The permanent secretary of ministry of Health, Dr Diana Atwine has admitted to flouting several procurement procedures and rules when she diverted money while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Atwine says, she did this in the interest of Uganda and in an attempt to save lives.
Atwine's remarks were in response to the Auditor General's 2019/20 financial year report, which implicated the ministry for diverting over Shs 10.5 billion and Shs 2.95 billion from budgeted activities without approval or following the right procedures and procurement guidelines and rules. The AG also faulted the ministry for failure to conduct quality checks on the procured ICU equipment worth Shs 26 billion, face masks worth Shs 26 billion and other lab testing equipment for COVID-19.
The AG's report states that procurements were delivered before being approved by the contracts committee or signing contracts with suppliers. In some cases, procurements were started without the availability of funds, funds were diverted and often unaccounted for. The report also highlights instances where the ministry delayed issuing appointment or deployment letters to engaged staff, and to pay staff allowances to individuals.
Atwine says that during the pandemic she had to make hard decisions to save the lives of Ugandans. She says some of the decisions were important and could not wait for the right procurement procedure to be followed.
"I diverted money not to go to my personal pocket, but I made a decision in the interest to save a life. If I’m buying equipment, ICU equipment to put in hospitals such that those who are badly off, who need oxygen get the oxygen, and the supplier or manufacturer says; sorry I cannot give you until you have paid 100% so that I manufacture. Now according to our laws, you don’t give but this money I’m giving is guaranteed, the supplier makes sure that they provide the guarantee so that I pay this money. But when that thing is written in the report, someone doesn’t put it into context under what circumstances I’m making this decision in order to save a life," said Atwine.
One of the procurements made but still awaiting payment is the purchase of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines at Shs 18.3 billion despite the money being passed and approved by parliament last year. The government requested for the money, saying it was needed urgently as a downpayment for the vaccines. In total government says it needs about Shs 500 billion for the COVID-19 vaccines for the entire population.
"Unlike in other epidemics where Uganda had support from developing partners, this time around it was not possible. The same people who give us money were addressing the same problem at home. We had to depend on our coffers and that was not easy. It's not like we had this money with us on our accounts but refused to pay. We did not have money," she said.
Today March 21 marks one year since Uganda reported its first COVID-19 case. Dr Atwine says that she had no other alternative but to reallocate money and put it to better use than it was originally intended for. She says she had to get money originally budgeted for fuel and trips abroad to respond to the pandemic.
"In the response, we had to reallocate money although you know according to the law you’re diverting and you’re discharging. But I can assure you I put that money to better use even when I did not have enough to spend but I was able to put money to better use, but I can assure you it did more work. It saved more lives and for me, that is the most important thing. If in the face of this pandemic we’re able to get money that was meant for fuel and moving all over the place and you buy supplies that save a life of somebody who is badly off, for me am happy about that," she added.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, Atwine says the Auditor General needs to take into account the circumstances under which some decisions were made.
"People fail to understand the changing times, the times we’re in, in a pandemic, in an emergence response you do not behave. If you’re going to save a burning house, you do not go like you’re going to a kwanjula [traditional wedding], the approach is different but our population or some of our people did not understand. That how do you give advance of 100%, yes I give because first of all, I’m working with PPDA to make sure that we stay within the law but at the same time ensure that we do the right thing in the interest of the country, in the interest of the people we want to save in the hospital," Atwine said.