Health Justice Initiative heads to court to have Covid-19 MAC decisions made public

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A health body wants the government's Covid-19 contracts to be made public.
A health body wants the government's Covid-19 contracts to be made public.
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  • After failed attempts to seek public information from the government, the Health Justice Initiative has approached the North Gauteng High Court to force the government to make public all advice from the Ministerial Advisory Committee.
  • In February, it also approached the courts after failing to source information on Covid-19 contracts; something the organisation said had to be made public.
  • The HJI argued unelected private corporations and other entities, which benefitted from public coffers, had to be accountable for Covid-19 contracts.

The Health Justice Initiative (HJI) has approached the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria to force the government to make all Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) advice public.

It also commenced legal proceedings for the full disclosure of all Covid-19 vaccine contracts in February.

The court action comes after the HJI made several attempts through departmental channels seeking information on both fronts.

The HJI claimed it was, however, ignored even after making Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) applications.

READ | Lockdown is over - but these 3 rules remain for now

In its latest court bid, it approached the court on Thursday to make expert Covid-19 pandemic advice and decisions public.

The HJI said the case centred on access to information "that furthers transparency and accountability, which will set a rigorous precedent for future pandemics".

A senior researcher at the HJI, Dr Marlise Richter, added while it was happy President Cyril Ramaphosa had committed South Africa to Covid-19 interventions based on science and evidence from the MAC, the public needed to know on what evidence and on whose advice government decisions and interventions were based.

"The public has a right to know whether the recommendations of any or all of the expert advisory committees were considered and followed. And, if not, what was the rationale for departing from it."

The HJI also wants to establish if there are any instances where expert advice was not followed or deviated from.

It is also seeking clarity on the decision processes and rationale for vaccinating elite athletes, sports administrators and others ahead of their age cohort through the specially set up Sisonke vaccine programme.

Richter said the HJI sought to understand the rationale where "queue jumping" in accessing Covid-19 vaccines occurred.

"The public has a right to know how such authorisation came about and what reasons were provided for deviating from public health and ethical guidance on prioritisation.

"There was a national policy of vaccinating per age cohort which was not followed - to benefit people other than healthcare workers in a time of scarce vaccine supplies."

Specifically, the HJI said it wanted to know the names of the health minister's advisors, obtain copies of all expert advisories and recommendations related to:

- Vaccinating people with co-morbidities.

- Vaccine selection and use.

- Priority group eligibility criteria, including any relevant departmental frameworks.

- The non-use of the Covishield (AstraZeneca-University of Oxford) vaccine and the details surrounding its sale or donation.

Covid-19 vaccine court action

It also launched legal proceedings on 22 February for the disclosure of all Covid-19 vaccine contracts and any applicable agreements with relevant companies and entities.

The HJI said it was aware the government, likely acting through the health department, entered into agreements with manufacturers and/or suppliers for the supply of Covid-19 vaccines.

"The public does not know the content of these agreements."

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HJI head Fatima Hassan said it was not enough for the government and vaccine companies to say vaccine contracts were "secret in a pandemic".

"Unelected private corporations and other entities, which benefit from public resources, should not be able to rely on 'confidentiality' in a constitutional democracy. It is regrettable that we have to try to expose their identities as well, through the courts, after our repeated requests were denied."

In its legal papers, HJI argued the public had a right to know what the terms and conditions of each contract were.

It stated media and other reports have also shown South Africa might be paying comparatively inflated rates for Covid-19 vaccines and the government had to grant a broad indemnification against all claims of liability to benefit vaccine manufacturers.

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