SINGAPORE - In response to the Workers' Party (WP) call for a Committee of Inquiry (COI) to probe the cluster of hepatitis C infections at the Singapore General Hospital, the Government said yesterday that it would convene one only if the WP could "lead evidence" to substantiate any allegations of impropriety.
The WP had called for the independent review committee looking into the hepatitis C infections to be reconstituted as a Committee of Inquiry (COI) under the Inquiries Act, arguing that the situation is "at least as grave" as the 2011 MRT breakdowns or the 2013 Little India riot, both of which were probed by COIs.
In response, the press secretary to the Minister of Health released a statement on Sunday evening that said:
"The WP statement is careful not to make any suggestion that SGH or MOH officers acted with improper motives. Yet it has asked for a COI ahead of the Committee's report and the conclusion of Police investigations."
"If the WP believes that there are questions that the Committee cannot answer, or that any officer acted with improper motives, it should state so directly. The Government will convene a COI provided the WP is prepared to lead evidence before the COI, to substantiate whatever allegations it might have."
The press secretary, Ms Lim Bee Khim, said that the independent review committee appointed to review the cause of the incident and its surrounding circumstances has engaged additional resource persons, including international advisors, to ensure that it has access to all the necessary expertise to do its review thoroughly.
"The Committee's findings and recommendations will be made public. A Police report has also been filed and the Police are conducting investigations," she added.
Up to 25 SGH patients warded between April and June this year have been diagnosed with the same family of hepatitis C virus.
Eight patients have since died, with five of the deaths linked to the virus. In its statement, the WP suggested that retired clinicians and healthcare administrators be included in the committee and one of them be made co-chair.
This is because the serving clinicians in public healthcare institutions currently on the review committee "are effectively being asked to critique the actions of senior civil servants who oversee and administer government policy that affects their work as clinicians on a day-to-day basis".
"This would place members of the review committee in an awkward position".
Someone qualified to be a judge of the High Court should also be a committee member; this is required for Committees of Inquiry under the Inquiries Act, Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera said in the statement.
"This would strengthen the ability of the committee to conduct a truly rigorous and, where necessary, critical review," he said.
The WP said that the Government should explicitly task the committee to investigate the reasons for two "extended delays" in the chain of events.
The first is the delay between SGH's discovery of the infections in April and May, and its notification of the Ministry of Health (MOH) in late August.
The second is the delay between the ministry's Director of Medical Services being informed on Sept 3, and the Health Minister being informed on Sept 18.
It added that the committee should examine if protocols for containment and public notification were adhered to by the public servants involved, and if these protocols do not currently exist, to recommend them.
The incident has "serious implications for the public confidence of Singaporeans and foreign stake-holders in our vital national institutions," it said.
"We hold that a responsible and transparent government should explain in detail how the delays in public notification and screening from April/May to October represent actions that were taken in the best interests of patient safety and risk minimisation to patients," it said.
"Calls on the government to explain the delays in detail should not be met by calls to provide evidence of any inappropriate motivation."
This article was first published on Oct 26, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.