Not so fast – WELLS

PM Hubert Minnis in Parliament

By Sharon Turner

Did Health Minister Renward Wells receive an honorarium or payment by any other name, with respect to the COVID-19 response?

It may appear to some that a Ministry of Health statement on social media allegations about Wells receiving an honorarium along with the country’s healthcare workers, settled the question of whether Wells received any such payment.

But it did not settle the question.

The statement said, “The Ministry of Health would like to advise that the minister of health did not receive any of the funds allocated for the honorarium put aside for frontline and non-frontline workers.”

This statement does not deny that Wells received funds.

The ministry’s statement merely asserts that he did not receive funds “allocated for the honorarium put aside for frontline and non-frontline workers”.

The wording of this response triggers a logical query about whether the minister did receive funds, but from a different line item than that of the honorarium allocation.

The critically unanswered question that therefore remains, is were funds – whether in the online alleged amount of $10,000 or otherwise – paid to Wells in respect of the COVID-19 response?

If such a payment was made, it would be a condemnable occurrence in what has mushroomed into a controversy that led to a further crippling of an already collapsing healthcare system.

Wells must answer the question of whether he was paid sums over and above his legislated salary and allowance in respect of the COVID-19 response directly, truthfully and verifiably.

Questioning the assailable response by the ministry about this matter is by no means unjustified, considering its accompanying confirmation that the minister’s personal assistant and driver received an honorarium equal to the amount paid to non-frontline healthcare workers who served during the pandemic’s first wave.

Last Friday, the Public Hospitals Authority (PHA) sought to clarify in a statement that not all healthcare workers met the criteria as established by the Cabinet for payment of the COVID honorarium.

The PHA said, “This honorarium was originally intended for a subset of frontline healthcare employees who, when most healthcare workers were hesitant and declined to serve in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, offered their names and talents to initiate the COVID-19 response.

“Subsequently, the government expanded eligibility to include additional cadres of staff, some working in clinical and non-clinical settings, during the period March 19 – June 18, 2020.”

Three days earlier, Wells said, “The individuals who were chosen for the honorarium [were] done so by those who are the supervisors in the requisite sectors of the healthcare sector who would’ve put forth their members, who would’ve said, ‘These are the heroes and sheroes who worked on the front line in regards to COVID-19’, and the government would then have issued the requisite compensations to these individuals.”

Wells was sworn in as minister of health on July 20, 2020, over one month after the honorarium criteria period the PHA said Cabinet agreed to, had ended.

In other words, Wells was not the minister of health during the first wave for which healthcare workers are said to have been identified for an honorarium.

The minister of health during most of that period was Dr. Duane Sands, followed briefly by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis.

So, which “supervisor” determined that Wells’ driver and personal assistant were among frontline healthcare “heroes and shereos” whose work within this country’s public hospitals and clinics, was worthy of the “token of appreciation” as the ministry’s statement termed it, of an honorarium?

To borrow further terms used in the ministry’s statement, we ask what “long hours caring for patients with or without COVID-19” did both staffers undertake, or what pandemic response “sacrifices” were made by the staffers assigned to a minister who was not minister of health during the time period for which honorariums were designated?

We do not ask this to cast aspersions on both individuals, but rather to highlight part of what understandably triggered healthcare workers on New Providence and Grand Bahama to engage in a sick-out.

If the driver and personal assistant of a minister who was not minister of health during that period, could be paid an honorarium designated for healthcare workers, how unreasonable is it to question what, if anything, the minister received?

The leaked lists

What would be considered confidential honorarium payment lists appeared on social media last Thursday, and quickly went viral.

The PHA has issued several statements since that time, but up to press time both the PHA and the ministry were silent on the leak of this confidential personnel information.

This is curious.

The ministry went to lengths to issue a press statement to respond to social media claims about the minister, his driver and his personal assistant that were published on the same day as the personnel information that was leaked.

But a government which is otherwise quick to condemn the release of confidential information – not to mention being often reluctant to release information that the public has a right to see – said nothing of this breach.

Healthcare workers we spoke to last Thursday questioned whether the leak was sanctioned, so as to make a point to the public about how many healthcare workers were paid, and what they were paid.

They also questioned the timing of the leak, since the files appeared online around the same time claims were posted about payments to the minister and staff members assigned to him.

The release of these personnel lists could have put healthcare workers in danger during a time of increased armed robberies.

It also represented a low point in the ongoing saga of how the country’s healthcare workers are treated – many of whom who were deemed unworthy to receive what even the minister’s driver and assistant received, for a COVID-19 response only healthcare workers could provide.

Common sense and responsible governance would dictate that the payment of honorariums in August 2021, after healthcare workers have battled COVID-19 for 17 months, ought to have either been paid to all or paid to none if fully predictable unrest were to be avoided.

If accountability will not be had for this present and dangerous consequence of irresponsible and ill-conceived governance, Bahamians cannot have rational hope that it will be had for anything else this term.