PNG Government Official’s Company Wins Lucrative Covid Catering Contract | Papua New Guinea
A company, one of whose directors is a senior official in the Papua New Guinea Ministry of Health, was paid more than 539,000 kina (AU $ 200,000) to provide catering, including for a unit of Covid isolation in the capital from May to November of last year.
The revelations prompted the country’s Prime Minister, James Marape, to call for a full investigation into the catering contract and the bidding process through which it was obtained.
Invoices obtained by the Guardian reveal that Caring Ltd was paid 539,211 PGK by the health department for catering services at the Rita Flynn Covid isolation unit in Port Moresby between May and November 2020. A Papua New Guinea -Guinea at minimum wage earns around PGK 630 (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 responsible for the planning, policies and economics of the department.
Questions were raised about how the money was spent and whether the contract was a conflict of interest given Pawiong’s government role.
A man who was admitted for treatment at the Rita Flynn center 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 take-out boxes filled with rice and chicken or beef – the kind that’s commonly sold in markets for PGK10 (A $ 3.50) – for lunch and dinner.
Contacted by Guardian Australia with evidence of the payments, senior government officials said a full investigation into the situation was needed.
Marape told Guardian Australia: âI am leading an investigation into this matter. “
PNG Covid Controller David Manning has asked his staff to investigate the payments.
A staff member told him the situation “needs to be investigated”, adding that payment to Caring Ltd appeared to have been “prioritized over all other payments, including all of our NCC requests. [national control centre for Covid-19]. “
Ken Wai, director general of the National Capital District Provincial Health Authority (NCDPHA), said he was not aware of the contract but would investigate the contract.
Papua New Guinea Minister of Health Jelta Wong told the Guardian: âI will ask the Secretary of Health [Dr Liko] to review that and give me a full report.
Guardian Australia made several attempts to contact Liko for comment, but he could not be reached before the publication.
Guardian Australia approached Agnes Pawiong to ask her questions about the contract, the bidding process and whether she considered it a conflict of interest for Caring Ltd to have been awarded the contract given its role as a government. She did not respond to Guardian questions, but Caring Ltd’s other director and shareholder, Henrica Pawiong, sent a response to Guardian Australia’s detailed questions.
The statement did not address whether the contract was a conflict of interest, but said Caring Ltd was “a regular catering service provided to NCDPHA prior to 2020. They approached us to provide meals to their volunteers, short-term contracts and general staff. since April 2020 â.
Invoices seen by the Guardian indicate that payments made to Caring Ltd were for âCater Serv to Rita Flyn,â but Henrica Pawiong said the contract was not only to provide meals to Covid patients treated at the Rita Flynn center, but a minor contract for general care catering services for theâ¦ NCD PHA which also included catering for volunteers, contract research and monitoring teams, the national control center for the local PHA, the communication team of risks and other catered meetings and training sessions.
âMost of the volunteers and short-term contracts were never paid and this is how NCDPHA forced us to provide meals on a daily basis,â Henrica Pawiong wrote in a statement.
âAs a company, we would have aborted along the way because the payment was too slow and we were not paid on a monthly basis as stipulated in the contract. However, for humanitarian reasons, we [stuck] to honor our contractual obligations and we finally paid our unpaid invoices in December 2020. However, this has become a center of allegations, instead of appreciation. “
The Rita Flynn sports center in Port Moresby was transformed into a Covid isolation center 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 cope with escalating Covid-19 cases, which have skyrocketed over the past month, with more than 5,000 confirmed cases and 45 deaths as of March 26. PNG has requested international assistance to obtain personal protective equipment, vaccines and facilities to treat the cases.
Doctors have reported how they are struggling to cope with the outbreak, with staff quitting their jobs due to unpaid salaries, and services stretched to breaking point as more staff test positive and are forced to isolate themselves.
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.
âThis is a time when a lot of people in the public are very worried about this virus. It is a time when health workers are exhausting themselves and risking their lives to protect the community at large.
âIt is essential that public funds, including those provided by development partners, are used scrupulously to fight the virus, and promptly monitored and accounted for. The Auditor General must use his powers for a quick spot audit.