Government’s Covid-19 advisories and data: News24 files applications for access, transparency

President Cyril Ramaphosa during the opening of the department of health's central Covid-19 Information Hub at the CSIR in Pretoria on 9 April 2020.
President Cyril Ramaphosa during the opening of the department of health's central Covid-19 Information Hub at the CSIR in Pretoria on 9 April 2020.
  • News24 files application to the Department of Health to gain access to advisories, notes and correspondence between the department and scientists as well as detailed Covid-19 data.
  • Repeated requests to the department by News24 have been ignored, with a department spokesperson only responding on Friday.
  • Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said he will not be releasing the advisories for fear of the public misinterpreting them.

News24 has filed two requests for access to the more than 70 advisories held by the Department of Health in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

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This after requests to get sight of all the advisories, notes and correspondence between the department and Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) into Covid-19 as well as access to detailed coronavirus data have been ignored by the department.

It has since early May, ignored repeated requests from News24 for the advisories to be made public and repeated requests for detailed Covid-19 data to be made accessible.

READ | Data lockdown: Tension simmers as questions are raised about access to Covid-19 information

The most recent request, sent to the director-general, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, on 22 June was also ignored.

On Friday, department spokesperson Popo Maja said the reason for the non-response was "either that we did not have the requested data or the release of such would compromise patients' personal information".

There is clear evidence in presentations to the media by the Gauteng health department, reports by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and elsewhere the data requested is being collected and analysed.

In requesting comment, News24 referred to at least four requests since May and the letter to Buthelezi, which set out the data requested as follows:

  • Testing data (sample collection dates, sample delivery dates, location/facility where a sample was collected and processed).
  • Data around deaths (comorbidities, facilities where death was reported, location of deaths outside a healthcare setting).
  • Spatial data around contact tracing and case investigation.
  • Hospitalisation data (date of admission, whether an ICU/ventilation was required/data on outcomes).
  • News24 has not requested the personal information of Covid-19 patients, and the PAIA application makes clear the data requested should be depersonalised.

This data would allow for detailed mapping, to a suburb or ward level, of Covid-19 hotspots and enable citizens to be aware of outbreaks near their homes, schools or workplaces almost as they happen - allowing them to be aware of outbreaks near their homes or workplaces in near real-time. 

This data is being stored in a central repository by the CSIR information hub on Covid-19 in Tshwane to which access is severely limited. 

"The department is not aware of the value of such detailed location data to citizens. Citizens are informed daily about the infection rates in their provinces. Admittedly, some provinces are more pro-active in releasing district and sub-district data than others," Maja said on Friday.

READ | ANALYSIS: Why is government not collecting statistics on smoking and Covid-19?

Only Gauteng and the Western Cape make daily data available on the number of cases per sub-districts and districts.

Mkhize, in response to a question at a briefing earlier in the week, said the advisories would remain secret for fear of them being misconstrued as official policy.

This could be mitigated, one expert explained, by allowing the scientists behind the advice to explain that it represented a limited view based on the science alone. But this would require the experts being released from binding non-disclosure agreements or being authorised to speak publicly by the minister.

Timeline of News24's requests for access to data and the advisories:

  • 7 May – first query requesting access to more detailed Covid-19 data sent to the Department of Health, National Institute for Communicable Diseases and National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS). No response, except for the NHLS spokesperson referring the query in totality to the health department.
  • 11 May - query from 7 May forwarded to all parties asking for response.
  • 14 May - new query notifying the department of News24's intention to publish an article the following day which would in part cover the lack of response to requests for access to data.
  • 16 May - News24 and other media are provided with an interview with Health Minister Zweli Mkhize who told News24: "I don't know of anyone who has actually come to us and said give us this information and we refused."
  • 18 May - the 14 May query repeated, asking for access to detailed data. Department spokesperson requests deadline extension, which is granted to close of business on 19 May. Ultimately no response was received
  • 18 May, News24 publishes an article under the headline "Data lockdown: Tension simmers as questions are raised about access to Covid-19 information" which the department did not respond to and did not deny. The article detailed frustration among top scientists who also do not have access to key data
  • 25 May - request for all the advisories by the MAC up to that point to be made available sent to the department. No response was received
  • 22 June - detailed request for access to Covid-19 data sent to director-general, Dr Sandile Buthelezi. No response received.

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