•PTF, NCDC, NPHCDA meet Senate committee today
Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja
Amidst apprehension over the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country and the urgent need for a concrete arrangement to procure vaccines being manufactured to manage the virus, the federal government plans to raise a supplementary budget to tackle the funding gaps for the procurement of the vaccines.
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Infectious Disease Control, Senator Chukwuka Utazi, told THISDAY in an interview at the weekend that efforts were ongoing to articulate all that it would take to ensure that Nigeria gets enough vaccines for its citizens.
After months of a slump in the number of COVID-19 infections, the country suddenly began to witness an upsurge in new infections this month, with the daily number of positive cases averaging 600 and above.
Also, more deaths are being recorded as a result of the virus.
The federal government had earlier said it has set aside N10 billion in the 2021 Appropriation Bill for the purpose of procurement and evaluation of COVID-19 Vaccines when they are ready.
It also said that a task team has been constituted to help in mobilising resources and advising the government on how best to utilise such resources to effectively deal with the pandemic.
Although he did not state how much has been approved in the 2021 national budget that is about to be passed by the National Assembly, Utazi explained that the reason for the supplementary budget is to make contingency arrangements to acquire enough vaccines for the country’s population as soon as they are ready.
The senator representing Enugu North senatorial district in the National Assembly disclosed that as part of the efforts to raise funds for the procurement of vaccines, the Senate committee has scheduled a meeting with the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 and relevant agencies in the health sector for today.
According to him, the meeting is to consider what should be done to ensure that adequate funds are provided for the vaccines.
On why a supplementary budget is being proposed, Utazi said: “The issue of vaccine came up when we were almost done with the budget and with my discussion with the health agencies since yesterday and today, they are all discussing how we need to find money and we agreed at the Senate and National Assembly and those of us in the health committee are interfacing with our leadership and this is something that is very urgent and we must do something about it.
“The Executive Director, CEO of National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA) and Director-General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and all of us, we are all making efforts.
“As I speak to you, the budget for the procurement of the vaccine has already been gotten, we have an idea of what it is going to take but I won’t mention it here because we are still working on it but the effort is ongoing and we are working hard to achieve this.
“We have already started discussing with the President of the Senate on how we can thinker this budget before Monday (today) to ensure that we have adequate provision in it for the vaccine even if it means striking out certain other projects to ensure that this money is in the budget for the vaccine.”
Utazi further gave reasons why the executive and the National Assembly were pushing for a supplementary budget, saying the leadership of National Assembly does not want anything to disrupt or delay the scheduled passage of the 2021 Appropriation Bill before the end of the year.
“I took this idea to the Senate President and he told me ‘no, we don’t need to do that’, as the budget has reached that stage let’s not go there and try to put a spanner in the works but what we should do is articulate our opinion at the estimate of what it will cost us to buy enough vaccines that would go round the country and make sure that the health of our citizens are protected and once we do that the leadership is going to interface with the executive to do a special supplementary estimate purely for this which everyone is concerned about and that is the direction we are heading to and our people are working round the clock for this to work out,” he said.
Utazi said the Coordinator of COVID 19 Presidential Taskforce, Dr. Sani Aliyu, and the Executive Director of NPHCDA, Dr. Faisal Shuaib, as well as the Director-General of NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, and the Minister for Health are in discussions in order to come up with an estimate that would form the supplementary budget.
“So, we are assuring the country that we are working and there are no loopholes from the National Assembly in terms of making sure we have enough preparation to fund our health emergencies,” he said.
On the resurgence of the pandemic, Utazi urged the federal government to exercise caution in taking measures to respond to the situation.
He said that the advice has become necessary because of debilitating impact further shut down of the economy will have on the country.
He, however, asked that more stringent measures be taken to ensure that Nigerians adhere to the health protocols established by the NCDC.
“We have to be creative in the way we handle the present situation of things and try to ensure that the economy is still working while enforcing relevant health protocols,” he said.
The lawmaker said the country can borrow a leaf from what is happening in developed economies where the countries though having crossed the red line in the pandemic are not shutting their economies but have continued to allow their airlines to operate.
“What it means is that they are fighting for survival leaving those of us here to risk, that was why we still restricted international flights to Lagos and Abuja,” he said.
While speaking at the media briefing by the Presidential Task Force in Abuja in November, Ehanire had said that the federal government was proposing the sum of N10 billion for use in procuring the vaccines in next year’s budget.
He also said: “Nigeria has floated a vaccine company known as Bio-Vaccine Nigeria Limited to facilitate the procurement and evaluation of the vaccines.
He said: “It is a joint venture between the federal government and a private company to carry out not only research but also to look at the options of producing vaccines with licence. The federal government has earmarked N10 billion in the 2021 national budget to serve as a reserve fund, which will be for the development of vaccines and could also be deployed for procurement of vaccines.”
Ehanire also said that the federal government has set up a task team made up of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Central Bank and CACOVID to help the government in mobilising resources that are needed for providing COVID-19 vaccines.
According to him, “Now that the vaccines are known to be close at hand, the Federal Ministry of Health is taking measures towards vaccine security, for which an 18-man National COVID-19 Vaccine Task Team with seven terms of Reference will be inaugurated this week. The task team will include generating strategies for acquisition, deployment, and options for licensed production by Biovaccine Nigeria Ltd. Our options with WHO/GAVI led Covax facility remain our first line of engagement.”