Last week in Jamaica the local media and some supporters of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) were apoplectic that government MP Juliet Holness was openly blunt in her criticism of her government’s handling of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
Some were shocked that Mrs Holness was so open with her comments given she is the wife of prime minister Andrew Holness. Some JLP supporters even thought she was doing the bidding of the opposition People’s National Party (PNP).
Mrs Holness made her comments at both Tuesday and Wednesday’s sittings of parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC).
She was severely critical of the approach taken by the technocrats at the Ministry of Health and Wellness for their handling of the vaccination programme.
Dunstan Bryan, permanent secretary at the department, was in for a torrid time from Mrs Holness and also from opposition (PNP) members Lisa Hanna and Fitz Jackson (committee chair) who were equally compelling in their dialogue with those senior government health officials present.
Jamaica’s vaccination programme has been chaotic from the outset. It has been riddled with constant mixed messages, micro-managing overkill, duplication of processes plus poor planning and co-ordination from the centre. At times headline vac programme seemed to be more of a PR exercise for the government.
The clearest of example of such PR gimmickry was when government politicians kept rushing to the airport to pose next to the latest consignment of vaccines to arrive on the island.
March 2021 – Vaccines from India – L-R Kamina Johnson-Smith; Rungsung Masaku India’s High Commissioner, Andrew Holness , Christopher Tufton.
August 2021 – Vaccines from the UK – L-R Kamina Johnson Smith; Asif Ahmad UK High Commissioner, Andrew Holness & Christopher Tufton.
The failures of the vaccination programme highlighted by Mrs Holness was fair and stemmed from the government recently having to dump 60000 expired AstraZenaca vaccines. She was also not impressed by how the Pfizer vaccine was allocated.
This is not the first time Mrs Holness (aka by her initials – J.A.H.) has been publicly critical of her government’s spending and governance. She has been known to provide constructive comments and ask probing questions of government officials at numerous other hearings of both the PAAC and Public Accounts Committee (PAC). She has also delivered blunt criticism to the technocrats in education and works. She is by far the most effective select committee member in the current parliament.
As we all know, in politics things are not always as it seems on the surface.
What was really behind Mrs Holness’ attack on the Ministry of Health?
Was she encouraged to go after the technocrats to distract public criticism of government ministers and the PM?
If things go wrong government politicians tend to blame the technocrats, but if it is successfull who you thinks takes all the credit? The above photos give us a clue.
One interesting outcome from Mrs Holness’ comments about the Ministry of Health this week has been the media silence of the relevant minister – Christopher Tufton. Tufton since becoming the health minister in 2016 is always on TV news far-far too often. But on Mrs Holness’ remarks Tufton has been uncharacteristically muted.
The vaccination programme failing just showed how folly it was of Mrs Holness’ government not to hold regular sittings of the parliamentary oversight body that monitors Jamaica’s COVID-19 programme. This oversight body has rarely met since the general election in September 2020.
For one thing that oversight body should not have been chaired by Tufton for obvious conflicts of interest reasons.
One of the clearest blunders in the vaccination programme was having crowds of all ages queue sometimes for up to 6-8 hours to have their jabs only to be turned away because the vaccines had run out. We have seen places where the vaccines arrived like 3 hours after the vaccination point was opened to the public. There has too much red tape in process and too few vaccination venue sites.
From the very beginning the government should have included local private doctors and pharmacists in conducting vaccine jab. The average Jamaican has an antipathy towards anything government driven especially when it comes to health. But Jamaicans (especially the elderly) do trust their private doctor and local pharmacy.
The PAAC and PAC are probably the 2 most effective arms of government today. Opposition members of those select committees tend to be very effective in its scrutiny of government spending and governance. But lately we are seeing some of the government members of these committees take the relevant public departments to task. This is an unusual development but welcomed.
But what would have made Mrs Holness’ comments and Jamaican politics even more intriguing, is if she had done so during the sitting of all MPs and made those remarks directly to her colleague Mr Tufton’s face.
During the early stages of the government’s disorderly vaccine programme, TV entertainment journalist Anthony Miller sarcastically suggested to Olivia “Babsy” Grange (sports and culture minister) that she could replace Tufton in any future cabinet reshuffle. Maybe Miller was dead serious.
Bryan hits back at Holness’ Pfizer jab – The Gleaner