Adewole: We’re Working to End Health Sector Strike Soon

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The Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, has been in the thick of the ongoing industrial action embarked upon by the Joint Health Sector Unions that are demanding a salary upgrade for the health workers, among others. In this interview with Senator Iroegbu, the minister explained why some of their demands are unrealistic

What do you have to say about the allegation by JOHESU that you and Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige are discriminating against their members while favouring the NMA and NARD?

That is not true, very untrue. This ministry is called the Ministry of Health, and except JOHESU wants to create another ministry. But that would require presidential approval which has not been done yet. So we have just Ministry of Health for all.

So the Ministry of Health doesn’t discriminate?

The ministry is for all. Health is beyond doctors, it has to do with the totality of the well-being of all Nigerians, and doctors are just part of the stakeholders. There are other stakeholders; nurses, physiotherapist, pharmacists, science laboratory technicians, radiographers, medical record officers, all of them. They are all working together, even nutritionists. We all work together to offer health services. Not just curative but preventive care, so it is beyond doctors. We do not discriminate against anyone.

Are you saying that JOHESU leadership is not right to tag the Ministry of Health under your leadership as the ‘Ministry for Doctors’ which is intimidating other health workers?

I don’t see us intimidating anybody. That will never happen under our beat, but we need to uphold the rule of law. In a situation where every worker has the right to go on strike, we can’t force people who think they want to go on strike not to, but we also recognise that health is an essential service. It is also like this even in labour law. We can’t really deny that health is on the essential list and our duty is to ensure that we continue to maintain service. That’s my position irrespective of who is on strike. I believe that the facility should continue to offer care to people in emergency situation. The hospital must never be closed even in war situations. That is my position and it did not start today. I was privileged to give a keynote address at the Nigerian Medical Association summit in 2013 in Asaba and I told the doctors clearly that on no account should hospitals close down. Emergency services must still continue to operate because every life counts.

In essence, are you going to implement the “no work no pay” policy?

It is the law of the land. It is not about me implementing it. It is a federal government directive.

What is your response to the allegation about double standard with regard to the recent circular directing doctors to keep record of the number of deaths within the striking period; something that was never done during the NMA strikes?

The issues are to be clearly separated. We would never give circulars to doctors. We give circulars to the heads of institutions and we asked them to give daily report on whatever is going on in their facilities and of course what is going on in their facility will include: death, cases in admission, cases discharged, occupancy during the crises, among others, because we must be able to give account of what happened. This is not new; we have done it in the past. That is part of our normal responsibility as a ministry. We need to provide regular information to the government unbiased, untouched and truly as it is.

Since health is one of the essentials because life is involved, what will happen when both the secondary and primary healthcare institutions join the strike as being threatened by JOHESU?

Health is one of the essentials in life. The secondary and primary healthcare institutions are not under us directly and so, I think this in the portfolio of governors and local government chairmen. They are the ones who can comment about the state of their healthcare system. I can only comment about federal health institutions.

In order to save lives, can’t you engage them, negotiate with them, may be reach a compromise?

We are looking into the issues comprehensively because that is the duty of government. It is under this administration that we even have anything close to an agreement. They have been negotiating with previous governments, but there was no agreement. It was when we met them, and they told us they had an agreement, that we told them there was no agreement. They had none, so the first tangible effort towards addressing their grievances came under this government and they should commend us for that. Hitherto, they had no agreement, they only had minutes of previous meetings which they tendered as agreement and I told them at one of the meetings that, that is not an agreement.

So is there any hope the strike is ending soon?

Oh, the strike would end soon. We are addressing it comprehensively. There are quite a number of funny issues, and we want to make sure that we handle them comprehensively. We don’t want to end the strike only to face another one so we are looking at it comprehensively and in totality. As of yesterday, we still had a meeting under the authority of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, so we are not resting and as you speak to me, another meeting of the technical group is on-going to look at all the issues. We are doing the costing, looking for money here there, calculating the cost implication to implement the salary adjustment, what are the expected fall-outs, what are the issues, and all that. We are addressing these in totality.

In summary, what do you think is the government’s position, and what do you think should be the ideal outcome?

One thing is clear, we will never support parity and I think we should put that up-front. There has never been any time in the history of this country when there was parity and we will never support parity. We will be willing to support adjustment, but we will never support parity because, it has never happened before independence, after independence till date there has never been parity between doctors and non-doctors.