Health Ministry’s press conference into Clarevue death left more questions than answers

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Health Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph told journalists he was “deeply hurt” by allegations of a cover-up (Facebook Live screengrab)
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Analysis by Observer Editor Gemma Handy

A cynical PR endeavour aimed at deflecting blame – or a genuine attempt to give the public credible and meaningful information?

That was the question on many lips yesterday in the wake of a turbulent press conference organised by the Ministry of Health following the tragic death of young Clarevue patient Lateefa George.

Some might say the event – broadcast live on national TV and social media on Tuesday morning – failed on both counts.

Reporters and many residents alike were left scratching their heads as a series of questions put to Health Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph were either dodged, deflected or declined.

The minister appeared preoccupied with diverting criticism from his department, which he claimed had been accused of a “cover-up” over the 27-year-old’s demise on October 31.

Precisely where such allegations arose – or where they were published – was never made clear.

What formed the basis of the minister’s lengthy preamble was that the matter was under investigation and in the hands of the judiciary, not the government.

Sir Molwyn said he had been “deeply hurt” to hear statements “being made in the public about some allegations of cover-up”.

“Let it be known that this matter, in terms of investigation, has nothing to do with government; it has to do with what in our laws is the coroner’s inquest,” he said.

The St Mary’s North MP went on to say that he was personally well acquainted with the young Jennings woman and her family.

“Lateefa George is someone that is well known to me – no stranger at all. And the suggestion that I would be involved in any cover-up is deeply offensive,” he continued.

Anyone hoping for further illumination into the circumstances surrounding George’s death may have been left disappointed, with reporters’ questions about the status and process of the investigation underway largely rebuffed.

The minister could give no indication, for example, on how long the autopsy might take. One would be forgiven for wondering why, as health minister and ostensibly a friend of the family, he hadn’t thought to inquire.

Observer was able to obtain a copy of a report into the incident signed by Clarevue’s Medical Superintendent Dr James King and submitted to health chiefs and other government officials. It raises concerns over the apparent rough handling of a listless George on the morning of her death by inexperienced staff who, the report claims, pulled her up by the arms without supporting her neck. One student nurse present reported seeing George’s head fall backwards and hearing a “crick which emanated from her neck”.

“The patient then started gasping and froth was seen coming from her mouth whereupon she became unresponsive,” the report states.

The eight-page document also contains a damning litany of complaints by senior Clarevue staff who say the facility is “dysfunctional” and “an unpleasant and demoralising” environment in which to work.

It alleges “years of neglect” by government.

“Many are grumbling that the ministry is only interested in Lateefa George’s death because of the publicity it has received and the backlash felt by the ministry,” the report adds.

The Health Minister admitted he hadn’t read the document – which he confirmed he had received on Monday night – and again dodged questions over the state of the dilapidated institution.

When asked if he had concerns over Clarevue staff’s long-running gripes, Sir Molwyn responded that “what is of concern” is how the report made its way into the media’s hands.

He went on to query the “veracity” of the report’s contents, concluding that it would be premature for him to respond.

Observer has also seen a copy of a petition – dated June 12 2023 and signed by 113 of the psychiatric hospital’s staff – which was apparently sent to Sir Molwyn, along with the Prime Minister and several other high-ranking officials, several months ago.

It cites multiple safety and security worries including the unauthorised entry of members of the public into the compound, the absence of defensive equipment for staff to protect themselves in an emergency, a lack of training to help staff deal with a patient in mental distress, poor lighting, and structural deficiencies to the hospital’s buildings.

The Health Minister claimed to have never seen the petition – and questioned its validity – but pledged to issue a formal response after making inquiries.

For Clarevue’s scores of beleaguered staff – who have complained bitterly for years about dire working conditions and the subsequent level of care afforded to some of the country’s most vulnerable people – the minister’s assurances will likely be of little comfort.

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