A company, one of whose directors is a senior official within Papua New Guinea’s department of health was paid more than 539,000 kina (A$200,000) to provide catering including for a Covid isolation unit in the capital from May to November last year.

The revelations have prompted the country’s prime minister, James Marape, to call for a full investigation into the catering contract and the tender process by which it was obtained.

Invoices obtained by the Guardian reveal that Caring Ltd was paid PGK539,211 by the health department for catering services to the Rita Flynn Covid isolation unit in Port Moresby between May and November 2020. A Papua New Guinean on minimum wage earns about PGK630 (AU$230) a month.

According to company records, one of the two directors and two shareholders of Caring Ltd is Agnes Pawiong, who is also the manager for planning, policy and economics at the department.

Questions have been raised about what the money was spent on and whether the contract was a conflict of interest given Pawiong’s governmental role.

Agnes Pawiong is the manager for planning, policy and economics at Papua New Guinea’s department of health.
Agnes Pawiong is the manager for planning, policy and economics at Papua New Guinea’s department of health. Photograph: Supplied

A man who had been admitted for treatment at the Rita Flynn centre last year said the food he saw provided to patients included four slices of bread, an egg and a spoonful of spaghetti or beans for breakfast, and takeaway boxes filled with rice and chicken or beef – the sort that are commonly sold in the markets for PGK10 (A$3.50) – for lunch and dinner.

Approached by Guardian Australia with evidence of the payments, senior government officials said a full investigation into the situation was required.

Marape told Guardian Australia: “I am directing an investigation into this matter.”

PNG’s Covid controller, David Manning, asked his staff to investigate the payments.

A staff member reported back to him that the situation “needs to be investigated”, adding that the payment to Caring Ltd appeared to have been “prioritised over all other payments including all our requests from NCC [national control centre for Covid-19].”

Ken Wai, chief executive of the national capital district’s provincial health authority (NCDPHA), said he wasn’t privy to the contract but that it would investigate the contract.

Papua New Guinea’s minister for health, Jelta Wong, told the Guardian: “I will ask the health secretary [Dr Liko] to look into this and give me a full report.”

Guardian Australia made repeated attempts to contact Liko for comment, but he could not be reached before publication.

Guardian Australia approached Agnes Pawiong with questions about the contract, the tender process, and whether she considered it a conflict of interest for Caring Ltd to have secured the contract given her governmental role. She did not reply to the Guardian’s questions but Caring Ltd’s other director and shareholder, Henrica Pawiong, sent a response to detailed questions from Guardian Australia.

The statement did not address the question of whether the contract was a conflict of interest but did say that Caring Ltd was “a regular catering service provide to NCDPHA before 2020. They approached us to provide meals for their volunteers, short term contracts and general staffs since April 2020”.

Invoices seen by the Guardian say the payments made to Caring Ltd were for “Cater Serv to Rita Flyn”, but Henrica Pawiong said the contract was not just to provide meals for Covid patients treated at the Rita Flynn centre, but a minor contract for general catering services for the… NCD PHA that also included catering for volunteers, contract tracing and surveillance teams, the national control centre for the local PHA, the risk communication team and other catered meetings and training sessions.

“Most of the volunteers and short-term contracts were never paid salaries and that’s how NCDPHA forced us to provide meals on a daily basis,” wrote Henrica Pawiong in a statement.

“As a company, we would have aborted along the way as payment was too slow and we were not paid on a monthly basis as stipulated in the contract. However, on humanitarian grounds, we [stuck] around to honor our contractual obligations and were finally paid our outstanding invoices in December 2020. However, this became center of allegations, instead of appreciation.”

The Rita Flynn sports centre in Port Moresby was turned into a Covid isolation centre in early 2020, after PNG recorded its first confirmed case. It was closed again in December 2020 due to the low number of cases in the country, but reopened in 2021 due to the recent outbreak.

Papua New Guinea is scrambling to deal with escalating cases of Covid-19, which have skyrocketed in the past month, with more than 5,000 confirmed cases and 45 deaths as of 26 March. PNG has sought international help to secure personal protective equipment, vaccines and facilities to deal with the cases.

Doctors have reported how they are struggling to deal with the outbreak, with staff walking off the job due to unpaid salaries, and wards stretched to breaking point as more staff test positive and are forced to self-isolate.

Paul Barker, executive director of the Institute of National Affairs, urged the auditor general and the new Independent Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate the situation.

“This is a time when many in the public are very worried about this virus. It’s a time when health workers are exhausting themselves, and risking their lives to safeguard the wider community.

“It is critical that public funds, including those provided by development partners, are used scrupulously for tackling the virus, and promptly monitored and accounted for. The auditor general must use his powers for prompt spot auditing.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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