The Workers’ Party (WP) has again called for a Committee of Inquiry (COI) to be convened to look into the hepatitis C outbreak at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
The party’s statement on Monday follows its initial one on Sunday where it called for the independent review committee appointed by the Ministry of Health (MOH) on 6 October to be reconstituted into a COI.
However, the MOH said it would convene a COI “if the WP believes that there are questions that the Committee cannot answer, or that any officer acted with improper motives.”
“The Government will convene a COI provided the WP is prepared to lead evidence before the COI, to substantiate whatever allegations it might have,” said Ms Lim Bee Khim, the press secretary to the Minister of Health.
The WP in response, and in its initial statement, said that it had not made any allegations, and that asking it to prove this was “confusing, distracting and unhelpful.”
“The burden of responsibility resides with the government in this matter,” the WP said in its response then.
“Our motivation in making this call is to strengthen the healthcare system on which Singaporeans depend and to ensure that the review is not only successful but is widely seen by the Singaporean public to be successful,” said WP’s Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), Leon Perera, who signed off on the party statement.
Ms Lim in turn replied to this on Sunday night by reiterating the MOH’s position – that the ministry was ready to convene a COI if WP met its demands.
On Tuesday, the WP responded, “We note that both MOH statements on Sunday 25 October did not engage with our reasons for reconstituting the current review committee as a COI.”
The WP repeated its call for a COI and explained why it had also asked for the members of such a committee to be re-appointed.
Referring to the members of the independent review committee, Mr Perera said, “Being tasked to review the workflow of senior civil servants who regulate medical practice in Singapore may place the members of the review committee (who are currently serving in public healthcare institutions and the MOH itself) in an awkward position.”
He said that one of the questions the committee should address is the extended time lapse between the notification of MOH and the public announcement and initiation of containment measures.
“It is in this context that we suggest augmenting the committee with retired clinicians and a current or former High Court Judge as well as appointing a retired healthcare administrator or clinician as co-chair.”
Mr Perera said it “is important that the review of MOH workflow be seen to be conducted in a manner that is independent of MOH.”
A COI thus would “enable deliberations to be made public, which would be more effective in defending public confidence in our healthcare system.”
The WP said that “a COI does not presuppose any malicious intent or wrongdoing by any party, as seen in the convening of a COI for the 2011 MRT breakdowns.”
“We find the call for the Workers’ Party to lead evidence before a COI can be convened to be inappropriate given that the Workers’ Party does not have inquisitorial or investigative powers to marshal evidence through subpoenas of records and witnesses,” the WP’s latest statement said. “It is not incumbent on anyone calling for a COI as a matter of procedural improvement to present allegations and evidence of any wrongdoing.”
In the Little India riot incident of 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong convened a COI and said that it would be “investigating the incident thoroughly.” He also said then that the COI would “look into the factors that led to the incident and how the incident was handled on the ground.”
The COI was led by a former Supreme Court judge, Pannir Selvam.
In the case of the SMRT breakdown in 2011, the COI was led by chief district judge of Singapore’s subordinate courts, Tan Siong Thye.
Its terms of reference included establishing the cause(s), “and any other contributory factors for the two incidents, including factors that may have endangered public safety”, making recommendations to minimise the occurrence of future incidents and to improve the management of these incidents. (See here.)
The first incident of the hepatitis C outbreak in SGH was in April, and so far eight people have died, with five of them determined to be linked to the outbreak itself. In total, 25 people have been affected, with two cases only confirmed last week after patients were recalled by the hospital for screening.
The SGH has also made a police report about the incident last week, “in order to rule out any possibility of foul play”, according to press reports.
The Minister of Health, Gan Kim Yong, is reported to have only been informed of the outbreak on 18 September - some six months after the first case emerged.