Public Health Minister Dr George Norton on Friday, apologised for telling the National Assembly that New Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation (NEW GPC) had been paid in excess of $19 million for the rental of its drug bond, and that drugs had already been stored at the controversial Sussex Street property, since this was inaccurate.
Dr Norton met with the media at Parliament Buildings shortly after he supposedly handed over a written apology to Speaker of the National Assembly.
Reading from a prepared statement, Minister Norton said the answers he had given on August 8, 2016 in the National Assembly were in part a result of personal knowledge, in addition to the advice he received at the time.
He added that ever since August 8, 2016, “I have come to the firm position that the answer given to the questions related to NEW GPC and the storage of drugs at the bond at 29 Sussex Street, were not accurate and these were based on information provided to me. In the circumstances, I wish to express my sincere and profound regret to his Excellency, Brigadier David Granger, President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, Honourable Dr Barton Scotland, Speaker of the National Assembly, Prime Minister Mr Moses Nagamootoo and my Parliamentary colleagues of the APNU/AFC, members of the Parliamentary Opposition and all others who were present or were able to observe the process of the consideration of the estimates.”
According to Dr Norton, “as Minister of Public Health I know that high standard of duty and care is expected of me and the staff of the Ministry of Public Health, so I take full responsibility for this unfortunate episode and give my full commitment that it will not re-occur.”
Responding to mounting calls for his resignation, the minister told the media: “I have admitted that I made a mistake of which I take full responsibility for, assuring you that this will not re-occur and I am still committed.”
The Public Health Minister’s subsequent pronouncements however, has left more questions than answers in addition to what the final cost of renting the bond will be, in addition to the $12.5 million rental fee; whether the new facility is in fact a savings to government, and further, whether the rented space is compliant with international standards for the storage of drugs and medical supplies.
Appearing at the press engagement with Dr Norton was Director of Public Information Imran Khan−who at times attempted to provide answers for the Minister.
Dr Norton was relentlessly grilled by the media and said that it was the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry, Trevor Thomas, along with Larry Singh−the majority owner of Linden Holdings Inc, the controversial company in question−who were the signatories to the agreement, thus he was unable to say at the time who witnessed the signing of the agreement.
As was the case with whether an apology was in fact delivered to the Speaker, Dr Norton gave varying answers with regards why an unsigned agreement had been released to the public on Friday−void of the signatories or witnesses.
He suggested that what had been handed to the Speaker was in fact a copy of a copy of the contract and that the signatories were inadvertently left out.
Commenting on the fact that the inked agreement speaks to the rental of the premises for the purpose of a professional office and not a drug storage bond, Dr Norton said he could not at the moment provide an answer on the ‘technicality.’
DPI Khan at this point attempted to intervene and reminded that the Cabinet Sub-Committee had found that the Building did in fact meet PAHO/WHO standards for the storage of drugs and medical supplies but Dr Norton could not substantiate this claim with any form of verification.
Too much space
Speaking about the cost savings in light of the discrepancies that have since been pointed out over the different proposals in terms of rental fee, Dr Norton said that Government found itself in a position where it needed space to store its drugs and medical supplies.
He could not say however, what is the specific size of the Sussex Street bond, only that the storage space being offered by NEW GPC was too much and that government did not need that much storage area.
Dr Norton said government was looking at how much money it could save in the shortest possible period, since there had been an emergency (unexplained) where government required storage space.
He conceded that the problem of storage space only obtained when government decided to end its pre-qualification arrangement with NEW GPC−which in turn asked for rent to be paid for a service it had been providing free of cost for over a decade.
Asked directly how Larry Singh of Linden Holdings Inc came to know of the need of government to secure a bond in an emergency situation, it was DPI Khan who attempted to explain but the media were adamant that Minister Norton needs to provide the answers.
Khan attempted to suggest that the minister could not be expected to answer the question as to how the Ministry and Linden Holdings Inc initiated their arrangement. Minister Norton eventually told the media: “I would not be able to say that.”
He was also unable to say whether Larry Singh was in fact a member of the People’s National Congress Reform, saying “I can’t confirm that.”
Dr Norton was also unable to provide an answer as to how Larry Singh, ‘coincidentally’ paid $25 million to purchase the property−the same amount fronted by government in it security deposit for the facility−during the same time government began searching for an alternative storage bond.
Questioned as to whether government was prepared to re-tender the contract given the brouhaha that has erupted, Dr Norton defended the merits of the actual contract, insisting that it was the better deal. He said: “There is a collective responsibility on the part of the Cabinet and um…every decision will be have to make at the level of Cabinet.”
Asked frontally if Cabinet−of which he is a member−is prepared to re-tender the contract, Dr Norton replied that it is not a decision that has been taken.
DPI Khan at this point again interjected to remind of the Cabinet Sub-Committee’s recommendation that the contract be reviewed.
Dr Norton was also asked to respond frontally to the claim that he was in fact being placed as the ‘fall guy’ for someone within Cabinet with a personal interest in the contract. According to Dr Norton he was unaware of such a thing.
Pressed again on how the ministry became aware of the Sussex Street property, Dr Norton said he could not recall when this happened but assured, “yes I did visit the bond and I was convinced that it was suitable.”
Pressed again on whether he had suggested to Cabinet that the entire contract be revisited given the public’s reaction, Dr Norton said he did not, because he did not see it to be necessary
According to Dr Norton, notwithstanding the public flack, his public apology and the numerous questions surrounding the entire affair, he did not believe that the contract needed to be re-tendered. Dr Norton conceded that he was not comfortable with the way the entire affair played out, hence his apology but glowingly stated: “I am comfortable with the bond…I think it has what it takes to store the medication in a proper way”