My attention was drawn to the article “Jordan flatly rejected better allowances for healthcare workers – Minister Parag,” which was published in Guyana Chronicle, October 3, 2020. On reading the article, I was overcome by feelings of amusement, astonishment and indignation. Eventually, having been goaded into doing so, I have decided to respond and set the record straight.
At the outset, let me say that Minister Parag has been badly advised and/or misinformed, hence her misguided statement. The payment of a Covid Risk Allowance (CRA) was my idea. Yes, you heard correctly: It was my idea. It arose out of an earnest conversation I had with a nurse of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). I was struck by the passion with which she represented the plight of nurses in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the issues she raised with me were the absence of PPEs and cleaning agents, the absence of security in the triage area, exposure to Covid-positive patients, the lack of transportation from their homes to the hospital and vice versa during the curfew hours, the absence of counselling for nurses and their families, and payment of an allowance for the increased risks they faced. This conversation took place circa April 4, 2020.
On April 5, 2020 I contacted the Minister of Public Health, via WhatsApp, outlining the issues raised and urged that these matters be addressed quickly. I offered the Ministry of Finance’s help to prevent a crisis from developing, “including the payment of a risk allowance to frontline workers”. Yes, I am able to include that quotation because I still have all of the WhatsApp communication.
A little digression is needed here. In December 2019, the Coalition Government had made a major payout – over $900 million – in increased allowances to the health sector. Among the allowances that were increased, substantially, was Risk Allowance. When I indicated this to the nurse, she claimed that most nurses did not benefit from the increase. In fact, a number of other categories of health personnel suffered a similar fate. As a result, my recommendation to the Minister of Public Health was for priority to be given to those health workers on the frontline, who did not benefit from the 2019 increases, including doctors, nurses and nurse assistants, physiotherapists, as well as others in the emergency department, intensive care unit, infectious diseases units, and respiratory and other wards where patients with suspected pandemic influenza were housed. Consideration must also be given to porters, cleaners and maids. I also indicated that workers at the Palms should benefit, similarly.
The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Public Health (PS, MPH) and the Director, Office of the Budget (DOB) were charged with the responsibility of putting a package together. I maintained an abiding interest in ensuring that the exercise would be concluded speedily. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Critical information was not provided in a timely manner, as MPH staff seemed preoccupied with getting the Covid hospital completed, among other matters. Where information was provided, it was partial and, in some cases, useless to the exercise at hand. A few examples would suffice:
- An initial list of those to benefit that was submitted by PS, MPH excluded those in the 10 Regions and GPHC. The exercise to correct this lacuna had to be painstakingly conducted with major inputs from the Ministry of Finance (MoF).
- Subsequent lists that were submitted by the PS, MPH were found to be defective for a number of reasons:
- Included in the list of those to benefit from CRA were the PS, MPH and DPS, MPH, a clear indication of a lack of clarity of who is a frontline worker.
- Recommended monthly payments, retroactive to March 2020, ranged from $120,000 to $60,000. However, no information was provided by MPH as to how these figures were arrived at. This was vitally important since I learnt that GPHC had already begun paying some frontline workers around $10,000 per month while some workers at the Palms were getting $15,000.
- No information was provided as to the number of persons to be paid in each category; and the number of persons in receipt of risk allowance who will need a ‘top up’ to the CRA, depending on the category in which they fell.
- The period for which the payments were to be made was not identified.
- In the absence of (iv), the estimated cost of the package could not be determined. This information would be critical, under any circumstance, in finalising any package of financial assistance. It became even more imperative, given the circumstances under which the Government was operating.
In the absence of these and other critical pieces of information, the package could not be concluded; hence, the Minister of Public Health was unable to present it to Cabinet for approval. I was, therefore, aghast when the PS, Department of the Public Service, by Memorandum to the PS, MPH that was copied to the Ministers of Finance and Public Service, purported to have approved a Covid risk allowance, as recommended by PS, MPH. After my intervention that the approval was done without the requisite information being submitted and without the knowledge of the Ministry of Finance, this Memorandum was put on ‘pause’; it may have been withdrawn, subsequently.
On August 2, 2020 the Minister of Public Health reached out to me to bring an end to the inordinate time it was taking to conclude the issue of risk allowance for health workers. In response to her WhatsApp message, I wrote the following: “Good morning Volda. This matter is with your PS who seems to have thrown in the towel. Until answers to specific questions are given, I can’t help. I’m the one who suggested this allowance to you. So, I remain a friend. But we have to do things systematically to avoid future problems, animus from other sector employees and sustainability over the defined period.” Her response to me was, “Okay I will get on to Sonya [DOB] and see what is needed. Thank you.” As you know, Editor, it is on that day that all Ministers of the Coalition Government demitted office.
I enjoin Minister Parag and her colleagues to eschew the need to score cheap political, propagandistic points.
Former Minister of Finance