THE Tšepong Consortium, which had indicated that was pulling out of Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital (QMMH) last Thursday, did not leave after all.
This after last minute talks with the government yielded an agreement for the two parties to set up a joint taskforce to come up with an exit plan which will ensure a smooth takeover of the hospital by the government.
Health Minister Semano Sekatle confirmed that the two sides had agreed to set up the taskforce. He did not give an exact date for the Consortium’s departure and handover of the hospital to the government.
Commenting on ther matter on Thursday, Mr Sekatle said, “we have agreed with members of the Tšepong Consortium to constitute a task force that will help work out the exit plan.
“Since yesterday, the taskforce has been working on the strategy and we hope by next week a solid plan will be in place. We will have a smooth transition of taking over the asserts, equipment and service,” Mr Sekatle added.
Last Wednesday, QMMH Public Relations Officer, Thakane Mapeshoane-Sepipi, had told the Lesotho Times that the Consortium would be pulling out the following day on 8 July 2021.
However, Ms Mapeshoane-Sepipi could not say why the Consortium had chosen to vacate the hospital way before the expiry of its 31 July 2021 deadline to leave.
The government had given the Consortium 60 days to vacate the hospital. The notice was with effect from 1 June 2021. This meant that the Consortium, which has been operating the hospital on behalf of the government since its opening in 2011, was supposed to leave by 31 July 2021 latest.
Ms Mapeshoane-Sepipi said the Consortium management had ordered her to notify hospital staff that the Consortium would be vacating the hospital last Thursday. This after a meeting between the Consortium and the government, she said. She would not be drawn into revealing who had attended the meeting on behalf of both sides.
But in media briefing in Maseru on Thursday, Mr Sekatle said discussions over the Consortium’s departure were ongoing.
“The Tšepong publicity staff is going around sowing rumours on issues that are still under discussion and that is wrong. This is why I decided to inform the public that discussions and negotiations have started. The outcome of those discussions will determine what will happen to assets, human resources and the three filter clinics namely Likotsi, Mabote and Qoaling, that were part of the agreement.
“We gave a termination notice to the Consortium and our agreement dictates that the parties must meet, discuss and negotiate the exit plan. That is what is currently underway.”
The minister added that as the government prepares to take over, the public will still be able to access services at the hospital “albeit at a limited capacity”.
“We are ready to take over Tšepong. Although our services to the publics will be limited during the transition period, we are banking on our other referral hospitals, namely, Mafeteng Hospital, Motebang Hospital and Queen Elizabeth II Hospital to offer services,” Mr Sekatle said.
The Consortium’s departure has plunged the hospital into uncertainty as there are concerns among the staff as to whether the government has the capacity to take over the running of the hospital.
It follows the government’s March 2021 decision to cut ties with the Consortium which has run QMMH since it opened its doors in 2011.
Announcing the decision, Mr Sekatle said the government felt it could no longer continue its 18-year Private Public Partnership (PPP) entered into 2008 with the Consortium for the construction, running and transfer of the hospital due to serious differences which had plagued the agreement from the very beginning.
South African healthcare group, Netcare, has a 40 percent stake in the Tšepong Consortium. Four other companies, namely, Afri’nnai of South Africa; Excel Health, Women Investment and D10 Investments (all from Lesotho) hold the balance of the shares.
Mr Sekatle had said although the government and the consortium had differed over many issues, the final straw was the latter’s March 2021 decision to fire 200 striking nurses and nursing assistants at the institution.
The nurses went on strike on 1 February 2021 to press the government and QMMH to award them salary increments to match their counterparts in other government and private institutions.
QMMH nurses said they had not been awarded any increments since 2012 when the government and the Christian Health Association of Lesotho (CHAL) increased the salaries of nurses at other institutions.
According to the Lesotho Nurses Association (LNA), nurses at QMMH earn about M9000 each per month. The figure is way less than the M13 000 earned by their colleagues in CHAL facilities and other government hospitals.
After the firing of the nurses, Health ministry Principal Secretary (PS) Khothatso Tšooana had written to the Consortium informing it of the government’s decision to terminate the contract.
In his 12 April 2021 reply to PS Tšooana, Tšepong general manager Zondy Mohapi indicated that the Consortium would not challenge the termination of its contract would demand the requisite compensation.
However, the Consortium vehemently denied any wrongdoing, including claims that it had fleeced the government and repeatedly failed to offer specialised care to patients over the years.
The Consortium agreed to vacate the hospital but said the government would have to compensate it for the premature termination of the 18-year PPP deal.
It said the government would have to fork out way more than just the M3 billion which Finance Minister Thabo Sophonea has said is the termination fee. The Consortium alleges the government owes other sums in unpaid fees hence the demand for much more than just the termination fee. However, it does not say how much the government should pay. It merely says the amount is disputed by the government.
The government will have to tread carefully on the termination issue to avoid being saddled with another Frazer Solar-style debacle.
In this particular case, the government is battling to stave off moves to seize its assets in different countries to pay off Frazer Solar more than £50 million (M856 million) in damages. This after the government allegedly breached a 2018 agreement with the German company aimed at providing Lesotho with 40 000 solar water heating systems, 20 megawatts of solar power capacity, 1 million LED lights and 350 000 solar lanterns over four years.