WP airs suggestions on new task force

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The Workers' Party (WP) has shelved its call for a Commission of Inquiry into the hepatitis C outbreak but put forward several suggestions in response to the independent committee's report on the matter.

It suggested that a respected retired healthcare professional be appointed as a joint head of the task force set up to strengthen infection control in all hospitals.

Such a move will "ensure that recommendations are formed from a perspective of sufficient independence from the existing organisation structure", the opposition party said in a statement yesterday.

Its call comes a day after the release of the report by an independent review committee that examined the hepatitis C outbreak in Singapore General Hospital (SGH) earlier this year. The committee had recommended the task force and Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat will helm it.

The outbreak contributed directly to the death of seven patients. The death of an eighth could not be linked directly to hepatitis C.

In its statement by NCMP Leon Perera, the WP noted that the report showed that the notification process was flawed and needed an overhaul. But, it added, it was not calling for a Committee of Inquiry (COI) at this stage "because at the outset, we argued against a two- track process of having an Independent Review Committee review followed by a COI investigation".

It, however, wants the task force to look at more definite roles for the different healthcare agencies and a more specific timeline for higher-ups to be notified. The WP said "there should be a clock that starts ticking from when an infection is suspected to when it is verified, announced and responded to".

It added that "the ideal role of the healthcare cluster/group in such incidents should be taken up by the task force" as the report did not say when organisations such as SingHealth should be involved in situations similar to that at SGH.

SGH started looking into the high number of patients with hepatitis C in mid-May and briefed the Health Ministry's director of medical services on Sept 3. He ordered more investigations before informing the Health Minister on Sept 18.

The WP said the report "concludes that the time lapse" from Sept 3 to Sept 18 "was justified by the need to conduct more investigation to ascertain the severity and extent of the outbreak". "In so doing, the report may be setting a precedent and an implicit guideline for the timeliness of alerting the minister and the public when such incidents happen," it added.

The Singapore Democratic Party said in a separate statement that the report raises questions about when the information already circulating in the Health Ministry was communicated to its highest levels.

Dr Tan Wu Meng, an MP for Jurong GRC, said that however well-meant, nothing in the WP's proposals "would help our healthcare workers diagnose outbreaks better, detect atypical infections sooner, or sense uncommon problems more clearly". "Clearly, something went badly amiss in SGH on multiple levels. But we must get our diagnosis right too, or else we will be creating more protocols and policies without tackling the root causes and underlying risks."