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Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

The Treasury has “come to the party” and confirmed that it will pay for the majority of the population to receive Covid-19 vaccinations, when they become available, health minister Zweli Mkhize told MPs on Thursday.

Mkhize said that while the government has agreed to accept some help from the private sector — medical schemes have offered to cover the cost of their own members and subsidise a number of public sector patients — the Treasury has confirmed that it will authorise the necessary deviations to enable procurement.

Mkhize was briefing parliament’s portfolio committee on health during which he also announced that the government has secured its first vaccine supply of 1.5-million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India.

The Treasury has been slow to step up to the challenge of procuring a vaccine and did not pay the initial deposit to secure SA’s place in the Covax global vaccine initiative in December. The deposit — R327m — which represents 15% of the R2.2bn that will ultimately have to be paid was paid by the Solidarity Fund, an NGO funded by big business.

Explaining why this had been necessary, Mkhize said the “Treasury advised that what we needed to do is to raise the money so there would be no need to tamper with the budget framework tabled [in October] and so we needed to look at what could be done to get additional support from the Solidarity Fund”.

Discussions with the Treasury this week resulted in it agreeing to pay the necessary costs of vaccine acquisition. Mkhize did not disclose what the budget might be, but estimates by health experts and by the Business for SA (B4SA) task-team, range from R12bn to R20bn to vaccinate the entire country. This estimate includes the distribution costs. Of this the private sector has offered to cover R7.1bn through medical schemes.

“The Treasury has allocated amounts — it is not fixed at this moment but they have come to the party to say they are working with health to make sure that health requirements will be funded. We are going to have a special dispensation to allow deviations so that different manufacturers can be engaged. Treasury will be following a process so there is no difficulty with procurement processes so that we can speedily purchase and pay for the vaccines,” said Mkhize.

Speaking in the portfolio meeting, the EFF was scathing about the government’s reliance “on charity” to meet an obvious public good. EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu had written to the committee to request that finance minister Tito Mboweni attend the meeting but Mkhize said this would not have been possible as Mboweni had a family bereavement.

The government has set a target to vaccinate 40-million people by the end of 2021. This would mean vaccinating 316,000 people a day. The government plans to ensure 6,300 full-time vaccinators will be available.

Neither the Treasury nor the health department have revealed the price of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be supplied for health workers. Earlier estimates in the public domain are in the region of $5 a dose.

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