Abdulla Ameen, who has voluntarily stepped aside from his duties as Health Minister, said on Tuesday that his communications with World Health Organization (WHO)’s top official in Maldives seeking assistance for procurement of ventilators weren’t personal, but official.
Top officials from the Health Ministry were summoned for an inquiry initiated by the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee on the findings of a compliance audit on the institution’s COVID-19 related spending on Tuesday afternoon.
The biggest issues highlighted in the compliance audit report are linked with the contracts awarded to three private companies to procure ventilators needed to treat COVID-19 patients in critical condition, primarily the MVR 34.50 million contract to Dubai-based Executors General Trading to procure 75 ventilators.
Health Ministry had previously stated that the contract to Executors General Trading was awarded at the recommendation of World Health Organization (WHO) office in Male’. However, the audit report says there is no evidence of official communications between WHO and Health Ministry regarding the procurement of ventilators, and that Ameen had conferred with WHO Country Representative to Maldives Dr. Arvind Mathur in an unofficial capacity.
Ameen said on Tuesday that though the procurement of ventilators had initially been contracted to two local-based companies, the companies had faced challenges in delivering the ventilators, and that the objective of the government therefore became to procure the much-needed ventilators as soon as possible.
He said that the Health Ministry had worked to procure the ventilators as soon as possible, under the threat of losing numerous lives.
“I spoke directly with a representative from the WHO’s country office in Maldives. I said we were facing immense challenges in procuring ventilators. And asked that he share any information he may have which will aid in the effort,” he said.
Ameen said the representative got back to him with “a name and contact number” two days later.
He said he does not believe the communication in question had been of a personal nature, but that it had been carried out under his official capacity as Health Minister.
“At this point, I passed on the information to the ministry’s financial executive and asked him to look into it. I continue to refuse to believe the communication between myself and the WHO representative were private, and I never will,” he said.
Ameen said the communications hadn’t been carried out in secrecy, and that information regarding the communications was shared with the financial executive and the bid committee.
The audit report refers to statements by officials from WHO office in Male’, and states that WHO did not share a list of recommended ventilator suppliers with the Health Ministry, and that WHO never had business relations with Executors General Trading.
Ameen said that he instructed Health Ministry officials to procure the ventilators through WHO, and that the Health Ministry engaged efforts on that front, but that it proved a difficult task due to time constraints and circumstances at that time.
Ameen said that it can be proven through Health Ministry’s official documents.
He said that the Health Ministry’s Financial Executive Ahmed Aslam had worked to verify the information provided by Dr. Mathur.
He said that additional communications also took place via email.
“The email has attachments specifying brands of ventilators and prices. The email was forwarded to the ministry via the official account of an employee of the WHO country office,” he said.
When questioned by committee member whether he wishes to declare WHO’s statement to the Auditor General’s Office as false, Ameen said he does not wish make such a statement, but reiterated his earlier statement that the communications between him and WHO were official.
AMEEN: IT CAN’T BE DENIED WHO PROVIDED INFORMATION ON A SUPPLIER
Ameen voiced concern regarding how the information in the audit report was portrayed, and said that the communications with WHO can’t be denied.
“It is deeply concerning that the information was portrayed to suggest that the [contract was awarded] to a company which does not exist and in a fraudulent manner, and without any consultation with WHO,” he said.
He said that all emails sent by employees of WHO office to the Health Ministry all had “regarding the procurement of 200 ventilators for Maldives” as a subject. And that attachments on the emails included documents and information pertaining to the procurement of ventilators.
Ameen said that the Health Ministry had shared all these details with the Auditor General’s Office, but that the audit report did not take into account any of the information, or the situation of the country at that time.
“If we talk about the current situation, with no reference to our situation in late March and no consideration of the circumstances at the time, then that critical situation is being overlooked. We were in the middle of a great pandemic. It was an unprecedented situation which no country has faced,” he said.
Ameen said the Health Ministry had worked with sincerity to overcome the situation facing Maldives at the time. He said that Health Ministry officials had no intention of obtaining undue benefits and stealing public funds.
Other top officials from the Health Ministry who attended the meeting also spoke to confirm the communications with WHO had taken place.
Deputy Health Minister Abu Bakr Abdul Kareem said that an employee from the WHO office in Male’ shared information with Health Ministry via his official office email account, and that the email in question included a contact person and a contact number.
He said that the Health Ministry’s Bid Committee selected Executors General Trading after calling and verifying information from the contact.
“Therefore, they [auditors] can’t say they were unofficial communications. There’s no way its anything but official,” he said.
Bid Committee’s chair, Deputy Health Minister Nishama Mohamed said that Bid Committee called a senior employee from the WHO office in an open meeting to further verify the information regarding the information WHO shared via email. She said that the senior employee, though he said the information was unofficial, said that the contact shared by the office was a source WHO was communicating with to supply emergency equipment to countries in the Middle East.
“I don’t believe WHO would provide such false information. Health [Ministry] always relies on counsel from WHO. Therefore, I continue to believe they would not share information regarding such an unreliable source,” she said.
The audit report shows the Health Ministry paid MVR 30.91 million, which made for 90 percent of the total payment, to Executors General Trading as an advance, without obtaining an advance guarantee or a performance guarantee.