5 days after the press release by the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) on the action it took against the 12 staff members responsible for the Hepatitis C outbreak, we are no wiser about what exactly the “financial penalties” meted out to them are, or who exactly these staff members are.
On the same day the SGH made its statement, the Ministry of Health (MOH) also disclosed that it had taken “disciplinary action” against 4 of its own staff involved in the incident which saw 8 deaths, 7 of which are believed to have been directly linked to the outbreak.
The disciplinary action taken by both SGH and the MOH included “warnings, stern warnings and financial penalties.”
Now, some have criticised the two organisations for not taking even sterner action, such as sacking the staff members or even bringing criminal charges, against them.
Well, let’s back up a bit.
In October 2015, the SGH filed a police report about the incident.
2 months later, the police said it had found “no foul play” involved in the outbreak. It then referred the matter to the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) which apparently agreed and no criminal action has been taken against anyone.
Still, the MOH and SGH obviously felt that some action ought to be taken, even if there was no criminal negligence on the staff’s part.
Under the law, there is provision for “administrative sanctions” in such instances.
In its 2002 Consultation Paper on such administrative sanctions and civil penalties, the AGC urged “all government agencies [to] bear in mind that it is not necessary or appropriate to criminalise every form of errant behavior.”
“There are alternative methods such as administrative and civil sanctions, which can be used in place of, or to complement criminal regimes,” the Paper explained. “The use of these other methods may result in more effective regulation.”
Administrative sanctions “seek to achieve the aims of criminal law, but are imposed within a civil procedural setting.”
Here is a crucial point highlighted in the Paper:
“Administrative financial penalties are adjudicated and imposed by the administrative agency independently. The administrative agency acts as prosecutor and judge.
“It decides on the relevant issues of fact and law and then determines the type or amount of penalty to be levied in each case.
“The risk of abuse or misuse of power is present.
“There is therefore a crucial need for transparency, both in the rules itself as well as in the decision making process.”
In the Hep C case, the issue of transparency has become a talking point, with both the SGH and the MOH keeping mum about how it had arrived at pinning fault on the staff members, how they had arrived at issuing the “warnings, stern warnings and financial penalties” to the members, how much the “financial penalties” were, and why no one higher up has been taken to task.
Hiding behind vague and opaque euphemisms such as “financial penalties” and claiming that the staff members disciplined involved “director level” members tell the public nothing at all.
And to compound the absurdity of the action by the SGH and the MOH, the latter explained that “staff confidentiality” prevents it from revealing details of the sanctions.
“Adhering to staff and patient confidentiality norms, we would like to assure the public that the staff who were involved in the incident have been disciplined accordingly,” the MOH spokesperson said.
In fact, the excuse is so ludicrous that it even prompted the Senior Health Correspondent of the government-supporting broadsheet, the Straits Times, to say:
“Staff confidentiality has no place when people have died because of something those 16 people did or failed to do,” said Ms Selma Khalik.
“People in senior positions are expected to deal with problems when they arise. Obviously, some did not live up to their responsibilities. Should they still remain in those positions?”
Ms Selma made a very good point when she added:
“Furthermore, by keeping the names of people at fault a secret, doubts are now cast on innocent people at the MOH and the SGH – which is totally unfair on them.”
And then she repeated:
“Staff confidentiality has no part to play when there is such a serious breach of patient care. It casts doubt on the value placed on the seven lives lost.”
It is a woeful lack of responsibility and an atrocious dereliction of duty on the part of the SGH and the MOH towards their many other staff members to cover-up the names of those responsible and the actual penalties meted out to them – to say nothing of the two departments’ responsibility to those who died and their loved ones.
Now questions are being asked and rumours being spread that there are two standards when it comes to those in government-affiliated organisations and ordinary members of the public.
Indeed, Ms Selma herself said:
“If people are left with the impression that doctors and ministry officials get special protection no matter what they do, then confidence in the system will be badly eroded.”
If using the Internet at work for personal reasons is considered so serious an infringement that the person has to be sacked from his job, as indeed was the case involving blogger and Tan Tock Seng Hospital staff member Roy Ngerng, then one is stumped on why names and penalties are being covered up for those involved in an incident which led to the death of 8 people and the infection of many more at SGH; and how these same people are allowed to retain their jobs too.
And incidentally, when Roy was sacked by TTSH, the MOH, which issued a statement to support TTSH’s action, said nothing about “staff confidentiality”. In fact, Roy’s name was freely stated in both their public statements and in subsequent media reports.
Yes, there seems to be a case of double standards here – a sign of the corrosion which is already taking place in the system.