Union takes Mkhize to court to demand protective gear for health workers

03 April 2020 - 19:54 By Qaanitah Hunter
Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha.
Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha.
Image: Cosatu via Twitter

Public sector union Nehawu has asked the labour court to compel the health department to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In court papers filed on Friday, the union’s general secretary Zola Saphetha said their attempts to first engage with health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize over the shortage of protective equipment were ignored.

They now want the court to urgently direct him to engage with them in an effort to ensure all health workers have sufficient protection against the coronavirus.

“The failure of the government to ensure that employees render their service in the least risky way is inconsistent with the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation,” Saphetha said to the court.

The matter is expected to be heard on Tuesday at 10am.

In addition to the minister of health, all nine provincial MECs for health are cited as respondents.

Nehawu said that despite government acknowledging a shortage of protective gear for health care workers, it is yet to determine protocol or guidelines that regulate the rendering of health care services without the required protective equipment.

“The minister has failed to ensure that healthcare workers, including the members of Nehawu, are provided with PPE and that they are not required or allowed to work in unsafe conditions,” the court was told.

Saphetha said that without protective gear and guidelines on how to work without it, healthcare workers were at risk of infection “with potentially fatal consequences”.

“For each day that this continues, thousands of employees and members of the public are at grave risk of infection," he said.

On Friday, a Durban hospital reportedly shut its trauma unit after 11 staff members tested positive for Covid-19.

There have been other cases of nurses and doctors confirming positive for the coronavirus.

When asked about Nehawu’s concerns, Mkhize said during a media briefing on Friday that they were aware of the challenges.

“When they raise the issue we don’t see that as an antagonistic issue. We think it’s a fair issue for us to debate and to look at how to improve on the supplies we got,” he said.

Mkhize said while at the moment the public healthcare system had enough protective gear, there was uncertainty over how long it would last.

“We take the issue seriously,” he said.

Nehawu, however, has told the court that Mkhize has not meaningfully responded to the concerns they raised.

“The continuing risk to the health and lives of employees and members of the public with whom they come into contact render the application manifestly urgent,” Nehawu argued.

Saphetha said the department of health has not shown any intention to remedy the situation even though they are aware of it.

“Nehawu is aware that in many of the health facilities, employees, especially doctors and nurses supplement the inadequate government-issued PPE with PPEE procure at (their) own cost,” he told the court