…Says COVID-19 responsible for 60 percent of Kano’s mysterious deaths
…Mulls reopening of schools after lifting ban on interstate movement
…Reps threaten to arrest AGF over N83bn COVID -19 funds
…As Health Ministry, PTF split over budget for pandemic
…Buhari approves N20bn hazard allowance for health workers
By Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Omeiza Ajayi & Tordue Salem, Abuja
The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 yesterday raised alarm that state governments and Nigerians were not cooperating with Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, on testing for COVID-19.
This came as the House of Representatives Public Account Committee threatened to issue a warrant of arrest on the Accountant-General of the Federation, if he continued to turn down invitations to give accounts on how the N83 billion allocated by the federal government to fight COVID-19 pandemic was being spent.
Speaking at the investigative hearing organised by the committee yesterday, the Director-General of NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekwazu, decried the refusal of Nigerians to show up for testing and sought the assistance of members of the House to educate Nigerians on the need to submit themselves for testing.
He said: “It is unfortunate that state governments are not cooperating with us on the issue of testing. Many Nigerians are also not coming forward to be tested. We are pleading with lawmakers to help the PTF talk to people in the grassroots to come forward for testing.”
Noting that nobody knew how long the pandemic would last, Ihekweazu said the pandemic was currently at community transmission level.
He lamented that Nigeria had so far carried out “about 100,000 test, even though it has the capacity to carry out over 200,000 test per day at the moment.”
The NCDC boss added that the refusal of Nigerians to make themselves available for testing was partly responsible for the low number of testing.
Dr. Ihekwazu also said that some state governments were not cooperating with the agency in the testing process, stressing that it would be difficult to ascertain the level of infection in the country to allow for proper planning, if people were not tested.
He said it was unlikely that Nigeria has got to the peak of the pandemic, saying it might be safer to say Nigeria was at the beginning of a major pandemic.
The NCDC boss disclosed that since the beginning of the pandemic, the Federal Government has made available to the agency N5.620 billion to fight the pandemic, out of which about N1.126 billion had been expended.
He said reports making the rounds that NCDC spent over N1 billion on SMS were false, noting that the agency has not spent a single kobo on messages.
According to him, the SMS being dished out are free from telecom providers.
On his part, chairman of the PTF and Secretary to Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, said coronavirus was still a very dangerous disease which was spreading fast and killing people.
The SGF, who was represented at the investigative hearing by the Permanent Secretary, General Services in the Office of the SGF, Olusegun Adeyemi, said: “Nobody knows when it will end, which explains why money cannot easily be thrown at it.’’
He explained there was need to embark on risk communication and community engagement to ensure adequate mobilization of Nigerians to adopt the non-pharmaceutical approach to the fight.
“As at January this year, there were only about 7000 cases in just two countries. Today, infection rate stands at over seven million across over 200 countries globally. That is to suggest the fast rate of the spread.
“We need your support to be able to do what has to be done. A lot of legislative work is needed. The next pandemic must not catch us unaware. We must prepare for it. We are working with ICPC and civil society groups because accountability is key in whatever we are doing,’’ the SGF said.
The SGF had earlier told the committee that so far, the Federal Government has released about N22.163 billion to the Task Force for its activities.
Of the money, he said only N164.929 million had been spent, while the balance was still in the PTF account with the Central Bank of Nigeria awaiting the completion of procurement process by the various agencies involved in the fight against the disease.
He, however, said the PTF was not in a position to disclose how much had been received as donations from both foreign and local partners, stressing that only the Accountant General of the Federation was in a position to disclose that since he had the records.
He said the PTF was established only to provide leadership for the fight against COVID-19 and does not collect grants or give out grants to any organisation, even though it collaborates with donor agencies.
The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mustapha Sulieman told the committee that of the N500 million budget, about N250 million was released to it, out of which N164 million was spent on the evacuation of Nigerians abroad.
He denied reports that Nigerians evacuated from abroad were made to pay for their accommodation, adding that what they were required to pay for was their flight ticket, while the government took care of their accommodation.
He said though there was an earlier circular from the Nigerian mission requesting those to be evacuated to pay for their accommodation, the circular was later withdrawn, while the government made efforts to pay for the accommodation.
National Coordinator of the Task Force, Dr. Sani Aliyu said a total budget of N35 billion was approved for the fight against COVID-19, out of which over N21billion had been released and currently in the custody of the Accountant General of the Federation.
Dr. Aliyu said the PTF was only a sign off agency, saying “apart from providing leadership, the PTF only cross check submissions from the MDAs and give directives to the Accountant General to effect payment.”
He was, however, contradicted by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Abdulaziz Abdullahi, who said: “Prior to the set-up of PTF, Port Health Division, an agency of the ministry received N71 million to screen passengers at the port of entry.
‘’Then, NCDC received two tranches, the first tranche is N315 million and another tranche of N620 million that was before the setting up of PTF. It was extra-budgetary, it was a special intervention.
“When the Task Force was set up sometimes in March, like the Perm Sec said, it’s multi-sectoral, it coordinates about nine ministries, NCDC and the DG SSS.
“The whole technical working groups were set up and each was asked to make a concept plan and budget was allocated.
“The PTF now made a presentation to the Presidency and a total budget of about N83 billion was approved to the Task Force. Out of that N83, the Ministry of Health and its Agencies got approval for N48 billion for the provision of infrastructure nationwide and additional N21 billion earmarked for health operations.”
According to him, the funds are to be sourced from three sources, namely 2020 line budget, CACOVID and special intervention fund to be released by the Minister of Finance.
The Committee adjourned, asking the AGF to give clarification on the disagreement at the next sitting of June 15, 2020.
On the threat of arrest of the Accountant-General of the Federation over N83 billion allocation to fight COVID-19, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Wole Oke(PDP-Osun), said: “The Accountant General is running away; he has refused to appear before the House to brief us on the details of the spending so far on COVID-19, and we will not take this.
‘’He should cause appearance before June 15, failure of which we will invoke our constitutional powers to issue a warrant of arrest on him.’’
While the Ministry of Health said N83 billion was budgeted for the fight against the disease, the National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force, PTF, Dr. Sani Aliyu, said only N35billion was made available by government.
At the PTF’s daily briefing in Abuja yesterday, Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, said about 50 to 60 percent of case fatalities in Kano were COVID-19 related.
He said: “This morning (yesterday), the Federal Ministry of Health received the report of the Ministerial Task Team that went to Kano, to support the COVID-19 response with commodities, training, technical and confidence building measures.
‘’The visit was extended to fact finding excursions to offer support to five other states. With the observations and recommendations from the three week assignment, the committee developed a Strategic Incident Action Plan to strengthen coordination capacity of the health workers and improve community engagement in line with our response plan.
“While over 150 health workers had been infected at the time of their arrival, there was no report of an infection among health workers who had received training on infection prevention and control, thus restoring confidence. The intervention of the ministerial task force has been a game changer for Kano and some northern states.
“With regard to unexplained deaths in Kano which occurred in April, the team confirmed from graveyard records that a total of 979 deaths were recorded in 8 municipal LGA in the state at a rate of 43 deaths per day, with a peak in the second week of April.
‘’By the beginning of May, the death rate had reduced to 11 per day it used to be. The verbal autopsy revealed that about 56% of deaths had occurred at home, while 38% were in a hospital. With circumstantial evidence, investigation suggests that between 50-60% of the deaths may have been triggered by or due to COVID-19, in the face of pre-existing ailments. Most fatalities were over 65 years of age”.
He said in the last 100 days since COVID-19 berthed in the country, Nigeria has tested over 76,800 persons, recorded 12,486 confirmed COVID-19 cases in 35 States and FCT, successfully treated and discharged 3,959 persons, but sadly lost 354 Nigerians, most of whom had underlying illnesses.
Reopening of schools
In his presentation, the Minister of State Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, who dismissed social media reports regarding when schools would be reopened, said government would only do that when medical experts give the nod to so do.
He said: “You had about about neighbouring countries that reopened and shut down again. You have heard about numbers spiking as a result of reopening of schools. Of all the things I would like to do, I wouldn’t want to experiment with your children.
“What we are planning is to actually bring in those exit years first as soon as those who are in charge of the blockade lift it because there is no way we can open our schools if teachers cannot come. So, we are looking at when interstate lockdown is lifted because we need to have that kind of openness for even the children to move.”
Also yesterday, President Muhammadu Buhari approved over N20 billion as three months hazard allowance for health workers on the frontline to contain coronavirus pandemic in the country.
Already, the Federal Government said the hazard allowance for the months of April and May would be paid before the end of this week, while that of June will be paid by the end of the month.
This was part of the agreement reached between the government representatives, led by the Minister of of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, and the representatives of the health sector workers.
The health sector workers to benefit from the money are the Nigerian Medical Association, NMA, the National Association of Resident Doctors, NARD, the Joint Health Sector Unions and affiliates of JOHESU, the Nigerian Midwives Association and other health professional unions.
Speaking after the meeting which took place at the Conference Hall of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Senator Ngige said President Buhari appreciated efforts of the health workers on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.
He said government approved insurance coverage for the workers, adding that the gesture was in consonance with the Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, entered into on April 21 between the Federal Government and representatives of the health professionals and unions in the health sector.
He said: “We reviewed all and also, we reviewed the emoluments that we are to give these gallant workers who are in the frontline taking the risk for all of us and the federal government side has given them the financial implications of what they have done.”