Wait for outcome of review: Gan’s response to WP’s COI call
The Minister of Health, Gan Kim Yong, says “it is best to wait for the outcome of the review and police investigations” before deciding on the next steps.
Mr Gan was responding to the call by the Workers’ Party (WP) for the government to reconstitute the independent review committee on the hepatitis C saga.
The opposition party had suggested that the committee should be re-formed into a Committee of Inquiry (COI), given the seriousness of the incident where so far eight deaths have occurred, with five of them directly linked to the outbreak of the virus, among the 25 patients who have been affected.
The outbreak first took place in April this year, but the minister was reported to have only been informed of it on 18 September, although the MOH was involved in looking into the incident earlier.
The terms of reference of the independent review committee, as stated on the MOH website, involves reviewing the internal reports of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) where the outbreak happened, and also to review the MOH’s “procedures and actions” since the outbreak occurred.
The terms of reference do not appear to authorise the review committee to conduct its own investigations from scratch.
The WP first called for a COI on 25 October, explaining that the “outbreak and the government’s response to it have exposed potential gaps in our public health protection protocols.”
“Aside from the risk to human life, the matter has considerable implications for Singapore’s status as an international business and tourism hub,” the party statement said.
It said then that to maintain and bolster public confidence in the healthcare system and review processes, “the review [must] be rigorous, transparent, independent and fair in terms of its outcomes.”
“It must also be seen to be so,” the party said.
It then called for the review committee to be reconstituted into a COI, with the inclusion of retired clinicians and healthcare administrators in the committee and the appointment of a retired healthcare administrator or clinician as co-chair.
“We further suggest that one of the committee’s members be a person qualified to be a Judge of the High Court, as required by the Inquiries Act should the committee be reconstituted as a COI,” the WP said. “This would strengthen the ability of the committee to conduct a truly rigorous and, where necessary, critical review.”
The party’s suggestion was met with a challenge from the MOH.
The ministry’s press secretary, Lim Bee Khim, responded that the MOH will hold a COI if the WP was "prepared to lead evidence before the COI, to substantiate whatever allegations it might have.”
The WP in turn said that it was not making any allegations and that there is no necessity for it to lead evidence, citing past COIs such as the ones conducted following the trains breakdowns and the Little India riot.
The MOH did not respond to the WP’s rebuttal.
On Saturday, the WP once again – for the third time – called for a COI to investigate what transpired in the whole hepatitis C outbreak saga.
On the sidelines of a food distribution event in Paya Lebar, the party’s Central Executive Council member, Leon Perera, reiterated that there was no need for the government to delay the formation of a COI.
"We do not see the necessity for a two-step process,” Mr Perera told reporters. “We would rather in the first instance take the existing process we have, strengthen it. In the interest of timeliness and efficiency, we feel it is the best approach. It's not our intent to undermine the current process or the committee members. We want to keep all of them and strengthen the process."
Mr Perera said that the WP was not calling for the members of the independent committee to step down, saying that they have done good work so far. Instead, the party was calling for new members to be included or added to a COI which would look into the outbreak.
As for the MOH’s position that it was odd for the WP to call for a COI before the review committee and the police have concluded their investigations, Mr Perera said that it is possible to convene a COI without making public aspects of the investigations.
However, he said certain deliberations should nonetheless be made public. These included the workflow within SGH and the MOH after the cluster of infections were discovered, as well as how public announcements were made and containment measures taken.
Mr Gan, however, reiterated the review committee’s task as laid out in the terms of reference.
"I think we should wait for the committee to finish its task, to finish its review, study its reports and recommend its findings very carefully, because the findings will be made public,” the minister said. “So all of us can look at the findings, and then we can decide what are the next steps.”