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Governors, labour, NMA, others tackle Reps over health bill

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House bars journalists as CUPP urges rejection of final report

The Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), yesterday, faulted the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill as the House of Representatives began the long-awaited public hearing on the controversial legislation.

NGF Chairman and Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, who represented his colleagues, said: “The Act gives governors very scant operational space to manoeuvre. And regrettably, the proposed bill took away even that. This bill takes away the only authority the governors have to take specific steps and measures in their domains during an outbreak of an infectious disease.”

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He said that as far as the NGF was concerned, the bill is undemocratic, as it conflicts with some aspects of the Constitution and negates the provision of human rights.

Although he admitted that the House might have presented the bill in the interest of the people, due to the exigency of the times, he doubted the proposal could be held up against the light of standard legislative analysis.

It is evident that too much power has been given to the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and taken away from states and local governments, he said.

Fayemi noted: “The Nigerian Governors’ Forum is concerned that governors were not consulted in putting the bill together, neither was any role created for them, in utter disregard for their constitutional functions. Section 6 of the Quarantine Act states that the president and within each state, the governor thereof, may provide such sanitary stations, buildings and equipment, and appoint such sanitary anchorages as he may think necessary for the purposes of this Act.

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“Similarly, Section 8 of the Act gives state governors the power to exercise the responsibilities vested in the president under the Quarantine Act, where these responsibilities were not exercised by the president. Taking away this power of the state government in the proposed new bill would cause untold hardship and suffering in states and negate the principles of federalism.”

According to him, “The NGF posits that for any disease with significant threat to public health that would require authorising measures that may potentially infringe on otherwise reserved human liberties, the proposed measures must take into account some key ethical considerations, which include: public health necessity - the measures must be exercised on the basis of a confirmed or suspected threat to public health of the country; reasonable and effective means - the means by which these measures would be implemented must be effective to prevent or reduce spread.

“Least restrictive intervention - the measures proposed must be the least restrictive interventions required among the number of measures considered to reduce or prevent spread; distributive justice - the risks, benefits and burdens of any restrictive measures must be shared fairly between all classes of peoples.

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“Trust and transparency - the public should have an opportunity to participate in the formulation of policies and laws and implementation should be open and clear to promote public trust which is crucial for preventing infection spread; procedural rights - rights of individuals to contest an order or proceeding should be protected as much as possible.

“Fair compensation - in cases of considerable economic losses as a result of the imposition of such measures, international recommendations proffer that fair compensation is provided to those individuals.”

Also, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), represented by its president, Ayuba Wabba, highlighted 17 grey areas in the bill, while the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) disagreed with many aspects, especially compulsory invasive medical examination.

The Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, however, declined to speak, saying he would do so today (Thursday).

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Accredited reporters, meanwhile, were denied access to the venue of the two-day event being organised by the House Committees on Health Services, Health Institutions and Justice.

In a reaction, the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) flayed the restriction and urged all opposition lawmakers to reject the final report when it is eventually presented on the floor of the chamber.

Spokesperson for the group, Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere, in a statement, said: “The House must stop the Speaker, to avoid carrying the tag of ‘House of Political Alleluia Boys’ where anything, including making legislation to turn a man into a woman or white into black, can happen without resistance.

“Nigerians had expected a real public hearing that would have also afforded the Speaker the forum to clear his name from the allegations that he was in possession of external mobilisation for the bill to be passed. Alas, the public hearing, which was forced on him, is now being held in the secret.

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This is the first time in modern democracy that the world is witnessing a secret public hearing.”

Ugochinye added: “Chasing journalists away from the venue of public hearing is a shameful and barbaric conduct.”

Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila had, while opening the programme, lamented that engagements on the proposed piece of legislation had been malicious.

“There are those in our society who benefit from promoting the falsehood that every government action is cynical, and every policy proposal must be the product of malignant influence.

“We must never succumb to the impulses these elements represent, and we must reject them always, as doing so is an act of excellent service to a nation we love and are beholden to,” he said.

Although he admitted that the bill was imperfect, Gbajabiamila assured that input from stakeholders would be factored into the draft before final passage.

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On the embargo on media personnel, an unidentified Sergeant-at-Arms at the entrance of Hearing Room 028, venue of the event, simply said he was carrying out an order from above.

He said only the chairman of the House Committee on Health Services, Tanko Sununu, could clear journalists for the programme.

The bill, jointly sponsored by Gbajabiamila, Chairman House Committee on Health Institutions Paschal Obi, and Sununu has been dogged by controversies. It was also alleged that it bore similarity with existing law in Singapore.

The proposal generated a storm on the floor of the chamber last month when the Speaker attempted to hurriedly push it through first and second readings and commit it to the relevant committees within hours.

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