Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. Picture: SOWETAN/ANTONIO MUCHAVE
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. Picture: SOWETAN/ANTONIO MUCHAVE

Health minister Zweli Mkhize says an advisory committee is dealing with the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in public health institutions after labour criticised his department’s slack approach in addressing non-compliance with health protocols at these facilities.

However, National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) general secretary Zola Saphetha said they reject the committee as it is not a “suitable and effective platform to engage on urgent matters” concerning the health and safety of workers.

“As an important stakeholder we believe we should be able to engage the minister and MECs directly and not be reduced into a labour desk of any ministry,” said Saphetha.

Nehawu, which represents 108,000 health workers in the public sector, warned on Tuesday that if these challenges are not addressed satisfactorily, it would go on strike in September, at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to peak in parts of the country.

A report by Nehawu has shone the spotlight on a sick public health system dogged by a critical shortage of health workers, a lack of PPE, and general non-compliance with occupation health and safety (OHS) regulations.

In a media briefing on Tuesday, the Nehawu leadership said the shortage of PPE is so dire that front-line workers have resorted to wearing refuse bags to protect themselves. Health experts warn that a strike would be disastrous for those who rely on public health care as they would “suffer the most”.

On Wednesday, the national health department said Mkhize has given a directive for OHS committees to be established at provincial, district and local hospital levels, in an effort to augment the fight against the coronavirus. He said the unions are part of the multisectoral ministerial advisory committee (MAC). 

Earlier in July, Mkhize requested that a labour workstream be formed by the committee to look at issues pertaining to PPE, and to timeously respond to challenges flagged, among others.

“The minister further requested that the labour workstream identify those specific facilities that have shortages so the department of health can immediately intervene,” the department said.

The Nehawu report will assist the ministry as Mkhize “will request that reference be made to specific provinces, districts and facilities so as to urgently respond to the identified shortfalls. ... The constant reporting of incidents of non-compliance will assist us in protecting our front-line workers.”

The department said the recruitment of health workers is being done on an “urgent basis” during the pandemic.

“The department of health recognises the critical role to be played by labour in representing their members’ views during this period. We reiterate our commitment that no health worker should be exposed to a work environment in which they have not been provided with sufficient PPE. We will continue to provide as much support as we can in various areas affecting our health workers.”

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA and the Public Servants Association of SA, which represent more than 86,000 health workers each, said they will continue working with Mkhize in rooting out problems in the public health system.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za

Update: July 29 2020
This article has been updated to include comment from Nehawu.

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