By Tabora Bojang
The Finance and Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly has opened investigations into a damning report of the Auditor General, alleging millions of dalasis was expended by the government in its Covid-19 response, procurement and distribution of medical and food items without following due processes.
The damning report was first published by The Standard prompting half- baked and face-saving rejoinders from the Ministry of Health.
The report was since shared with the National Assembly to scrutinise and make recommendations.
The FPAC committee, chaired by Speaker Mariam Jack-Denton, began its probe into the report last week.
Yesterday’s heated session focused on the audit findings of wasteful expenditure on items not needed to fight Covid-19.
According to the audit report, the Ministry of Health in its Covid-19 preparedness and response contributed D100 million towards the World Bank project for the procurement of medical supplies and equipment.
Under the project, a contract was signed between the Ministry and TMS Turkey for supplies of medical items and equipment for $3.9 million, equivalent to about D197 million.
However, the auditors stated that following their review of the procurement files of the ministry, it indicated that items such as air conditioners, generator, washing machines, clothes dryer machines and television sets worth D5 million were found not relevant to the fight against Covid-19 as they were kept in store and not distributed.
The audit findings further warned that there is a risk that funds are used on items that were not used in the Covid-19 preparedness and response depriving other areas that urgently require immediate response.
In its response to these audit findings, the Ministry of Health insisted that these “items procured are very essential for the Covid-19 response and all needed in our facilities.”
“Not using them immediately is no indication they are not needed because more construction work is being done,” the Ministry further argued.
“The generator is delivered to the sanatorium treatment centre, the two washing machines and dryers are already at the Ndemban Clinic. The televisions are at the Central Medical Store awaiting delivery to the National Treatment Centre now under construction,” the management response stated.
However, according to the audit response, these findings remain ‘unresolved” since all evidence provided confirmed that all the listed items are still in store and that purchasing them under an emergency response was unnecessary.
The National Assembly Member for New Jeshwang, Alagie Drammeh raised serious concerns about the Ministry’s response to these findings.
He said since the country was faced with an emergency, a proper assessment by the Ministry would have identified what we needed at that urgent time to address the emergency instead of catering for items that would be laying there to wait for something else that might not cover the duration of the emergency.
The Banjul South NAM, Touma Njai said although air conditioners, generators, washing machines, clothes dryer machines and television sets might be needed, it does not warrant the Ministry to use emergency measures to get them.
“The word emergency is clearly defined in English. So to use our meagre resources to be thinking of television sets at treatment centres when patients do not even have time to be watching television is a wastage of our resources and I think people should be held responsible for wasting our resources which could cost human life especially during Covid-19”, Touma Njai stated.
The Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health, Muhamadou Lamin Jaiteh in his response, said these items were among the most important list of things identified as part of the Ministry’s assessment.
“Our systems were not up to standard and we knew we had to provide comfort for patients who come to our centres with trauma. We have to accord them a conducive environment to help us facilitate their comfort and treatment.”
Committee vice chairman and member for Wuli Wes,t Sedia Jatta quickly interjected and asked PS Jaiteh to explain why he should prioritize television sets for patients where they needed most pressing requirements such as beds.
“In fact, Covid is not compatible with AC. You are asking people to go and sit in the sunlight for 30 minutes and now you are talking about providing AC for those patients. Is that not contradictory? Sidia quizzed.
However, PS Jaiteh further charged the Ministry had procured these items and then later received donations on the same items from philanthropists.
“So, we keep it in the store, the ones not needed for now until construction is completed,” PS Jaiteh added.
The Director of Health Services, Dr. Mustapha Bittaye also explained to lawmakers that a treatment centre does not only restrict to patient rooms.
Dr. Bittaye also stated that an AC is ideal for a treatment centre but where it is placed is debatable. “Of course, a television is very important and having Covid does not mean one is dying if you are isolated and did not get a TV it is more depressing and some of our patients were complaining that they only have 5 channels and wanted more.”
Lawmaker Jatta further put to the Doctor [Bittaye]: “Yes, television but this is a question of priority. Do you pay for a bed for a patient or a television?”