Vaccine rollout under Parliament’s spotlight
Opposition parties in the National Assembly (NA) want the government to be more transparent and provide a detailed plan, as well as estimated costs of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout process, writes Sakhile Mokoena.
They argue that the absence of a plan could deny Parliament and the public the right to scrutinise the process and hold the government accountable. The Democratic Alliance (DA) sponsored a debate titled “An urgent matter of national importance: rollout of Covid-19 vaccination plan for South Africa”, which was led by Ms Siviwe Gwarube.
Ms Gwarube told the hybrid sitting of the NA that Parliament needs to be appraised of the vaccine rollout process in a detailed fashion, in a codified plan that can be tabled for scrutiny. “The excuse that no codified plan could be produced because the environment is highly competitive and forever changing, is simply lazy at best> Parliament cannot be treated as an inconvenient stop for the executive.
“Some of the questions that must be answered are about the manufacturers that government is negotiating with. This does not mean undermining sensitive negotiations, but an indication of where we are, where we are acquiring vaccines, what are the doses and what are the expected timelines?” she asked. Ms Gwarube also proposed the establishment of an ad hoc committee that will oversee the work of the Inter-Ministerial Committee “so that we can demand an efficient rollout of this vaccine with clear deadlines, and make sure that the process is free from corruption”.
“The longer we take to vaccinate our people, the higher the chances of a various mutation, which undermines the efficacy of vaccines and worsens our chances against the third wave,” she said.
Dr Suzan Thembekwayo, speaking on behalf of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), also lashed out at government for failing to develop a plan to vaccinate the nation and waiting until it was too late to begin negotiating with vaccine manufactures.
“We knew that with the virus affecting all corners of the world, the rat race towards the development of a vaccine would lead to rich countries hoarding the vaccine for themselves to the exclusion and detriment of developing countries, which will be hardest hit by the virus over an extended period of time.
“Despite this, you never developed any plan for the vaccination of the nation until it is too late and the consequence of this is devastating for the lives of millions of our people. While the whole world is moving at speed to vaccinate, we are grasping at straws here, taking whatever crumbs we can get. The truth of the matter is that we were caught unawares as far as vaccine procurement and rollout is concerned,” said Dr Thembekwayo.
For Mr Mkhuleko Hlengwa of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the disappointing part was the “ongoing politicisation of the vaccine programme and the apparent inability of the various role players to work together in the interest of the people of South Africa . . . We are disappointed by the ongoing concern on the secrecy and the lack of transparency in vaccine-related matters.”
Mr Steve Swart of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) said the lack of transparency around the rollout of the vaccine must raise alarms, given the experience of widespread corruption with regard to the personal protective equipment (PPE) funds. “Frontline healthcare workers were left without PPE, many succumbed to the virus. This is disgraceful, so it is critical that an open and transparent process is followed with the rollout of the vaccine programme. It will indeed be a fertile ground for looting and corruption with between R25 million and R30 billion expected to be spent. This must be prevented at all costs through proper oversight and accountability by Parliament,” Mr Swart said.
The African Transformation Movement (ATM) feels Parliament has been robbed of meaningful input that would not only have enhanced the safety of our people, but ensured there was more prudency and circumspection than the commercial interests that seem to have been the priority.
“We are meeting in the aftermath of the litany of blunders that have been made by the President and his army of advisors, including the Minister of Health and his eminent scientists. It is not clear which processes were followed to procure the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, were there no better options, what are the implications of rolling out a vaccine which is not FDA-approved?” asked the ATM Member of Parliament, Ms Thandiswa Marawu.
Welcoming the beginning of the vaccination drive in South Africa and calling it a moment of hope after years of unprecedented trauma, disruption and loss, Mr Shaun August of the Good Party also warned that the arrival of the first vaccine on our shores does not signal that the war was over. “Covid-19 is as unpredictable as it is deadly, nobody anywhere in the world knows what the next variant might bring. Let us focus on the logistics of safely vaccinating the nation.
“We are pleased that the vaccine will be free to all South Africans. This is not only fair to our radically unequal society, it also shuts down opportunities for crooks looking to skim money off the project. Anyone caught trying to sell the vaccine or jump the queue must be stopped and prosecuted,” said Mr August.
Mr Willie Madisha of the Congress of the People (Cope) said government’s claims that it was working hard to save South Africans from Covid-19 is not true. He also accused the government of wasting money and allowing corruption by government officials and close family members of government officials.
“Instead of saving South Africans from the Covid-19 virus, money is wasted by this government. It has even wasted millions of rands to buy wrong vaccines such as the AstraZeneca, for example, though scientists had told government that that vaccine won’t work,” said Mr Madisha.
Responding to the criticism from the opposition parties, the Minister of Health,
Dr Zweli Mkhize, said the procurement of vaccines has been a complex process that required negotiations with multinational manufactures of vaccines in the face of vaccine nationalism and protectionism. He said the government has signed a non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with most of the leading manufacturers of vaccines, which allows South Africa to gain a critical insight into their supply lines, their manufacturing plants and possible blockages in the manufacturing pipeline. This allows government to pursue negotiations over the prices and volumes and timelines for delivery.
“We need to correct the erroneous impression that there are questions that we are avoiding to answer because of the NDAs. Rather it should be understood that the NDAs must be respected in order to protect the process of timely acquisitions, but we will make that information available to this House when it is ready,” said Dr Mkhize.
Dr Mkhize also told the House that the signing of the final agreement requires thorough consultations with National Treasury to provide guidance so that Public Finance Management Act, and that other related legislation is upheld before final agreements are signed. “Once all these contracts are signed, they will be made available to the National Treasury and the Auditor-General’s office for perusal,” added Dr Mkhize.