Health Minister’s move ‘completely flawed’
bY SURESH PERERA
The sacking of the president and four members nominated to the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) by the previous government has triggered an uproar, with medical professionals slamming Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi’s move as “completely flawed” and “an attempt to undermine the autonomy and independence of the apex regulatory body”.
Expressing consternation over his sudden dismissal as the president of the statutory body, eminent Specialist Consultant Paediatrician, Prof. Harendra de Silva, said he was contemplating legal action against his removal by the Minister.
“I will be challenging my dismissal in the Court of Appeal”, he said.
In terms of the Medical Ordinance, there is no provision to remove the president or any of the four council members nominated by the serving Health Minister of the time, he asserted.
“Before I was informed of my termination, some Health Ministry officials urged me to resign, but I declined to do so”, Dr. de Silva told The Sunday Island.
Pressure was also exerted on the other four members of the council to step down, he noted. “However, we collectively stood our ground and refused to throw in the towel”.
“It was after I dismissed the overtures calling for my resignation that a letter indicating that I have been removed as SLMC president was sent across”, he further said.
Prof. Narada Warnasuriya and Dr. Pushpika Ubesiri, two of the other council members who were dismissed, said that they will also be seeking legal redress over their removal in “contravention of the Medical Ordinance”.
Apart from them, the other two ‘Minister’s nominees’, as they are called, who were given the marching orders were Dr. Upul Gunasekara and Dr. Sunil Ratnapriya. However, there was still no word on the four new nominees of the Minister.
Under the Medical Ordinance, the serving Health Minister can name the president and four nominees to the 25-member council. Apart from the Minister’s nominees, the other members are drawn on the basis of one each (generally the Dean) from Faculties of Medicine, and other diverse medical spheres. The Director-General of Health Services is an ex-officio member.
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has four elected representatives in the council – Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, Dr. Naveen de Zoysa, Dr. Nalinda Herath and Dr. Harris Pathirage. However, Dr. Pathirage has since resigned from the council citing personal reasons, GMOA Assistant Secretary, Dr. Chandana Dharmaratne said.
The SLMC election was on the cards but had to be put off indefinitely due to the worsening Covid-19 pandemic.
Though the Health Minister claimed that the dismissal of the SLMC president and the four nominated council members was based on the findings of the five-member committee appointed by her, that’s not the factual position, said Dr. L. A. Ranasinghe, president of the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS).
“Contrary to the Minister’s assertion in her letter to the SLMC president, personal communications we had with some of the committee members (Dr. Hemantha Perera and Dr. Anula Wijesundara) indicated that they had not singled out any member or the president in their report as responsible person/s for the deficiencies of the SLMC. Neither did they recommended the removal of anyone from the council”, he noted.
According to the committee members, the whole council is responsible for their decisions and actions and not individual members (similar to collective responsibility of Cabinet decisions), he explained.
As far as we know, there is no legal provision for the Minister to remove the SLMC president or any member according to his/her wishes without following the regulations stipulated in the Medical Ordinance, Dr. Ranasinghe remarked.
The process the Health Minister followed is completely flawed and purely based on the agenda of a trade union. This has created a very bad precedent that could be “the first step towards undermining the autonomy and independence of the SLMC”, which is tasked with the regulation of Sri Lanka’s medical profession, the AMS chief further said.
The SLMC is facing a crisis never witnessed in its recent history, he continued, while urging the Health Minister to reverse her decision immediately to avoid unnecessary turbulence in the field of medicine in this hour of dire need.
The five-member committee Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi appointed in September 2020 to “look into the activities of the SLMC” comprised Specialist Prof. Hemantha Perera, former Dean of the Ragama Medical Faculty, Specialist Prof. Prashantha Wijesinghe, Specialist Dr. Anula Wijesundera, Specialist Dr. Maithri Chandraratne and Specialist Dr. Dharshana Sirisena.
The Minister said at the time that the SLMC is an independent body established by a charter and its primary function is to maintain a quality medical service by protecting the rights of patients. The institution protects the quality of medical education and regulates physicians.
Under Section 15 of the Medical Ordinance, the president/council member is deemed to have vacated his post in the event of death, resignation, declared insolvent or bankrupt by a competent court, found guilty by a court of law, cancellation of medical registration, non-attendance of three consecutive board meetings or being away from the country for a period of one year or more, medical officials said.
“Whatever the reasons adduced, the crux of the matter here is that the present regime was not comfortable with a president and council that was appointed by former Health Minister, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne under the UNP administration”, they claimed.
“The reality of the situation was that the incumbent Health Minister buckled under pressure from the GMOA to sack the SLMC president and the four nominated members”,
With the appointment of Prof. Vajira H. W. Dissanayake, the Dean of Colombo Medical Faculty, as the new SLMC president, the GMOA welcomed what it called the “restoration of the independence and dignity” of the statutory body.
GMOA Secretary, Dr. Senal Fernando charged that that former Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne interfered with the functions of the SLMC by appointing his henchmen to the council, which resulted in more than one thousand individuals, who failed all three subjects at the Advanced Level examination, being registered as doctors.
He further accused the SLMC of undermining medical education by striking out three recognized Russian universities from the list of foreign universities recognized by Sri Lanka. These higher seats of learning included the world-renowned Patrice Lumumba University, which admit Sri Lankan students for medical degrees.
Expressing dismay over the developments, the Government Medical Officers’ Forum (GMOF) said that never in Sri Lanka’s history has a Health Minister of a government elected to power interfered with the SLMC in this manner by dismissing the nominees of the previous Minister.
Over the years, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Maithripala Sirisena and Rajitha Senaratne, as Health Ministers, respected the independence of the SLMC and the appointments made to it by their predecessors, says GMOF president, Dr. Rukshan Bellana.
They are trying to politicize the SLMC, he charged. “The incumbent Health Minister is giving into the dictates of the GMOA and lost her sense of direction as a result”.
President of the Public Service United Nurses Union, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, said the Health Minister has no right to meddle with the SLMC, which is an independent regulatory body.
Members to the SLMC are nominated to the SLMC for a five-year term by an incumbent Health Minister and dismissing them before they complete their tenure violates the Medical Ordinance, the prelate noted.
He said that health services in the country have plunged to a new low so much so it is more apt to describe the Health Ministry as “Unhealthy Ministry”.
The mess in the health sector could have been prevented if there was at least a secretary with a backbone in charge of the ministry, he asserted.
The Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) was established in 1998 as a statutory body. It replaced the former Ceylon Medical Council formed in 1924.
COVID-19: Jaffna faces serious risk
Top medical man in North threatens lockdown
Five villages isolated in Ganewatta DS area
20% of IDH patients need oxygen
By Dinasena Ratugamage and Rathindra Kuruwita
Tough restrictions would have to be imposed in Jaffna if religious leaders did not help health authorities, Northern Province Director General of Health Services, Dr. A. Kethiswaran said yesterday. Jaffna was facing a serious risk of COVID-19, he said.
Dr. Kethiswaran said so during a meeting with religious leaders at his office. He said that a large number of devotees were seen at various places of religious worship during the festive period.
“None of these people follow health guidelines. It is impossible to control the virus because of this. At this rate we will have to impose travel restrictions in the Jaffna District. We need everyone’s support, if we are to avoid this fate.”
He then urged religious leaders to inform devotees of the dangers of the virus and not to gather at places of worship in large numbers.
Dr. Kethiswaran also said that a large number of policemen in Jaffna had contracted COVID-19. About 258 PCR tests had been carried out on Wednesday after it was found that 13 policemen attached to the Jaffna Police station were infected. Altogether 788 PCR tests were done in the Jaffna District on Wednesday, Dr. Kethiswaran said.
One hundred and forty eight new COVID-19 cases had been detected in several villages in the Ganewatta Divisional secretariat area, Divisional Secretary Niranjala Karunaratne said yesterday.
On Wednesday alone 733 PCR tests had been done there, she said, adding that about 175 individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 there.
Given these developments, Tittawelgala, Hunupola, Siradunna, Aluthgama and Hettigama Grama Niladari divisions at Ganewatta Divisional secretariat area have been isolated.
Travel restrictions were imposed on Kuliyapitiya Town, Thunmodara, Dhandagamuwa – West, Kanadulla and Pahala Weerambuwa as COVID-19 cases were increasing there.
PHI in charge of Divulapitiya said that 84 new COVID-19 cases had been reported from the area during the last 48 hours. However, no decision had been taken to impose travel restrictions in the area, PHI, S.A.U.T Kularatne said.
“Twenty-eight of these patients were among people who attended a sports event organised for the New Year in Aswennawatta Grama Niladari area. Forty-four people who went on a trip at Mellawagedara have also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. If people are not careful, things might rapidly deteriorate,” he warned.
Deputy Director of IDH said that over 130 COVID-19 patients were undergoing treatment there although the hospital could accommodate only 120 patients.
All eight ICU beds at the IDH are occupied and 20% of the patients there need oxygen. The number of people admitted to hospital had increased after the Sinhala and Hindu New year, health ministry sources said.
Director General of Health Services – Western Province Dr. Dhammika Jayalath urged people to refrain from travelling to Colombo unless it was very urgent.
Director General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardane said that the coming three weeks would crucial.
Covid figures: Govt. accused of misleading the country
By Rathindra Kuruwita
The College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) yesterday claimed that State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals, Prof. Channa Jayasumana was making statements on new strains of SARS-CoV-2 without any scientific proof.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Prof. Jayasumana said that there had been an increase in the spread of Covid virus in the country, especially among the young people and that was due to a new strain of the virus.
President of the CMLS, Ravi Kumudesh said: “The Minister claimed they were doing a research on this. As far as we know, neither the Ministry nor the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has done any research to identify this new strain. The Ministry of Health stopped identifying new variants a long time ago.”
The Ministry of Health could neither plan for new variants of COVID-19 nor determine what vaccine was effective as it simply didn’t have the equipment to identify new strains, Kumudesh said, adding that identifying COVID-19 variants across the country had been outsourced to the University of Sri Jayawardenepura.
“I have repeatedly said that the Health Ministry officials can’t make science and evidence-based decisions or statements on new strains. Institutions under the Health Ministry do not have the ability to identify new strains of the coronavirus; only the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has a gene sequencing machine. We said this was having a disastrous impact on the country’s pandemic response and here we are,.”
Kumudesh said that identifying various strains of COVID-19 was essential to respond to the pandemic as everything from PCR testing to selecting a vaccine, depended on that.
“There are a number of strains of the virus in the world now and we now know that the new variant that led to a lockdown in the UK is here. We have to be ready to identify what strains are coming.”
Kumudesh said that since the country had opened its airports people from various countries would arrive, carrying new strains. He added that there might also be a new strain that originated here without “our knowledge because we don’t do adequate gene sequencing.
“To identify new variants, we must sequence the genes of viruses detected through PCR testing. We need many gene sequencing machines because one cannot identify new strains through a PCR test. However, the Ministry of Health has not provided a single gene sequencing machine to labs under its purview.”
CEA accused of turning blind eye to cardamom cultivators raping Knuckles Forest
By Rathindra Kuruwita
A government decision to allow cardamom plantations inside the Knuckles Forest Reserve, which came under the Forest Conservation Department,it was already having a negative impact on the ecosystem, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform (MONLAR) said.
Chamikara said that Knuckles Forest Reserve was not only a unique ecosystem but also an important catchment area for rivers such as Mahaweli and Kalu.
“Illegal Cardamom planters had been operating in the forest area for many decades and there had been many attempts to get rid of them,” Chamikara said
About six years ago, there was an attempt to remove illegal Cardamom planters from the Knuckles Forest Reserve. When the Forest Conservation Department tried to remove these encroachers, based on a court order, several politicians and officials intervened on their behalf, the environmentalist said. Due to those interventions, illegal Cardamom planters could not be removed from the Knuckles Forest Reserve, he added.
“In many areas of the Dumbara mountain range, forest undergrowth has been cleared to make way for cardamom plantations. This has drastically increased soil erosion and the soil that is swept away by rains have been deposited in many reservoirs after being taken downstream to the Mahaweli Ganga. Moreover, many trees have been cut to use as firewood to dry cardamom. There are many structures used to dry the cardamom dotting the Knuckles mountain range and these activities cause significant damages to the ecosystem.”
Chamikara said it was illegal to cut trees, cultivate and clear land in a Conservation Forest. The offences carried jail terms or fines or both. Moreover, the court could estimate the damage done to the forest and make the guilty pay that amount. Under the law, even people who encouraged such violations could be prosecuted.
“The CEA has the power to act against those who carry out such illegal activities. According to Section 23 (a.) (a.) of the National Environmental Act, when a project is carried out without obtaining approval, the CEA can present such people before a magistrate’s court. If found guilty a person can be fined up to Rs. 15,000 or imprisoned up to two years or subjected to both. Unfortunately the authorities concerned are turning a blind eye.”
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