The government on Thursday provided three different figures for South Africa’s Covid-19 testing backlog.
At a press briefing, which started at 1pm, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said he “thinks” the backlog is about 100,000.
At 3pm, parliament’s health committees had a joint meeting. After questions, the acting director-general of the department of health, Anban Pillay, said the backlog is 80,000 – he’d just confirmed it with the CEO of the National Health Laboratory Services’ Dr Karmani Chetty.
Minutes later, shortly before the meeting closed, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the backlog is “around 30,000”.
EFF MP Naledi Chirwa had to ask for a point of order a few times before committee chairperson Sibongiseni Dhlomo allowed her to speak.
She said Winde said 100,000 and Pillay 80,000, and Mkhize 30,000.
“Can we get some clarity?” she asked.
Dhlomo said Pillay could write to the committee to state the correct figure.
“The figure I have is slightly different,” Mkhize responded.
“I’m not quite sure where this figure comes from,” he said of the figure provided by Winde.
Mkhize said it depended on which day the backlog was counted, and added that the backlogs are eradicated when testing kits become available.
“At the moment, we haven’t classified it [backlogs] as a problem,” he said.
Moments before he provided a figure contradictory to that of Pillay, he had told the committee: “Our information is credible.”
At the start of the meeting, Pillay provided figures comparing South Africa’s figures to the rest of the continent.
He said South Africa has the highest number of confirmed cases on the continent, but Egypt had the highest number of deaths.
He said this was influenced by the number of tests Egypt had done – and it indicated that the positivity rate in Egypt was higher than what their tests were showing.
Over the past week, Mkhize and others have spoken a lot about the “global shortage of test kits and the creation of a backlog”, without providing figures.
On Wednesday, he told the National Assembly’s first virtual hybrid sitting South Africa is doing everything it can to keep up with the required level of testing for Covid-19, but there are “constraints beyond our control”.
The day before, he briefed the National Council of Provinces, where he expressed his concern about the global shortage of test kits, which could create a backlog.
Mkhize also noted this in his daily Covid-19 press release on Tuesday: “As a country, we are now facing a challenge with the global shortage of testing reagents. We understand it’s becoming a challenge to many other countries.”
It was reported on Wednesday that both public and private sectors were showing a sharp decline in the number of tests conducted.
At the briefing with the NCOP, Western Cape MPL and chairperson of the provincial legislature’s ad hoc committee on Covid-19 Mireille Wenger said the backlog in the province was 18,000.
“If we can’t measure, we can’t manage,” she added.
At the same briefing, Mkhize’s presentation on two slides stated that areas declared hotspots – where more than five per 100,000 people are infected – would remain under level 4 when the rest of the country moved to level 3.
The following day, in a statement, he said this was incorrect – it was an old slide, the whole country would go to level 3.
“I should state categorically that, at the high speed we are working, such errors may happen,” he told the National Assembly on Wednesday.