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Foot-dragging on appointing new DGHS cause concern amidst fresh Covid flare-up

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BY SURESH PERERA

The vacuum created by the inordinate delay in appointing a new Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) — the highest technical position in the government health service –- has caused grave concern among medical circles, particularly at a time a fresh wave of the deadly Covid-19 virus has erupted with more than one thousand positive cases identified so far in a garment factory cluster in the Gampaha district.

Since the then DGHS, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, was moved out in a surprise development in mid August this year, the top position has continued to remain vacant for almost two months.

However, applications were recently called from prospective candidates with an October 16, 2020 deadline – a process that will take at least another month from the given date for shortlisting candidates, interviews, selections and follow-up paper work for Cabinet approval, health officials said.

Dr. Jasinghe, a respected consultant specialist cum senior medical administrator, who played a pivotal role in curbing the initial coronavirus outbreak in March this year, was shifted abruptly to the Environment Ministry as its secretary, a move that was described as being “kicked upstairs” to head an institution, where his medical experience and expertise were totally irrelevant.

As a Cabinet sanctioned appointment, the DGHS is the competent authority in enforcing a plethora of crucial health-related laws, including the Quarantine Act, Food and Drugs Act, Tobacco Act and Transplant Act.

Under the circumstances, a non functioning full-time DGHS or an acting appointment, which has not received Cabinet approval, could impede the full and proper enforcement of relevant laws pertaining to public health and safety especially at a critical time when quarantine regulations are being rigidly enforced, the officials asserted.

The appointment of a relatively junior medical administration in an “acting capacity” on the basis of a temporary “working arrangement” initiated by a health sector panjandrum has raised eyebrows because he cannot enforce the specific regulations as the competent authority without Cabinet giving the nod to his purported “acting appointment”, they said.

In terms of the medical services minute gazetted in 2014, the position of DGHS can be held only by a medical administrator of Deputy Director-General of Health Services grade. Under the marking scheme, three shortlisted candidates will face an interview and, thereafter, their names will be placed before Cabinet by the subject Minister in charge, who will make a recommendation for approval.

However, over the past 20 years, the medical services minute has been amended at least thrice with the selection procedure changed, the officials claimed.

With the exit of Dr. Jasinghe, who served as DGHS from 2017-2020, the senior-most medical administrator in line now is Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, one of the most qualified consultant specialists in Sri Lanka.

However, with the powers-that-be having a big say in the appointment to the top administrative slot in the government health segment, as seen in many cases in the past, the possibility of Dr. de Silva being given what he deserves appears to hang in the balance, medical officials claimed.

Indications are that he may be edged out notwithstanding his academic achievements, seniority and competence as the most-senior medical administrator, they opined. “Tail- waggers should not be given precedence over conscientious professionals who have proven their worth”.

Prior to Dr. Jasinghe, senior medical administrators who served as DGHS were dental surgeon Dr. Jayasundara Bandara (2016-2017), additional secretary Dr. Palitha Maheepala (2012- 2016), Dr. Ajith Mendis (2008-2012), Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage (2003-2008) and consultant gastro urinary surgeon Dr. A. M. L. Beligaswatte (2000-2003).

Meanwhile, the Government Medical Officers’ Forum (GMOF) said that Sri Lanka did tremendously well to contain the community spread of Covid-19. However, it is regrettable the DGHS position in the health sector still remains vacant especially at a critical juncture when the country is again facing a grave coronavirus threat.

“All these years, it was under the leadership of the DGHS that our country was able to overcome the threat of pandemics. Dr. Anil Jasinghe did a marvelous job until he was suddenly moved to a ministry alien to him”, GMOF media secretary, Dr. Niroshana Premaratne said in a statement.

At a time Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented health crisis, the public expected the next-in-line to be appointed DGHS immediately. But, two months have gone by with no appointment still in sight despite the country plunging again into the throes of a severe Covid-19 crisis, the trade union stressed.

“At first, we welcomed the appointment of retired Major General, Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe as secretary to the Health Ministry in May this year because it is medical administrators who have largely guided the health sector to greater heights over the decades. As witnessed in the past, particularly during 2015-2020, civil administrators as health secretaries fell short of the expected performance”, the GMOF noted.

The incumbent health secretary is a big disappointment as even senior officials, including DDGs and directors, cannot access him. Unlike earlier, when senior staff could walk directly into the secretary’s office to sort out issues, they have to now kick their heels for hours outside his door. With an indifferent and inaccessible secretary coupled with the absence of a permanent DGHS has turned the whole health sector topsy-turvy, the statement asserted.

“This callous attitude of the health secretary doesn’t portend well for the forward movement of the country’s health sector in general and public safety and welfare in particular”, the GMOF complained.

“We believe that a conspiracy led to the ousting of Dr. Anil Jasinghe because, as a competent medical professional, he led from the front, called a spade a spade and did what needed to be done without ‘boru shows’ and dramas”, the GMOF noted.

If the then DGHS was moved out for a genuine reason, the health secretary should have lined up the next senior-most medical administrator to step in immediately taking into consideration the grave situation the country is now facing, the statement continued.

As a Cabinet approved appointment, the DGHS is vested with powers to enforce around 100 health-related Acts. However, for the past two months, neither a permanent nor an acting appointment has been made by Cabinet. What was done instead was the health secretary, who is not the appointing authority in the first place, making a temporary appointment to ‘oversee duties’, the statement further said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a deadly situation in the world. What Sri Lanka needs at this point of time is not a puppet as DGHS, but a clever and competent medical administrator who can guide the nation in its hour of need. An autocratic style of management is not the answer to the grave crisis at hand”, it added.

It is clear that there is resistance to appoint the most deserving senior DDG as the next DGHS. The country cannot afford to pay for the sins of an insensitive official best described as a “square peg in a round hole”, who lord over the unfolding scenario within the comfort of his ivory tower, the statement noted.

The GMOF said it was pathetic to see how the Health Ministry forced doctors to go on transfers at a time the country was on alert for the pandemic. This was done at the insistence of a certain trade union. In addition, the Ministry, in contravention of all norms, conducted a program at a cost of Rs. 4 million for those awaiting internships, while the trade union was allowed to charge Rs. 4,000 from each of the 1,500 participants, who were still not even employed.

Repeated attempts by The Sunday Island to contact the health secretary for comment since last Tuesday were unsuccessful as his mobile phone went unanswered.

“How can you get through to him when even those under the same roof cannot access him?”, a health sector official laughed.

“As an option, you can try your luck by coming over here and waiting outside his door for a couple of hours”, he suggested.

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Special COVID-19 probe crippled by infections among CCD sleuths: AG calls for new police team

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Brandix Apparel Limited yesterday (29) said that the company would fully cooperate with relevant authorities in the investigation ordered by the Attorney General (AG). A spokesperson for the company said so when The Island sought a clarification with regard to AG Dappula de Livera, PC, directing the police to launch a criminal investigation into the alleged lapses on the part of the company as well as those officials leading to the devastating COVID-19 outbreak.

The Minuwangoda eruption, which happened in the first week of October is widely believed to be the cause of the fast expanding Peliyagoda cluster.

Asked whether the police had contacted the Brandix management as regards the investigation and sought access to Brandix management and workers at its Minuwangoda apparel manufacturing facility as well as records at the Minuwangoda facility, the spokesperson said: “We will work with the relevant authorities in this regard”.

The Colombo Crime Division (CCD) tasked with the probe has suffered a serious setback due to a section of its officers being tested positive for COVID-19. Authoritative sources said that the CCD lacked sufficient strength to carry out the investigation.

AG de Livera early this week told DIG Ajith Rohana that a progress report should be submitted to him by or before Nov. 13.

Sources said that the badly depleted CCD was not in a position to conduct the high-profile investigation, in addition to other ongoing inquiries. The AG has directed the Acting IGP to constitute a special team of law enforcement officers to conduct the investigation. Sources acknowledged the urgent need for a thorough inquiry into the far worse second corona wave. Sources said that the AG issued fresh instructions in that regard after the crisis in the CCD was brought to his notice.

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Most garment workers under self-quarantine left to fend for themselves

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A large number of garment workers who were undergoing self-quarantine in Minuwangoda did not receive any assistance, Chamila Thushari of the Dabindu Collective, a labour organisation that works with garment workers, told The Island yesterday.

She said that those who were under self-quarantine did not have money to purchase food and even those who were willing to help could not reach them.

“Some of them have received food parcels from their work places but that is not adequate. Most others have not received any assistance. Matters will only get worse after curfew is imposed throughout the Western Province,” Thushari said.

Most of these workers are undergoing self-quarantine at their boarding places, which also house individuals who still work in garment factories. “Although there is a curfew, they can go to work. These are perfect incubators for the virus,” she said.

Thushari said that every day between 20-30 workers under self-quarantine, tested positive for COVID-19.

There were no public health inspectors to monitor the boarding houses of garment workers to ensure that COVID-19 prevention measures were being followed, she said.

“Not even Grama Niladaris visit them,” Chamila said.

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SJB requests separate seats for its dissidents

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Chief Opposition Whip and Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella has written to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena requesting him to make arrangements to provide separate seats to the nine MPs who had voted with the government for the 20th Amendment to the Constitution recently.

The letter dated yesterday said that the SJB parliamentary group had decided to expel MPs Diana Gamage, A. Aravind Kumar, Ishak Rahuman, Faisal Cassim, H. M. M. Haris, M.S. Thowfeeq, Nazeer Ahmed, A.A.S.M. Raheem and S.M.M. Musharaf and it requests the Speaker to make separate seating arrangements for these MPs in the Chamber.

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