The Ministry of Health still has 13.4 million unutilized COVID-19 vaccines, the Public Accounts Committee – PAC Central Government has learned.
The Health Ministry Permanent Secretary, Dr. Diana Atwine, says that the country risks losing huge sums of money that was used to procure the vaccines if they expire without being utilized.
Some of the vaccines are scheduled to expire in August and September this year. She attributed the low uptake of the vaccine to negative perceptions about the side effects and the belief by Ugandans that COVID-19 no longer poses a life-threatening risk.
She was appearing before the committee alongside other officials from the Ministry of Health on Wednesday to respond to a recent forensic investigation by the Auditor General, John Muwanga into the utilization of COVID-19 response funds during financial years 2019/2020 and 2020/2021.
The forensic investigation was informed by a resolution of Parliament on a report of the Parliamentary Taskforce on the National COVID-19 Response, which requested the Auditor General to conduct investigations into the COVID-19 funds.
The main objective of the forensic investigation was to ascertain whether all COVID-19-related spending was done in accordance with existing laws, policies, and guidelines, whether there was any loss in expenditure and clarify responsible officers, and to make recommendations for better use of COVID-19-related funds.
The Committee Chairperson Medard Sseggona tasked the Ministry of Health officials led by the Permanent Secretary Diana Atwine to explain why the vaccines had not been delivered on time. In response, Atwine said that most African countries did not access vaccines despite having money since those in the West were given priority. In her submissions to PAC-Central Government, Atwine said that the Ministry’s appeals for people to take up vaccines are not adhered to, given the perception that Uganda is out of danger.
Asuman Basalirwa, the Committee Vice Chairperson questioned whether there was a possibility that the vaccines can be sold to other countries before the expiry dates.
She explained that Uganda thought UNICEF would negotiate on its behalf but this was impossible since manufacturing countries like India first gave priority to their citizens.
Atwine said that all African countries bought the COVID-19 vaccines at the same time and that those in the region like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and Kenya are also stuck with unused vaccines. She revealed that on her recent visit to South Africa revealed that the country was also stuck with vaccines.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has failed to secure accountability for 42 billion Shillings that was allocated to different Local Governments in the past years for Covid-19, immunization, and other activities.
The revelation was made by Atwine to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee- PAC Central Government. This followed a query by Auditor General John Muwanga regarding unaccounted-for Covid-19 funds by Regional Referral Hospitals in two financial years of 2019/2020 and 2020/2021.
Muwanga’s recent forensic investigation into the Covid-19 funds expended during the two financial years indicates that out of 4.485 billion Shillings transferred to Regional Referral Hospitals for management of covid-19 related activities, 614 million remained unaccounted for as of 30th June 2021 by various hospital management.
According to the forensic report, the Regional Referrals in question were given 270 million Shillings each and Mbarara did not account for 86.7 million, Moroto 112.07 million, Arua 1.79 million, Mbale 87.29 million, Fort Portal 108.4 million and Mubende 217.98 million Shillings.
“In my interview with Dr. Diana Atwine, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health during the period under investigation, she confirmed that the above funds were indeed received by her Ministry. She further explained that obtaining accountability returns from Referral Hospitals and Local Governments has always been challenging.
She explained that the Ministry later proposed to start advancing funds to Local Government staff through E-Cash payments and the respective beneficiary would account in person to the Ministry,” reads part of the forensic report.
In the report, Auditor General Muwanga recommended that the Accounting Officers of the affected hospitals should be held accountable for not accounting for the funds.
Section 10.21.11 of the Treasury Instructions (TI) provides that advances not accounted for within 60 days from the date of payment shall be deducted from the monthly salary of the officer who received the said funds. The instruction further states that no more advances should be made to anybody with unsettled advances.
Asked by Chairperson Medard Lubega Sseggona why the Ministry didn’t enforce accountability, James Oundo, the Assistant Commissioner Accounts said that at the time of the audit, some regional referral hospitals had not shared their accountability but some have since sent in the accountability.
He however hastened to add that the money has not been fully accounted for despite different letters written by the Permanent Secretary Dr. Atwine.
Dr. Atwine told the committee that she had written letters to the different accounting officers and even held meetings with them about the issue. Atwine added that she had also held a meeting with the Secretary to Treasury about the failed accountability. Atwine noted that it was not only the Covid-19 funds that were not partly accounted for, but the Ministry was also having challenges to secure accountability for money sent to districts through GAVI, Global Fund, and other areas.
“It is a big problem with Local Governments. 42 billion Shillings is not accounted for, I pray that we enforce the accountability through the Secretary to Treasury and maybe this committee” Atwine said
Eddie Kwizera, the Bukimbiri County MP wondered why the sanctions outlined in the law have not been enforced to ensure that the money is recovered.
Dr. Michael Bukenya, the Bukuya County MP expressed concern that the committee had earlier heard from the auditor of the Ministry confirming not being able to audit and the current confirmation from the Permanent Secretary about not being able to access accountability for funds.
Bukenya proposed that the committee comes up with a recommendation on the matter to help streamline accountability between the ministry, regional referral hospitals, and the Local Governments.
Sseggona said that the issue was majorly about the law that does not allow the Ministry a mechanism to enforce accountability. “The Ministry only has a giving hand. We shall have an interface with the Secretary to Treasury.”
He also directed the Ministry to provide the committee with a list of the Accounting Officers who have failed to account for funds, how much they have not accounted for, and how it arises. Sseggona said that the list should be with his committee by Tuesday so that the process of having the money recovered starts.