The meeting held on Wednesday in Abuja between the federal government and the striking National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) ended in a deadlock with the government threatening to revoke the doctors’ residency programme.
On Monday, doctors resumed an indefinite strike which had been suspended in June.
The doctors are protesting the non-implementation of life insurance for members treating COVID-19 patients; the non-funding of their residency programme and some unpaid arrears.
In its initial response to the doctor’s decision on Monday, the government said the doctors have no reason to down tools as more than half of their demands have been addressed.
“Government has already addressed six out of the eight demands listed by the Association. With such a high percentage of the Association’s demands already addressed… the NARD had no reason to embark on an industrial action,” the labour minister, Chris Ngige, had said.
The minister then called for a meeting on Wednesday to resolve the grievances of the doctors.
The meeting which was slated for 2 p.m. started about 3 hours late. Journalists invited to cover the meeting initially protested the lateness by staging a walkout but were pacified by the minister of state for labour, Festus Keyamo.
At the resumption of the meeting, a visibly angry Mr Ngige said the government may have to repeal the law establishing the residency programme if the doctors are bent on arm twisting the authorities.
He lamented that the doctors are not appreciative of all the efforts by the government to ensure that they are on their duty post.
“Efforts are on to smoothen the plight of the doctors and suddenly they went on strike. Much more importantly, the government is being disgraced and spoken of as not being truthful. That is the language coming from the leadership of NARD. It’s a disgusting language that should not be used,” the minister said.
Resident doctors are certified doctors undergoing residency to become consultants. They make up a large percentage of doctors in Nigeria’s tertiary hospitals.
The doctors have been agitating for the full implementation and funding of their Medical Residency Training Act of 2017, signed into law on 26 June 2018 by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The residency programme which was meant to provide special training for the doctors to become specialists in various medical and dental care has been delayed due to lack of funds.
This is a major grouse of the striking doctors.
Also speaking during Wednesday’s meeting, health minister, Ehanire Osagie, urged the doctors to exercise patience, noting that the government is acting in the interest of the younger doctors.
Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), Abuja chapter, Ekpe Phillips, apologised on behalf of the NARD, which is an arm of the NMA.
“I have never seen you this angry before…,” Mr Phillips said of Mr Ngige’s countenance.
Drama, blame game
After the initial press briefing, journalists who were meant to leave for both parties to have a closed-door meeting were asked to stay behind by Mr Ngige.
A mild drama ensued when both parties were deliberating over the payment of life insurance for doctors in the frontline and funding of the residency programme.
Mr Ngige had said the government has expended N9.3 billion as premium for Group Life Insurance for medical and health workers, as well as for all civil and public servants in federal organisations that are treasury funded, to run from March 2020 to March 2021.
Mr Ngige also stated that the government appropriated N4 billion in a 2020 special budget for funding of Medical Residency Training “and intended to do the same in the ongoing 2021 budget”.
He further stated that N4 billion has been processed for payment.
But the NARD president, Aliyu Sokomba, insisted that the association is yet to see or feel the impact of the said funds.
“This has not translated to availability of the funds because our residency training programme has continued to suffer a setback as a result of poor funding”, Mr Sokomba said.
He said none of the families of their deceased members have received a dime of the so-called life insurance.
When the medical doctor during Wednesday’s meeting was trying to explain how the families of their members who lost their lives while trying to save Nigerians from the deadly COVID-19 incursion have not received the life insurance, the labour minister interjected repeatedly.
The minister insisted that it was only two out of the eight demands by the doctors that have not been met.
“The federal government is constrained and cannot be forced to pay arrears of consequential adjustments of national minimum wage which is one of the two unresolved issues,” he explained.
The meeting hit a deadlock with both sides not reaching an agreeable conclusion.
Meanwhile, the federal government is already opting for other available options to fill the void left by the doctors on strike.
On Wednesday evening, the government directed all heads of federal tertiary hospitals to immediately utilise the services of consultants and doctors currently running their National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programmes to prevent disruption in health care delivery.
Mr Ehanire in a statement, said routine services should be maintained with consultants and NYSC doctors while COVlD-19 treatment centres should continue to function as before and emergency services should continue to run.
“Locum staffers are to be brought in when and where necessary to forestall services disruption when applicable and affordable,” he said.
Mr Ehanire said the strike was coming at the wrong time, considering the present COVID-19 pandemic which requires all health workers to be at their work posts.
“We must remember that the primary duty of doctors and all health workers is to save lives. Embarking on a strike in this time that the county is battling with the COVlD-l9 pandemic is iII-timed and ill-advised.
“This is therefore one strike too many. Besides, most of the demands have been met and others though difficult, are at an advanced stage of implementation. A little patience would have made a big difference,” he said.
The doctor’s strike is a threat to gains already made in the containment of the coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.
So far, Nigeria has reported over 55,000 COVID-19 infections leading to more than a thousand deaths.