Nine Eastern Cape healthcare workers, including five nurses, have been suspended for allegedly refusing to attend a Covid-19 patient as they apparently did not have personal protective equipment.
This after Bhisho Hospital was closed after a senior nurse died and her three colleagues tested positive for Covid-19.
Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo confirmed the suspension of the workers at Grey Hospital in King William's Town.
He said Bhisho Hospital had been closed following the cases, saying this would allow for decontamination and deep cleaning.
"We can confirm the Bhisho one too. But we also want to say there has never been a patient of Covid-19 in Bhisho Hospital which further illustrate my point that our healthcare workers [are vulnerable to catching the virus anywhere] they come from communities and use public transport."
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Kupelo claimed the dead nurse was infected by a family member from the Western Cape. He, however, described the reports of critical shortages of personal protective gear as allegations that do not hold water.
National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) regional secretary Mlu Ncapayi confirmed the suspensions. "It's five nurses and a mixture of potters, cleaners and general workers. They were served with letters of suspensions today [Wednesday] pending an internal investigation."
The union's provincial secretary, Miki Jaceni, said: "They are wasting their time. We will challenge this unfair labour practice. Our members cannot be subjected to dangerous work conditions without protective gear."
Kupelo said: "Government can never be reckless and send frontline workers to a battle without personal gear. The suspensions are aimed at allowing the department to conduct an investigation into allegations that five nurses deliberately neglected a patient who was brought by family members to the hospital. They allegedly failed to attend to the patient for several hours until the patient died the following day."
Jaceni said: "Nehawu has always maintained a position that no member must resume work if the workplace is not ready in terms of decontamination and as far as provision of personal protective equipment.
"No manager can force workers to subject themselves to a risky environment. The employer must comply with the establishment of occupational and safety committees."
A senior staff member at Bhisho Hospital, who asked not to be named, said the nurse who died was a respected operations manager at the hospital.
"She was above 50 years old and had pre-existing conditions. We shut down on Tuesday and some of the 55 patients were discharged and others were transferred to other hospitals."
The workers, who tested positive at Bhisho Hospital, included a staff nurse and two cleaners, the source said.
She added one of the cleaners was fighting for her life at an East London private hospital while another cleaner was placed in quarantine. "The staff nurse elected to self-quarantine at home."
Kupelo said: "We want to appeal to the public not to allow the virus to spread rapidly without each of them playing their role in containing the spread, or else many will die."