Auditor General finds that;
- Govt was not prepared to fight Covid19 pandemic
- No specific law for disaster risk management, related activities
- ‘Public Health Act was inadequate. No proper coordination to ensure smooth response. Isolation centres were not equipped with necessary resources’
- Many control weaknesses identified, govt lost millions
The Auditor General Pulane Letebele says there was inadequate coordination and management of Covid19 activities during the 21-day State of Public Emergency (SoPE), which effected on April 2, 2020 where decisions for opening, closure and re-opening of workplaces and suspension or scaling down of work activities across various sectors of the economy became a challenge.
According to Letebele, for example, during the first lockdown only essential workers were allowed movement, however public transport was ceased; hence, people without privately owned vehicles became stranded. There was no national preparedness and response strategy, except Ministry of Health and Wellness (MoHW) Preparedness and Response Plan that would have guided an integrated approach to promoting all the different dimensions of response towards Covid19.
The Auditor General, therefore, recommends that the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Affairs (MoPAGPA) should develop the national preparedness/response strategy that will promote a holistic government integrated approach to ensure an efficient and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and future epidemics.
In response, management at the Office of the President (OP) said President Mokgweetsi Masisi appointed the Task Force Team under MoPAGPA as core structure to coordinate at COVID-19 pandemic at national level. Additionally, National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) is under MoPAGPA, while MoHW is responsible for provision of vaccines, drugs and procure Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) while MoPAGPA COVID-19 Procurement Team procures other services. Moreover, the revised National Disaster Management Policy will also incorporate efficient and effective response to emerging and future epidemics.
Letebele also said the President appointed the Presidential Task Force members, however, the appointment letters did not specify the legal provisions upon which they were made. “The Office of the President and MoPAGPA revealed that the existence of a remuneration procedure was critically important to attract the best employees in the respective fields of work whilst ensuring a high degree of goal alignment between the individual and the government,” she said.
The audit also observed that members of the Presidential Task Force, including volunteers were appointed at various times and with different remuneration packages and a total amount of P2, 309, 292.90 in remuneration paid as at the end of August 2020. “It is noteworthy that most members of the Presidential Task Force were appointed from outside the public service. It was observed that there were two Presidential Task Force support team members where one was appointed on gratis basis as his employer’s ‘in kind’ support of the government’s effort to deal with the national crisis, and therefore was not expected to be paid any allowance by the government. However, it was noted that this member was paid a total of P165, 600.00 for services rendered from 1 May 2020 to 31 July 2020, a practice that was against his employer’s policy as per the Permanent Secretary to the President letter dated 29 July 2020.”
She also said the other member was appointed on self-voluntary merit but ultimately requested to be paid. A request was made by the National Coordinator through a letter dated July 22, 2020, for facilitation of payment of allowance to the member. At the time of audit, payment was still under consideration. “The payment of P165, 600 was irregular and thus a loss to the government. The other payment under consideration would also result in financial loss to government should it be honoured.”
She recommended that MoPAGPA should account for the two payments.
In response the management said: “It is true that appointment letters of the Presidential Task Force members did not specify the legal provisions which they were made, hence non-compliance, and the anomaly has been noted. However, it should further be noted that since this is a State of Emergency, even the legislation related thereto could be used to appoint officers. What is critical is the actual appointment of officers. Professionals, especially scientists were appointed by His Excellency the President using his Executive Powers as provided at Section 47 of the constitution”.
The management also concurred that is true that one of the Presidential Task Force support team members were appointed on gratis basis of his employer ‘in-kind’, whilst the other one was appointed on self-voluntary merit. When the outbreak occurred, government was quick to appoint the teams. Other institutions were also quick to avail their officers to help while paying them with their own resources. “The officer was paid for three months and payment was stopped after having the employer advised government not to pay the employee who was in the Communication Team. Others volunteered their services. All these were accepted because the disease was never planned for, hence any assistance was welcome.”
On another note, the audit noted that amongst the Task Force members mentioned, four were temporarily engaged by the Director of Health Services in June 2020, for 10 days, to conduct an investigation on factors surrounding the spike in numbers of COVID-19 positive cases at the Gaborone Private Hospital. However, at the time of engagement, there were no official appointment letters from the Office of the President. The appointment letters from the Office of the President dated August 20, 2020 were written and issued retrospectively to facilitate payment. Ideally, the appointment letters should have been written and given to the concerned experts before commencement of the assignment with terms of employment clearly articulated. However, no explanation was given for this anomaly.
“Further investigations revealed that one of the appointed Task Force Team members was a foreign national who happened to be in the country as a visitor. The said member was offered a temporary appointment by the President, to the COVID-19 Task Coordination Team for a period of 12 months with effect from 1 March 2020 to February 2021, with a daily allowance of P1800.00 payable monthly. However, examination of COVID-19 financial documents revealed no record of any payment ever made to the member. Efforts to obtain evidence for work-permit, professional profile and other related employment requirements of the member proved futile, save for the appointment letter that was availed. This made it difficult to determine the appropriateness of the recruitment process that was followed to appoint the member on the COVID-19 Task Force team.”
In response, the management said Director of Health Services has no authority to appoint members of the Task Team as it is the sole responsibility of the President. “This was an emergency measure that was taken to control a suspected disease outbreak which required immediate action hence the issuance of appointment letters at a later stage. Regarding a foreign national who was employed without work permit, it must be noted that the said consultant was appointed by the President using his Executive powers, and obviously he could appoint anyone who could help irrespective of his/her country of residence. Besides, the said consultant has her family living in the country. Over and above that, the university where she is a lecturer was consulted about her temporary engagement,” the management said.
It was indicated that the initial contract of COVID-19 Task Force Communication Team to navigate the challenging terrain of the escalating new COVID-19 cases on daily basis was four months. The entire contract from May 1 to August 31, 2020 was not inclusive of public service employees such as the Public Relations Officers (PROs). Although the contract was further extended by two months, from September 1, 2020 to October 31, 2020, it could not be established whether the government had put in place and/or planned for inclusion of the public service personnel.
Additionally, a request to extend by six months, the contracts for two co-Scientific Chief Officers was also made. Non-inclusion of the public service PROs and the government health scientific officials denied them opportunity for skills transfer in order to ensure continuity. This had resulted in the government continuing to incur costs by extending contracts of non-public servants. The audit recommended that MoPAGPA should in future consider engagement of public officers. In the event of non-availability of requisite skills in the public sector, public servants should be attached to those appointed for skills transfer.
The management in response appreciated the recommendations but nonetheless said, it is not possible to come-up with the structure for temporary employees at the time of pandemic, which is an emergency situation. “It should also be noted that public officers were engaged within different structures working together with the Presidential Task Force Team and their lines of profession and duty were recognized to tap on the skills from the private sector. For example, the Director of Health Services as a medical scientist was/is involved, two public relations offices one at D1 scale were engaged and additional six officers are now on the ground, deployed for communications relations, administration, and record management.”
Letebele noted that members of the Presidential Task Force Team from parastatals were paid the COVID-19 allowances whereas fellow public servants were not entitled to such allowances. Furthermore, it was observed that the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development (MLGRD) had appointed COVID-19 related assignment task team, which comprised of some civil servants and paid them allowance equivalent to ‘Category A’ of the Government Boards. She recommended that, for future pandemics or national emergencies MoPAGPA should develop a consistent remuneration system. The system would provide fairness for all affected parties, and such could promote good corporate governance.
“The remuneration structure is possible in a normal situation, however during an emergency temporary structures are put in place, and rates are negotiable, depending on the task at hand (the nature and complexity of the tasks cannot be anticipated so a price cannot be pre-determined),” the management responded.
The overall aim of the audit was to ascertain accountability, transparency and governance on the country’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the management of funds, by key government ministries.
The audit covered activities from January 30, 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the current outbreak of COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, to 31 August 2020. The audit focused on the preparedness, response to the COVID-19 pandemic and management of the COVID-19 Relief Fund. Specifically, the audit focused on the prevention and control strategies for the response of COVID-19, public awareness and governance structures.
The audit also covered the disbursement of funds, donations, recruitment, procurement of goods and services at National (Ministerial) and District levels. The COVID-19 preparedness and response requires a multi-sectoral approach, however the audit, focused on the MoHW, Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MFED) and the MoPAGPA.
In overall conclusion, Letebele said pertaining to the country’s preparedness and response there was no specific law that provides for disaster risk management and implementation of related activities. She said the Public Health Act was inadequate in this regard. There was also no proper coordination of the relevant stakeholders to ensure smooth response. The isolation centres were not equipped with the necessary resources, for instance the ratio of nurse and doctors remain lower than the WHO ratio requirement. Procurement of PPEs and medical commodities was not done at market rates and not in compliance to emergency procurement processes.
She said there were delays in the delivery of PPEs, which materially impacted on the quality and value for money of the services or products delivered. Similarly, there were weaknesses in the effectiveness of the internal controls in the exercise of oversight to ensure performance and financial accountability as evidenced by inadequate planning, and coordination of responsible personnel. “As COVID-19 is still evolving with great negative impact upon the nation, it is equally important to change the control environment in order to guard against the irregular spending which could result in negative economic consequences. It is acknowledged that Botswana had made significant efforts in conducting public awareness, although more still needed to be done to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’.”
She said the successful reduction of COVID-19 transmission, prevention and spread of the disease is reliant upon effective strategies on preparedness and response and monitoring and evaluation. Both local and international experience has demonstrated that corona virus should not just be treated as a health issue because it brings about socio-economic implications.
“The successful fight against the COVID-19 pandemic requires effective preparedness and response to ensure 93 quality and value for money services. Therefore, this calls for the Government of Botswana to be fully prepared to respond to the pandemic. It can be concluded that Botswana was not prepared to successfully respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, hence response has been faced with several control weaknesses and related findings throughout the health sector.”