Health Ministry and CDC roasted by PAC over procurement breaches during early months of COVID-19 pandemic

Health Ministry and CDC roasted by PAC over procurement breaches during early months of COVID-19 pandemic

More than a year after the Audit Office found that COVID-19 supplies valuing more than $1B were procured in an ad-hoc manner, the Ministry of Health and the Civil Defence Commission (CDC) were hauled over the coals by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament and told better must be done.

According to the Performance Audit on the procurement, storage and distribution of COVID-19 supplies for the period March-August 2020 during the start of the pandemic under the previous government, the Health Ministry and the CDC worked quickly to procure a number of items including masks and personal protective equipment, however, in the process, failed to comply with the Procurement Act.

On Monday, the Health Ministry’s Permanent Secretary (PS), Malcolm Watkins and Director General of the CDC, Colonel Nazrul Hussain admitted that the Procurement Act and Regulations were breached, however, from the onset, they told the PAC Chairman, Jermaine Figueira and Members that they were not at the helm of the government entities at the time.

As indicated in the report, Government’s Chief Whip, Gail Teixeira pointed out that the Health Ministry and CDC had signed agreements with suppliers that lacked standard information such as start and end dates, and penalty clauses, resulting in late deliveries.

According to the report, supplies valued $400M were delivered one month late, but there was little the Health Ministry could have done.

While admitting fault, the PS told the PAC that the global supply chain was hamstrung by the deadly pandemic.

“At different times during the pandemic there were different challenges…During that period of time, depending on the nature of the contract, if it was a PPE contract, we cannot say exclusively that the reason for late deliveries was solely for the pandemic, there may be elements of lack of management but some points during the covid pandemic, there were global surges especially for masks and PPES…so there were periods when they were hard to get,” the PS explained.

Weighing in on the issue, Colonel Hussain told the PAC that due to the global surge in demand for masks, the CDC had resorted to making masks to meet the local demand. Telling the CDC Director General that there was no excuse for breaching the procurement laws, the Government’s Chief Whip pointed out that there were nine contracts signed between the CDC and a number of suppliers that did not meet the requirement.

In response, the Director General merely accepted that the breach occurred.

Turning the PAC’s attention to the issue of sole sourcing, Government MP Sanjeev Datadin grilled the Health Ministry’s PS and the CDC Director General on the reason for sole sourcing certain items.

“The contracts under queried most of them were sole source for various things including PPEs. From the findings, sometimes, the process was in-completed before the paper work is followed…They would have secured orders, in some instances, secure the order from the supplier before an award is given or before an official notice to deliver was provided,” Mr Watkins said in response.

He said the Health Ministry, at the time, justified its action by referring to the challenges posed by the pandemic but said even though he was appointed during the pandemic, and the Procurement Laws were followed in the procurement of drugs and medical supplies.

But even as the Government MPs sought to grill the Health and CDC officials on the procurement process, the PAC Chairman and MP Juretha Fernandes objected on the grounds that the Committee was expected to question the entities on their performance, and the progress made in achieving the recommendations since the release of the report in September 2021.

But MP Teixeira, a longstanding Parliament, told the PAC that the procurement process and the entities’ performances are intertwined.

“When $1B is spent, and there were still shortages of drugs and supplies, although $1B was spent, that is an indication that something was wrong, and therefore, there were several things that happened that were wrong, and the report pointed out those. One, is that contracts were given without the NPTAB approval, that contracts delivered late in some cases, when we come to paragraph 24, over $400M, which is more than 50% of the $983M spent on drugs and medical supplies that went ahead without National Procurement Tender approval,” the Government Chief Whip reasoned.

This was the first time that the PAC assessed a performance audit.

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