Mkhize lashes out at Prof Gray: Lockdown claims are 'devoid of truth'

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has issued a scathing response to Professor Glenda Gray's claims that proposals tabled by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 have been ignored.

South Africa's nationwide lockdown is fast-approaching the two-month mark; its devastating impact on the economy and restrictions on personal freedoms have divided the nation. While scientific evidence points to the initial lockdown having achieved its goal of flattening the virus' curve and, in doing so, affording the country's healthcare system a window of opportunity to prepare for the inevitable peak, Gray, and others, have been fiercely critical of government's risk-adjusted, district-based continuation.

Who is Professor Glenda Gray?

Gray, president and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), who serves as a senior expert on the Ministerial Advisory Committee, tasked with assisting government's approach to the COVID-19 outbreak, voiced serious concerns regarding the health department's prerogatives. The professor's primary qualms weighed up the socioeconomic damage done by extending the lockdown in its current form against the supposed health benefits of a phased approach.

Gray noted, importantly, that the Ministerial Advisory Committee argued, with scientific backing, against the continuation of lockdown. This proposal was ostensibly rejected by Mkhize and the department of health. Gray explained:

"This [lockdown] strategy is not based on science and is completely unmeasured. It's almost as if someone is sucking regulations out of their thumb and implementing rubbish, quite frankly.
We believe, as scientists, that we give and are giving the government good advice and why they decided not to take the advice or engage readily with the scientists is unknown. Why have experts if you don't care what they think?"

Gray's heavy criticism of Mkhize and the department sent shockwaves through the country, leading many to believe that government was choosing to ignore scientific evidence and expert medical advice. The comments coincide with a growing sense of national impatience and anxiety as citizens slip further into poverty as a result of an inactive economy.

Mkhize hits back at Gray's lockdown logic

Mkhize has not taken kindly to Gray's public critique. On Wednesday night, the health minister issued a public response to the professor, labelling Gray's claims as untrue, sensational and divisive. Mkhize explained that Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 has a direct line of communication with the department and is included in consultations with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

Mkhize added that, since first being appointed on 26 March 2020, the Advisory Committee had presented the Ministry of Health with fifty advisories; all of which had been accepted.

The health minister explained that Professor Gray had not discussed her concerns directly with the department but instead choose to engage the media.

In the process of 'debunking' Gray's primary claims (the minister's full statement can be read here), Mkhize hit out at the professor's conduct, saying:

"The statement made by Prof Glenda Gray is at the least devoid of the truth.
Having read the article, I have been taken aback by the obvious inaccuracies it contains which have in my view, caused unnecessary sensationalism and doubt on the work and effort of the government in dealing with COVID-19."

Mkhize added that while government waded through unchartered waters of the world's greatest health crisis in over a century, mistakes would be made along the way. Mkhize explained that contrasting views and perspectives would continue to aid government's approach but added:

"However I must urge all those who are contributing to the thought process and science behind the decisions ultimately undertaken by Government to desist from potentially destructive behaviour and continue to engage constructively with Government as they are mandated.
As head of the Medical Research Council, Prof. Gray has access to the Minister and the Department but never once raised this matter directly with ourselves, yet she has never failed to raise other issues of concern beforehand."

At the time of publication, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in South Africa stood at 18 003 with a death toll of 339. At least 8 950 patients have recovered and over half a million tests have been conducted.