Why does the state take 11 months to perform a 19min blood alcohol test? - Wilmot James

DA MP's letter to Mlinister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi on the dire state of our Forensic Chemistry Laboratories

Response to Minister Motsoaledi's statement on forensic labs 

01 February 2015 

Note to Editors: This letter is a response to the Minister of Health's comments made in a statement released by his department on Thursday. 

Dear Dr Motsoaledi

I am sure that you are aware of the fact that, using today's technology, it takes 15 minutes to prepare and 4 minutes to process a blood alcohol test. It is a simple, routine and known chemical laboratory procedure. In contrast to the search for evidence for drug use which is much harder, biochemists know precisely what to look for - ethanol. There is nothing more rote than that. 

Yet the Health Department's Forensic Chemistry Laboratories (FCL), whose job it is to produce test results for the courts on behalf of the South African Police Service (SAPS) to enable the prosecution of drunk drivers, take an average of 11 months to do a 19 minute test.

The cumulative consequence of the obvious inefficiency of the FCLs is that by November 2014, there was an accumulated backlog of 69,476 samples, 90% of which was for drivers suspected of being drunk. The Johannesburg and Pretoria labs are responsible for most of the backlog.

From a management point of view, these figures, which are incontrovertibly authentic, indicate gross inefficiencies in how the labs (for which the Department of Health are responsible) are run. The dolorous pace at which the labs return results have other far-reaching consequences.

Firstly, without swift results there can be no swift justice. More than half of road fatalities involve a drunk driver or pedestrian. Swift prosecution and severe sentencing would deter repeat offenses and serve as a visible deterrent to those who otherwise think they can get away with it.

Secondly, delayed prosecution may also delay insurance pay-outs and the settlement of estates when a death is involved. Surviving families not only have to deal with the loss of a loved one, they are also held hostage by the court delays that are a direct consequence of the inefficiencies of the FCLs.

And thirdly, the slow pace at which blood alcohol samples are processed may contribute to the degrading of the samples. When two of the labs (Johannesburg and Pretoria) are still not accredited (Cape Town is), courts throw out cases because they rightly question the veracity of the results.

The Auditor-General (AG) met with you on 14 September 2009, four months after you became Health Minister, to brief you on the results of their investigation (Report of the Auditor-General on a performance audit of the Forensic Chemistry Laboratories at the national Department of Health, November 2009).

The AG identified the FCLs problems to include (1) low staff morale; (2) unsuitable buildings; (3) inadequate sample storage space; (4) high staff vacancies; (5) no backup power supply; (6) a total disregard for the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993; and (7) an inadequate management information system.

At the 14 September 2009 AG meeting, you gave an undertaking to enable the Johannesburg and Pretoria labs to obtain accreditation (seven years later they are still not accredited, Cape Town's is), to introduce a new reward and payment strategy and give full attention to the other critical issues raised in the AG's Report.

There have been some improvements. A new Kwazulu-Natal lab, originally scheduled to open in 2014, will do so in early 2015 (but the Pretoria lab is still in an utterly unsuitable building). A new human resources strategy has kicked in. Seventy forensic interns were taken in at the FCL's from 1 April 2013 after completion of a 12 month long programme towards the Forensic Toxicology Certificate from the University of Pretoria. The National Treasury approved additional funding for the financial year 2014/2015 for capital equipment (but R30m is a drop in the ocean).  Cases with court dates have been given priority. There is better liaison with the South African Police Service (SAPS).

For all of this, the FCLs are still stuck with a huge backlog and a turnaround test results' time of 11 months that the performance facts show are unlikely to improve. To clear the backlog requires urgent intervention and we recommend, in addition to having a far-reaching and well-resourced turnaround plan for the FCLs, turning to university pathology laboratories to assist. It is also possible that provinces and cities may be able to start their own labs, including mobile ones.

I valued the meeting we had on 9 January 2015 to discuss the issues. It is heartening for citizens to see that a Minister from the governing African National Congress (ANC) can meet with the representative of the Official Opposition the Democratic Alliance (DA) to converse on real issues that face the nation. I hope therefore that we can continue having such meetings in pursuit of cooperative governance.

As for oversight, I prefer to see for myself. Seeing for myself does not mean that I question your word or disrespect your integrity. I do not. But between your word and your integrity and the facts on the ground lies an ocean of self-interested paralysis, sheer incompetence and poor management. Being a direct witness to how things are gives oversight authenticity. Our Constitution gives me the authority to exercise it on behalf the citizens we represent. I do not need anyone's permission to do it, least of all Parliament's Portfolio Committee Chair of Health. 

You are right in one respect: I will make the necessary arrangements for oversight visits in order to not disrupt the functioning of the labs. In my conduct I have never harassed anyone and I have not done so now. What I did was assert my constitutional right (in the face of an obdurate member of your department's security services at the Johannesburg lab) to enter and visit a place funded by the public's money. 

It would be good if the assertion of one's constitutional responsibility as a public representative is not confused with harassment.

I look forward to our next meeting.

Statement issued by Dr Wilmot James, DA Shadow Minister of Health, February 1 2015

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