Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday lashed out against Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) member Professor Glenda Gray, saying her criticism of the lockdown regulations "undermines the joint work" the state is taking to fight Covid-19.
Shortly after, Gray told News24 it is "worrying" that she is being singled out, while many other scientists and experts have criticised the state's approach to Covid-19.
Gray previously called South Africa's phased exit from the lockdown nonsensical and unscientific, and said it should be eradicated completely.
She was appointed a member of the MAC in March, where she is the chairperson of the Research Subcommittee.
She is also the Chief Executive Officer of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and an expert in infectious diseases, HIV and has training in paediatrics.
Here's how the fight between Mkhize and Gray started:
When did Prof Gray speak out?
In an interview with News24 published on Saturday, where three members of the MAC criticised the lockdown regulations, Gray said the lockdown should be eradicated completely.
Instead, she said non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI), such as handwashing, wearing masks, physical distancing and prohibitions on gatherings, should be put in place.
According to Gray, malnutrition cases were being seen at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital due to the lockdown, the month-to-month phasing-out of the lockdown had no basis in science, and many lockdown regulations were seemingly thumb sucks.
Gray later clarified the issue on malnutrition at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, saying "concerns were raised in the first week of May 2020 regarding the number of admissions for acute malnutrition, which appeared to be on the increase. The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital still sees admissions for malnutrition, the increase in the cases seen in the first week of May needs to be closely monitored".
She said the evidence behind certain lockdown regulations, such as the ban on open-toe shoe sales, was uncompelling.
"This strategy is not based in science and is completely unmeasured. [It's] almost as if someone is sucking regulations out of their thumb and implementing rubbish, quite frankly," Gray said.
"In the face of a young population, we refuse to let people out. We make them exercise for three hours a day and then complain that there's congestion in this time. We punish children and kick them out of school, and we deny them education. For what? Where is the scientific evidence for that?"
She said, initially, there was good reason to implement the lockdown, to slow the spread of the virus and buy time to ready the health system, and this was largely achieved.
What happened at the MAC meeting after?
After News24's interview with Gray was published, MAC chairperson Salim Abdool Karim called a meeting, where, among others, an agenda item read "concerns expressed to the media by MAC members that the MAC's advice is not being heeded".
In the meeting, Department of Health officials told experts to stick to what they know and to leave the economic interventions to other departments, and to raise concerns directly with the department, not through the media.
Leading the charge for the Department of Health was acting director-general, Dr Anban Pillay, who told News24 after the meeting that the department and the committee were provided with an opportunity to voice their views.
Pillay said no scientific basis existed for the lockdown, and that the only principle the country had learnt from other countries, who had gotten it wrong, was that you could not suddenly reopen.
In a statement on the same day, Abdool Karim accused Gray of making comments regarding the lockdown and regulations that were "misleading to the public".
How did Zweli Mkhize respond?
Mkhize spent his Saturday evening phoning journalists to defend the country's lockdown strategy, after News24's interview with Gray was published.
He said no region or district in the country can claim to conform to the World Health Organisation's six criteria to have restrictions lifted and called the criticism "unfair".
On Thursday morning - five days after News24's interview with Gray was published - Mkhize released a detailed statement, criticising Gray where he, among others, said:
- Cases of malnutrition declined at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, and said Gray's comments in this regard created "unnecessary anxiety to our citizens".
- All of the MAC's 50 advisories thus far have been accepted, and said Gray's advisory relating to lockdown regulations was not submitted to the minister before she spoke to the media.
- Saying that the government's lockdown regulations are "thumb sucks" undermines the joint work and effort of the state to combat Covid-19, and is "unprofessional and unbecoming conduct" of a MAC member.
He said divergent views by scientists are healthy and welcome, and the MAC provides a platform for robust engagement of these top scientists.
"However, I must urge all those who are contributing to the thought process and science behind the decisions ultimately undertaken by the government to desist from potentially destructive behaviour, and to continue to engage constructively with the government as they are mandated,” Mkhize said.
** This story was edited after publication to accurately reflect that Gray's criticism was against the phased exit from the lockdown. This paragraph was also added to clarify her position: "Gray later clarified the issue on malnutrition at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, saying 'concerns were raised in the first week of May 2020 regarding the number of admissions for acute malnutrition, which appeared to be on the increase. The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital still sees admissions for malnutrition, the increase in the cases seen in the first week of May needs to be closely monitored'."