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Foot-dragging on appointing new DGHS cause concern amidst fresh Covid flare-up

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BY SURESH PERERA

The vacuum created by the inordinate delay in appointing a new Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) — the highest technical position in the government health service –- has caused grave concern among medical circles, particularly at a time a fresh wave of the deadly Covid-19 virus has erupted with more than one thousand positive cases identified so far in a garment factory cluster in the Gampaha district.

Since the then DGHS, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, was moved out in a surprise development in mid August this year, the top position has continued to remain vacant for almost two months.

However, applications were recently called from prospective candidates with an October 16, 2020 deadline – a process that will take at least another month from the given date for shortlisting candidates, interviews, selections and follow-up paper work for Cabinet approval, health officials said.

Dr. Jasinghe, a respected consultant specialist cum senior medical administrator, who played a pivotal role in curbing the initial coronavirus outbreak in March this year, was shifted abruptly to the Environment Ministry as its secretary, a move that was described as being “kicked upstairs” to head an institution, where his medical experience and expertise were totally irrelevant.

As a Cabinet sanctioned appointment, the DGHS is the competent authority in enforcing a plethora of crucial health-related laws, including the Quarantine Act, Food and Drugs Act, Tobacco Act and Transplant Act.

Under the circumstances, a non functioning full-time DGHS or an acting appointment, which has not received Cabinet approval, could impede the full and proper enforcement of relevant laws pertaining to public health and safety especially at a critical time when quarantine regulations are being rigidly enforced, the officials asserted.

The appointment of a relatively junior medical administration in an “acting capacity” on the basis of a temporary “working arrangement” initiated by a health sector panjandrum has raised eyebrows because he cannot enforce the specific regulations as the competent authority without Cabinet giving the nod to his purported “acting appointment”, they said.

In terms of the medical services minute gazetted in 2014, the position of DGHS can be held only by a medical administrator of Deputy Director-General of Health Services grade. Under the marking scheme, three shortlisted candidates will face an interview and, thereafter, their names will be placed before Cabinet by the subject Minister in charge, who will make a recommendation for approval.

However, over the past 20 years, the medical services minute has been amended at least thrice with the selection procedure changed, the officials claimed.

With the exit of Dr. Jasinghe, who served as DGHS from 2017-2020, the senior-most medical administrator in line now is Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, one of the most qualified consultant specialists in Sri Lanka.

However, with the powers-that-be having a big say in the appointment to the top administrative slot in the government health segment, as seen in many cases in the past, the possibility of Dr. de Silva being given what he deserves appears to hang in the balance, medical officials claimed.

Indications are that he may be edged out notwithstanding his academic achievements, seniority and competence as the most-senior medical administrator, they opined. “Tail- waggers should not be given precedence over conscientious professionals who have proven their worth”.

Prior to Dr. Jasinghe, senior medical administrators who served as DGHS were dental surgeon Dr. Jayasundara Bandara (2016-2017), additional secretary Dr. Palitha Maheepala (2012- 2016), Dr. Ajith Mendis (2008-2012), Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage (2003-2008) and consultant gastro urinary surgeon Dr. A. M. L. Beligaswatte (2000-2003).

Meanwhile, the Government Medical Officers’ Forum (GMOF) said that Sri Lanka did tremendously well to contain the community spread of Covid-19. However, it is regrettable the DGHS position in the health sector still remains vacant especially at a critical juncture when the country is again facing a grave coronavirus threat.

“All these years, it was under the leadership of the DGHS that our country was able to overcome the threat of pandemics. Dr. Anil Jasinghe did a marvelous job until he was suddenly moved to a ministry alien to him”, GMOF media secretary, Dr. Niroshana Premaratne said in a statement.

At a time Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented health crisis, the public expected the next-in-line to be appointed DGHS immediately. But, two months have gone by with no appointment still in sight despite the country plunging again into the throes of a severe Covid-19 crisis, the trade union stressed.

“At first, we welcomed the appointment of retired Major General, Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe as secretary to the Health Ministry in May this year because it is medical administrators who have largely guided the health sector to greater heights over the decades. As witnessed in the past, particularly during 2015-2020, civil administrators as health secretaries fell short of the expected performance”, the GMOF noted.

The incumbent health secretary is a big disappointment as even senior officials, including DDGs and directors, cannot access him. Unlike earlier, when senior staff could walk directly into the secretary’s office to sort out issues, they have to now kick their heels for hours outside his door. With an indifferent and inaccessible secretary coupled with the absence of a permanent DGHS has turned the whole health sector topsy-turvy, the statement asserted.

“This callous attitude of the health secretary doesn’t portend well for the forward movement of the country’s health sector in general and public safety and welfare in particular”, the GMOF complained.

“We believe that a conspiracy led to the ousting of Dr. Anil Jasinghe because, as a competent medical professional, he led from the front, called a spade a spade and did what needed to be done without ‘boru shows’ and dramas”, the GMOF noted.

If the then DGHS was moved out for a genuine reason, the health secretary should have lined up the next senior-most medical administrator to step in immediately taking into consideration the grave situation the country is now facing, the statement continued.

As a Cabinet approved appointment, the DGHS is vested with powers to enforce around 100 health-related Acts. However, for the past two months, neither a permanent nor an acting appointment has been made by Cabinet. What was done instead was the health secretary, who is not the appointing authority in the first place, making a temporary appointment to ‘oversee duties’, the statement further said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a deadly situation in the world. What Sri Lanka needs at this point of time is not a puppet as DGHS, but a clever and competent medical administrator who can guide the nation in its hour of need. An autocratic style of management is not the answer to the grave crisis at hand”, it added.

It is clear that there is resistance to appoint the most deserving senior DDG as the next DGHS. The country cannot afford to pay for the sins of an insensitive official best described as a “square peg in a round hole”, who lord over the unfolding scenario within the comfort of his ivory tower, the statement noted.

The GMOF said it was pathetic to see how the Health Ministry forced doctors to go on transfers at a time the country was on alert for the pandemic. This was done at the insistence of a certain trade union. In addition, the Ministry, in contravention of all norms, conducted a program at a cost of Rs. 4 million for those awaiting internships, while the trade union was allowed to charge Rs. 4,000 from each of the 1,500 participants, who were still not even employed.

Repeated attempts by The Sunday Island to contact the health secretary for comment since last Tuesday were unsuccessful as his mobile phone went unanswered.

“How can you get through to him when even those under the same roof cannot access him?”, a health sector official laughed.

“As an option, you can try your luck by coming over here and waiting outside his door for a couple of hours”, he suggested.


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AG not bound by its recommendations, yet to receive report

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PCoI on Easter Sunday attacks:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC is not bound by recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) into the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, or presidential directives in that regard, according to authoritative sources.

They said that the AG couldn’t under any circumstances initiate legal proceedings until he had received the full PCoI report.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa received the PCoI report on Feb 1. The President’s Office delivered a set of PCoI reports to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on Feb 23, a day after the report was presented to the cabinet of ministers. The Island raised the matter with relevant authorities in the wake of a section of the media reporting the PCoI recommending punitive measures against former President Maithripala Sirisena, Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, IGP Pujitha Jayasundera, Chief of State Intelligence Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, Chief of National Intelligence retired DIG Sisira Mendis and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Rishad Bathiudeen et al over the Easter Sunday carnage.

Sources pointed out that due to the inordinate delay in sharing the PCoI report with the AG, the department hadn’t been able to take preliminary measures required to initiate the proceedings. Sources said that a team of officers would take at least six weeks or more to examine the report before tangible measures could be taken.

With the AG scheduled to retire on May 24, 2021, even if the AG Department received the P CoI it would be quite a tough task to initiate proceedings ahead of retirement, sources said. However, in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution enacted in last October, both the AG and the IGP could receive extensions beyond 60 at the President’s discretion.

 

Dappula de Livera received an Acting appointment as the AG a week after the Easter Sunday carnage whereas his predecessor Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, was elevated to Chief Justice.

Responding to another query, sources said that the Attorney General two weeks ago requested Secretary to the President for a copy of the P CoI. However, the AG was yet to receive one, sources said. In spite of the AG not receiving a P CoI copy, the AG had instructed the IGP to obtain a copy of the report when he requested the police to complete investigations into the Easter Sunday carnage. The AG issued specific instructions after having examined police files pertaining to the investigations.

The IGP, too, hadn’t received a copy so far though some sections of the report were in the public domain.

Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage displayed at a live political programme on Derana a copy of the P CoI report he received at the cabinet meeting earlier in the day.

Sources said that the Attorney General’s Department couldn’t decide on a course of action in respect of the Easter carnage on the basis of a section of the report. In terms of the Commission of Inquiry Act (Section 24), the AG enjoyed significant powers/authority in respect of investigations; sources said adding that the Department urgently required both the P CoI report and police investigations report. The Attorney General’s Department has raised the delay in receiving a P CoI report amidst the Catholic Church attacking the government over the same issue.

Sources said that ministerial committee appointed to study the P CoI report couldn’t decide on how to proceed with the recommendations and the matter was entirely in the hands of the AG. Sources pointed out that the delay on the part of the government to release the report had received the attention of sections of the international media, including the New York Times. Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera having met Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at the Bishop’s House on Dec 8, 2020 said that the AG would get a copy of the P CoI report once the President received it. Minister Weerasekera said that the CID had handed over the relevant files after having completed investigations into eight blasts. Referring to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) report on the Easter Sunday carnage, the former Navy Chief of Staff said that all such documents would have to be brought to one place and considered before initiating legal proceedings. Acknowledging that there could be delays, lawmaker Weerasekera said that on the instructions of the Attorney General a 12-member team of lawyers was working on the case. The minister vowed to expose the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks. Investigations continued while some of those wanted were overseas, the minister said.

The minister acknowledged that the Attorney General couldn’t proceed without the P CoI report. Minister Weerasekera reiterated that once the President received the P CoI report, it would be sent to the Attorney General. The minister said that there were documents two to three feet high that needed scrutiny. The minister assured comprehensive investigation. The minister said that investigations pertaining to eight blasts had been completed and the reports handed over to the AG. However, the Attorney General had found shortcomings in those investigations.

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JVP picks holes in PCoI report

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By Saman Indrajith

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday bombings had failed to identify the mastermind of , the JVP said yesterday.

Addressing the media at the party headquarters in Pelawatte, JVP Propaganda Secretary MP Vijitha Herath said that the PCoI report had levelled accusations against former President Maithripala Sirisena, former IGP and head of intelligence for their dereliction of duty, shirking of responsibilities and not taking action to prevent the attacks and negligence. There were reference to the causes of the terror attacks and actions to be taken to avoid such attacks and the influence of extremist organisations. “However, there is no mention of the mastermind of the attacks, the handlers of the attackers and those whose interests the carnage served. It is also not mentioned whether there has been any foreign or local organisation behind those attacks. As per the PCoI report the attack took place as a result of culmination of extremism.

“According to the PCoI the extremist activities were a result of the prevailing political situation then. The entire nation was waiting to see who was responsible and who masterminded those attacks. The PCoI has failed to identify the true culprits responsible for the terror attacks. The report says that the leader of the suicide cadres killed himself in the attacks and it was a puzzle. That means those who are actually responsible for the attacks are still at large. The report does not provide exact details of the sources of the attacks. The PCoI had sittings for one year and five months. It summoned various persons and got their statements but it has failed to shed any light on the terror attacks. Everybody knows that the top leaders of the government and heads of security and intelligence establishments failed in their duties. Ranil Wickremesinghe was the second in command and he too is bound by the responsibility but the PCoI report fails to identify him as one of the persons against whom legal action should be instituted. The PCoI has treated Wickremesinghe and former President Maithripala Sirisena differently. We are not telling that this report is a total failure but we cannot accept this as a complete report. The PCoI handed over its report to the President on Feb 1. After 23 days it was sent to Parliament. Now, a copy of the report is there in the parliamentary library for the perusal of MPs.”

Herath said that the PCoI did not have powers to take punitive action. “It only has powers to name those responsible and recommend action to be taken against those named.

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TNA MP faults govt. for delay in answering questions, gets under Johnston’s skin

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By Saman Indrajith

It did not matter whether the MPs were wearing pressed clothes or had travelled long distances when their questions were answered, Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando told Parliament yesterday.

 The Minister said so in response to a complaint by Batticaloa District TNA MP Shanikyan Rasamanikkam, who expressed his dismay for government taking time to answer a question raised by him.

 MP Rasamanikkam has raised a question whether the Minister of Health is aware that the Dikkodai ospital, located in the Batticaloa district is not used for public purposes and the patients who visit the hospital for receiving services, face inconveniences, owing to that. On behalf of the Minister of Health, the Chief Government Whip and Minister asked for additional two weeks time.

 MP Rasamanikkam: I come to parliament from Batticaloa, which is 422 km away. To attend Parliament we take great care including pressing our clothes. After taking so much trouble to come there braving the pandemic threat we do not get answers. There is a Health Minister and Acting Health Minister and neither of them is here. I saw Minister Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle in the House this morning. She too has gone out. I travel more than 800 km. We could attend to many other problems. It is because the government does not give answers we are conducting protest marches, but when we do so we are hauled up before courts.

Chief Government Whip Minister Johnston Fernando: Every MP comes here wearing pressed clothes. But that has nothing to do with questions and answers here. I have been requested by the subject minister to ask for two weeks’ time. The MPs have a right to ask questions and in the same way the ministers have the right to ask for time. On the other hand, whether you cover 400 km to reach parliament does not matter. The majority of MPs travel 200 to 250 kilometers to come to Parliament. It is for that purpose they contest elections and get elected. Once elected the distance is not an issue you have to come to Parliament. The government has answered all your questions. This is the first time the Minister has asked for additional time. It is unfair for you to level charges. A more responsible conduct is expected of you as an upcoming political leader.

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