An expert witness told the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings on Tuesday that the Gauteng Department of Health ignored professional advice cautioning against the rushed transfer of mentally ill patients.

Specialist psychiatrist, Dr Mavuso Talatala, who was the president of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SAPO) at the time of the ill-advised transfers, said he wrote two letters and twice took the Gauteng Department of Health to court over the matter.

He said he even had meetings with officials from the department, but they ignored his warnings.

As many as 143 of the patients who were caught up in the chaotic Esidimeni transfers to unlicensed NGO facilities have died, some of them from starvation and neglect. Fifty nine of the patients are still unaccounted for.

Talatala said politicians should not give instructions on permissions concerning health care issues. “I think politicians should play an oversight role and allow people who are appointed to do the job as doctors or experts should be given space to do their job.”

A legal representative for the families of the deceased patients, Advocate Dirk Groenewald asked Talatala if he felt like “they had a dictator” who didn’t want to listen to organisations to hear their concerns.

“The senior people at the department didn’t even want to listen to the junior staff members, junior members operated in fear when doing their jobs.”

Talatala maintained that the department lied to the courts when the organisation tried to interdict the transfer of the psychological patients from Life Esidimeni to Takalani Home for the Mentally Handicapped in Diepkloof, Soweto.

He told the hearing, presided over by retired deputy chief justice, Dikgang Moseneke, that Takalani where a number of deaths occurred, was not equipped to look after adult mental patients.

Talatala said the Salmonella typhoid outbreak which was detected at Takalani before all the deaths were recorded should have been a warning to the department. He further stated that the transfer of the patients was done unlawfully.

“Families should have been notified … to sign consent forms regarding the matter. Patients should have also been notified and prepared psychologically concerning the move. Not informing them was just bad health.”

“Its important to communicate with patients, even if you think that they don’t understand, you don’t do that in one session unless its an emergency. Patients get affected if they are moved, especially if they have been at that healthy facility for a long time,” Talatala said.

The patients were, however, removed from Life Esidimeni, part of a private healthcare group and taken to various unlicensed NGOs across the province. Some patients were transported in open trucks during the chaotic transfer.

Former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu is widely blamed for the botched relocation of more than 3,000 former Life Esidimeni patients to unlicensed NGOs.

Mahlangu resigned in the wake of the damning report by Health Ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba released in February 2017.

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