local Pietermaritzburg clinic to Northdale Hospital for treatment.

However, an official from the department said their refusal came a week after Emergency Medical Services (EMS) staff were provided with training during a workshop.

One of the paramedics, who refused to be names said they were upset by how they were treated and said they did not refuse to attend to the patient but questioned how they were expected to carry out their duties with minimal training.

And Johannesburg mayor Geoff Makhubo has visited a testing site at District C in Roodepoort, where he heard concerns over minimal resources for healthcare workers. News24 reports that the district has four testing facilities and one of its challenges is a shortage of sanitisers, masks PPE for trained healthcare workers.

Makhubo heard that another issue was absenteeism as staff members at the four testing sites "panicked" over the minimal resources. He also heard that some of the clinics had an overflow of patients travelling from other regions to test for COVID-19 and there was a shortage of stock from stores and pharmacies.

The four clinics have tested 1,375 people so far, with none testing positive, clinic manager Stella Uys said.

Multiple government departments are working with the private sector and the Chinese government to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla is quoted in a Daily Maverick report as saying.

“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.” 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 & Industry, International Relations and Treasury were collaborating to secure PPEs and medical equipment and were in consultation with the private sector and the Chinese government.

Full Mail & Guardian report

Full Business Day report

Full report in The Star (subscription needed)

Full Sunday Independent report

Full City Press report

Full Daily News report

Full Sowetan report

Full News24 report

Full Daily Maverick report

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