Auditor General’s report points out anomalies in pandemic management and procurementsThe report also pointed out a substantial differences in the prices of medical goods procured by the governmentagencies to combat Covid-19 in the fiscal year 2019-20.
The Office of the Auditor General has pointed out several shortcomings and anomalies of the government in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in the fiscal year 2019-20.
The report titled ‘Special Audit Report on Covid-19 Management’ has pointed out, among other things, the government’s delayed preparations for the evolving crisis while mentioning many shortcomings in the management of the quarantine and isolation centres, management of people entering the country and anomalies in the procurement of medical goods.
The report says that even though the impact of Covid-19 was seen in Nepal since late January last year, the government prepared a risk assessment and action plan only after four months in May.
Until March last year, foreign tourists from China, South Korea, Japan, and Europe were arriving in Nepal without any restrictions. On March 22 last year, the government had banned international flights and imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 24.
According to the report, the government agencies failed to control crowding at border points and the airport (Tribhuvan International Airport) and conduct testing and isolate the suspected Covid-19 patients even though health workers and security personnel were deployed there.
“Except for taking temperature for fever, conducting testing and isolating the suspected cases promptly could not happen. With people reaching their homes without being screened on the border point also contributed to the spread of Covid-19 in families and communities,” the report says.
As part of preparatory works, the government had decided to undertake the activities such as screening and surveillance at entry points, contact tracing, establishing isolation centres, preparing protocols on Covid-19 prevention and control, conducting antigen tests in communities, setting up health desks at border entry points, mobilization of health workers for contact tracing and setting up facilitation committees at the local level.
But, the report says that there was a lack of enough equipment and human resources for screening and surveillance. The planned antigen tests in communities could not take place until mid-July 2020, the end of the fiscal year 2019-20. Even though the government issued directives for the formation of Covid-19 facilitation committees, it failed to implement the directives, according to the report.
“The report has clearly pointed out many shortcomings in the areas of preparation and implementation of plans and policies to combat the pandemic,” said Padam Raj Paudel, assistant auditor general at the auditing body.
According to Baburam Marasini, former director of Epidemiology and Disease Control Division under the Health Ministry, the remarks of the auditing agency were the exact reflection of the government's weaknesses in pandemic preparedness and response.
“Both the Health Ministry officials and government leaders didn’t take the disease seriously in the early days,” he said. “Former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s downplaying of the pandemic with several misleading and false statements might be due to lack of proper briefing from the Health Ministry officials.”
On several occasions, Oli, the then prime minister, had claimed that Covid-19 was curable with home remedies including turmeric and he even went on to claim without evidence that Nepalis have stronger immunity against the disease.
The report has also pointed out the delay in the procurement process despite the urgent needs for Covid-related medical supplies.
Even though the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on January 23 last year, the Department of Health Services initiated the process of purchasing necessary medical goods only on April 2.
“As a result, the country faced a shortage of testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPEs),” the report said. And, the government’s early efforts to procure medical goods were also mired in controversy after the contract was awarded to Omni Business Corporate Limited.
The company was awarded a contract even though it had quoted a higher amount than the cost estimated by the Department of Health Services. The report has mentioned that the department approved the proposal of the company, although it had quoted 13.9 percent higher cost than the department’s estimated cost.
The department had prepared a cost estimate of $9.07 million but it approved the proposal quoting the total cost at $10.03 million and signed an agreement on March 27, 2020.
The prices for medical supplies quoted by the company were many times higher than the market prices.
For example, a pair of protective goggles supplied by Omni cost the government $18 (Rs 2,182), which is several times higher than Rs 360, which was the price quoted by the lowest bidder Med Point International.
Even though Omni had supplied medical goods worth $2.33 million in the first installment, the department on April 1, last year had terminated the contract with Omni.
The audit report has stated that the formation of a procurement committee under the chief advisor of the Health Minister was illegal as such a committee should be headed by the chief of the public entity concerned or a senior office nominated by the chief, as per section 71 of Public Procurement Act-2007.
Earlier in June last year, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee had also termed the involvement of Dr Khem Karki, who was an advisor to the then Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal, in the procurement process as illegal.
“But our findings in relation to the deal are based on the photocopies of the related documents,” said Poudel. “As Omni has filed two separate cases at the Supreme Court and the Patan High Court against the government and the original documents are at the court, we could not access the original documents.”
He said that the auditing body could not unearth more on the matter as it didn’t want to influence sub judice cases.
The report has also pointed out a substantial differences in the prices of medical goods procured by the government agencies to combat Covid-19 in the fiscal year 2019-20.
According to the report, there is a huge gap in the prices of N-95 masks, gowns, personal protective equipment (PPE) sets, surgical masks, and gumboots when they were purchased on different dates.
On March 31 last year, the department paid Rs836.9 per unit for N-95 masks while it had paid Rs218 per unit for the N-95 masks procured on May 6, last year. The higher one is the price at which Omni had supplied the N-95 masks to the government.
The report has not clarified whether one unit means a packet of masks or a single mask. But, Poudel said it is a packet of masks.
The gowns the department purchased on May 11 last year cost Rs1,960 per unit but similar gowns purchased a month later on June 7 cost Rs800 per unit, according to the report.
Also there was a huge difference in the prices paid for the PPEs with each unit costing between Rs 9,500 and Rs 8,800 on different dates. For a surgical mask, the department paid from Rs5 per unit to Rs14.50 per unit on three different dates. The prices paid for gumboots also varied between Rs495 and Rs483 per set last year.
“Even though prices of goods vary depending on the time of purchase, their quality and specifications, here different prices have been paid despite the Health Ministry clearly defining the specifications of the supplies,” the report said, adding, “This indicates that the prices were not competitive and the procurement process was not fair and transparent.”
Poudel said that the auditing body didn’t examine whether there had been irregularities in the procurement of medical goods on different dates because prices can differ based on the quality of goods and the time of procurement.
“We only tried to shed light on how big the price differences were and whether that could have been avoided,” he added.