A CRIPPLING strike by nurses and nursing assistants at Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital (QMMH) entered its ninth day yesterday.
Newly appointed Health minister Semano Sekatle is now slated to meet the QMMH management and the Lesotho Nurses Association (LNA) today for talks aimed at resolving the nurses' grievances and ending the strike.
QMMH nurses and nursing assistants went on strike last Monday to press the government to award them salary increments to match their counterparts in other government and private institutions.
The job action followed the health ministry's failure to address the nurses' grievances by the 27 January 2021 deadline given by the nurses.
The strike is crippling the already ailing health sector, already struggling to deal with Covid-19 infections which have risen exponentially since the end of the festive season last month.
Lesotho had recorded a cumulative total of 9718 infections and 207 deaths by yesterday.
Apart from the Covid-19 burden, nurses and other health workers are also struggling to deal with other diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.
QMMH nurses say they have not been awarded any increments since 2012 when the government and the Christian Health Association of Lesotho (CHAL) increased the salaries of nurses at other institutions.
According to the LNA nurses at QMMH earn about M9000 each per month, way less than the M13 000 earned by their colleagues in CHAL facilities and other government hospitals.
Opened in 2011, QMMH is owned by the government but is run by the Tšepong consortium comprising of five companies, namely Netcare Healthcare Group and Afri'nnai of South Africa, as well as Excel Health, Women Investment and D10 Investments from Lesotho.
Although QMMH operates as a public-private sector partnership (PPP) agreement between the government and the Tšepong consortium, the hospital's public relations manager, Mothepane Thahane, last week said nursing staff and nursing assistants were left out when the government reviewed the salaries of health workers in 2012.
She said QMMH could only award increments if they first approved by the government which also had to avail the funds since it bankrolled the operations of the hospital.
However, Minister Sekatle is singing a different tune, saying Tšepong had to dig into its coffer to see if it could use some of the funds it had already been advanced by the government to fund the increments.
Mr Sekatle was only moved to the health portfolio from the Public Service ministry last Wednesday by Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro. He could not have asked for a tougher start to his new job.
The previous incumbent, Motlatsi Maqelepo, is now Forestry, Range and Soil Conservation minister. He failed to stop the nurses from striking last week. Mr Sekatle must now negotiate an end to the strike.
Yesterday, he told this publication that a breakthrough had thus far proved elusive despite the parties holding meetings last week and on Sunday.
"We have not agreed on anything and the talks are continuing," Mr Sekatle said in an interview with this publication yesterday.
"QMMH employs the nurses and it is they, not the government, who pays their salaries. We are talking to both parties (QMMH and the nurses) because our interest as government is that they should resume work and provide services to the public," Mr Sekatle said, adding he would meet both parties today.
LNA president, Raphael Tlali, yesterday commended Mr Sekatle for the "positive move" to hold talks aimed at addressing the nurses' grievances.
"He (Sekatle) called us for a meeting and we had long discussions on the salary issue. He also told us that he would meet the QMMH management to get them to review the salaries. This showed us that the new minister is committed to addressing the issue.
"The talks are expected to continue on Thursday (today) and the minister expressed optimism that an agreement will be reached on that day," Mr Tlali said.
QMMH public relations manager, Mothepane Thahane, also confirmed that they expect to meet Minister Sekatle and LNA representatives today.
Ms Thahane however bemoaned the strike saying it had negatively affected service delivery at the country's main referral facility.
"The patients are suffering because services have become so slow due to the strike. It is a very bad situation and we are just waiting to see how the talks will unfold and hear what the government has to say," Ms Thahane said yesterday.