Mkhize disbands Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 'out of the blue'

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Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.
@Dirco_ZA/Twitter
  • Without warning on Friday, scientists who were part of the 50-member Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 received letters thanking them for their service.
  • The letter from Health Minister Zweli Mkhize is one paragraph long, and mentions that "new members" will be appointed soon.
  • Mkhize announced the reconfiguration of MAC on 14 September in a daily press release, but scientists say they were caught by surprise.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has effectively disbanded government's chief scientific advisory committee on Covid-19.

News24 has seen a letter sent to members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 on Friday, dated 21 September, in which Mkhize expressed his "gratitude and appreciation" for the commitment and dedication of members.

"Your contribution has led to the containment of Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa and the reduction of mortality of the citizens of South Africa. The new members of the MAC will assume duty soon," the letter reads.

READ | Covid-19: Mkhize finally makes MAC recommendations public

The committee is chaired by Professor Salim Abdool Karim and was established early during the outbreak of Covid-19 in April to advise Mkhize.

Karim's status as chairperson is unclear.

While it appears the entire 50-member MAC has been affected, at the time of writing News24 had confirmed that 14 members of the MAC had received letters, including South Africa's Covid-19 vaccine trial leading researcher Professor Shabir Madhi, and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council Professor Glenda Gray.

Others confirmed by News24 include Professor Francois Venter, head of the Ezintsha health unit at the University of the Witwatersrand. and Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairperson of the South African Medical Association.

The others are not being named as News24 was not able to reach them immediately to confirm whether they had received a letter, but they include some of the country's most senior epidemiologists and immunologists.

READ | Prof Shabir Madhi: 'I have bigger impact outside MAC than on it'

Madhi, Venter and Gray have been leading voices in criticising some of the regulations promulgated by government in response to Covid-19.

Reconfiguration 

Mkhize's spokesperson, Lwazi Manzi, said the minister had announced the reconfiguration of the MAC on 14 September as part of the daily press release proving Covid-19 updates.

Manzi said a new MAC on behavioural change and the  MAC on a Covid-19 vaccine were unaffected.

"With the changing pattern of the pandemic, it has become necessary to reconfigure the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19," the 14 September release reads.

"The new MAC will take into account the need for the inclusion of social and behavioural scientists among other factors."

But Professor Francois Venter said: "It was done with no warning or explanation."

"It is not like the epidemic is anywhere over. Government really needs to embrace transparency, and explain jetting in a crowd of WHO experts, an inexplicable curfew, or disbanding an expert panel that didn't rubber stamp decisions made behind closed doors."

Dr Angelique Coetzee acknowledged that Mkhize had stated his intention to reconfigure the MAC.

"But until today, the names were not made known yet, so no one knew," she said.

ALSO READ | Schools, taxis and Level 4: MAC advisories reveal how government sidestepped scientists

"I think they would want to make it [the MAC] smaller and want maybe more involvement of people on the coalface – nursing groups and others – bringing them on board as well," Coetzee explained.

'Out of the blue'

"One of the most important things is, if you look at another MAC, that it should be the public sector out there or the private sector advising the minister, and we should maybe have less people working for the [Department of Health] advising the minister," she added.

She also said the letter, arriving as it did out of the blue, was perhaps not the best way to go about the exercise of dissolving the committee.

"I think everyone got a letter. A better way would be to say: 'We are thinking that we need to start a new term, thank you for your work'. [They could have said] 'This is the reason, let's look at how we could get a more practical group together, this is the way forward'," she said.

"Maybe they thought it was a good way, but it's not."

"Let's hope that, when they convene the new group, that it's a practical group with less people working for the department but people like Francois [Venter] and Professor Karim but also a bit more balanced committee – we need the scientists, but we also need people working at coalface level," Coetzee said.

Covid-19 cases are still increasing by an average of 1 600 cases a day for the past week and while this is significantly lower than the rate at which new cases were increasing in July and August, Mkhize and scientists have repeatedly warned that people need to maintain strict safety measures. 

Visit our Covid-19 dashboard for the latest reported coronavirus data. 

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