The Limpopo health department has been accused of lying about why two medical doctors from Mpumalanga were released from a Covid-19 coronavirus quarantine which they likened to “solitary confinement”.
The department said the pair’s release on Tuesday was based on advice of clinicians after their test results came back negative.
The doctors were, however, adamant that they were only allowed to leave because of a legal battle which ended with them agreeing a settlement with the department.
The department feared a lawsuit if they were not released, they said.
“Our clients reserve their rights arising from their unlawful detention and the numerous false statements made in regard to them [by the department], and shall act as advised in this regard as soon as the national lockdown ends,” their attorneys Alette Lousa Maree of AL Maree Inc, hinted in a letter to the department sent to the Attorney General on Wednesday.
Engagement between their attorneys and the department began on Monday and ended with a settlement agreement which was endorsed by a court on Wednesday.
The doctors believe the contents of the settlement agreement secured their release and not the negative test results.
They said they became aware that their Covid-19 tests they did on Monday came back negative when they were already home, after their release on Tuesday.
The doctors work at Mmametlhake Hospital in Mpumalanga but reside about 55km away in Modimolle, Limpopo but travel daily to work.
They tested positive for Covid-19 on March 30 and decided on “strict self-isolation” at their shared home.
They argued that they were better off at their home which they deemed as suitable for the purpose.
However, a few days later they were taken into a state-funded quarantine site, the Modimolle MDR-TB Hospital, against their will.
They claimed they were “locked up for 24 hours” a day until their release.
While at the facility, they engaged their lawyers to fight for their release from quarantine after complaining about the poor diet, insufficient food and a shortage of essentials such as toilet paper.
They also claimed they were “afforded no medical treatment or care whatsoever”.
The pair claimed in their court papers that they were advised by their lawyers that the conditions “constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and would amount to “torture” if they remained in quarantine.
The doctors’ attorneys this week challenged the provincial department to dispute that the court settlement – and not the negative results – was what secured their clients’ release.
The court order clearly states that the doctors should be released and that they should “self-isolate at their homes [in Modimolle] for as long as required by law”.
One of them told City Press that they were already home on Tuesday when the results were released.
“Look at the court order where it states clearly that we should go on self-quarantine upon our release and you will realise that this was agreed upon before our results came back. Otherwise, why would a court order say we should go on self-isolation when our results already came out negative?” she said.
The attorneys’ letter to the department stated as much: “Persons who test negative are not obliged by law to self-isolate. Thus, the fact that the settlement as contained in the court order provides that our clients self-isolate incontrovertibly shows that the agreement was reached before the results of the tests were known, and that the release of our client did not follow,” the lawyers wrote to the department.
However, the department insisted that the doctors were released based on their negative test results and not because of a legal settlement, as claimed by the doctors and their attorneys.
However, statement released by the department on Wednesday stated: “The doctors’ latest results have come out negative. Subsequent to the release of the latest results, doctors at the isolation [facility] have recommended that the two doctors be released. The two doctors will be released immediately,” it read.
Health spokesperson, Neil Shikwambana, reiterated the department’s position: “We discharged the two doctors on the basis that their results have come out negative. The clinicians at the facility advised us that the two doctors can be discharged and this was on April 7 [while] the settlement was finalised and signed on April 8,” he said.
Shikwambana said if the doctors’ results had been positive, they would “have been released based on the settlement which was signed the following day”.
“When we released them, we were acting on the basis of the test results and the advice of the clinicians,” he said.
On the settlement, he said it was “an agreement between the two parties, it was not reached on the basis of merits or demerits of the matter at hand”.
She said she would never “go into isolation in Limpopo if I ever I get infected again”.
One of the doctors said they were “locked up in a small room with no chair and left with the option of lying or sitting on the bed”.
The department said the two doctors had resisted being isolated at the state facility but they could not be treated differently as “the province decided on quarantining everyone whose tests positive after many people failed to adhere to self-isolation rules”.
The two doctors said “there was lots of aggression” when all they wanted was for things to be done by the book.