Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: GCIS
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: GCIS

Health minister Zweli Mkhize moved on Tuesday 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.

His remarks come as SA’s biggest public sector health union readies for a legal fight for personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union has approached the Labour Court seeking to compel the health department to "meaningfully engage" with its members to ensure they have the right equipment and ensure that no-one is compelled to work without it. The matter was expected to be heard on Tuesday, but was delayed.

"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," he said at an event to mark the arrival of the first consignment of protective equipment procured from suppliers in China 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 SA 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.

The additional supplies are expected to cover SA’s need for personal protective equipment for the next six to eight weeks, depending on how rapidly Covid-19 spread, according to the minister.

Covid-19 is caused by the highly contagious Sars-Cov-2 virus and has raced around the world since it first emerged in China late in 2019. By Tuesday it had sickened 1.38-million people in 184 countries and regions and killed at least 78,000, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. The rapid spread of the disease has triggered a huge surge in demand for personal protective equipment, driving up prices and sending even the world’s richest nations scrambling for supplies.

As of Tuesday, SA had 1,749 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 13 deaths. Less than 100 patients with Covid-19 were in hospital, said Mkhize, emphasising that the health system was coping with the demands upon it.

Provincial health departments had been encouraged to engage with unions every fortnight so that safety issues could be raised, he said. "For us to defeat Covid-19, we need our staff to be healthy. We need them to be protected, we want to make sure they are safe."