Health minister under fire for brother’s dealings

Poland’s health minister Łukasz Szumowski has been attacked by the opposition and parts of the media for the fact that his brother’s company received 140 million PLN in state grants since the current government came to power and for transferring shares on his brother’s company to his wife in order to avoid having to declare them. He has also been criticised for the health ministry purchasing uncertified face protectors and over-priced ventilators.

Ruling Law and Justice (PiS) figures have leapt to the defence of the health minister arguing that the opposition is trying to destroy his credibility. Minister Szumowski has become one of Poland’s most trusted state officials who is credited for his calm and assured handling of the severe pandemic crisis.

The accusation which has been levelled at the minister is that his brother’s biotech firm OncoArendi has received 140 million PLN in grants from a state agency for research (NCBR) in the years in which the present government has been in power. For much of the time Mr Szumowski was a junior minister at the Department of Higher Education and then Health Minister.

The opposition claims that there have been irregularities uncovered by the Central Anti-Corruption Agency (CBA) concerning funding from the NCBR in the process of awarding grants. However, the health minister's brother's company had actually received more grants from the state in the period in which the predecessor Civic Platform (PO) government had been in power.

The former Deputy PM and Higher Education minister Jarosław Gowin has said that Mr Szumowski had been clear and transparent about his brother's involvement in seeking grants and was therefore excluded from the grant making process involving the NCBR which the Higher Education supervised.

The health minister has also been criticised for purchasing substandard or overpriced medical equipment. It has been reported that a friend of his brother’s had facilitated a deal worth 5 million PLN for the purchase of face protectors which turned out not to have been properly certified. However, Mr Szumowski’s ministry has reported the matter to the public prosecutor and warned the EC of the fact that the masks purchased from that source were defective.

Mr Szumowski has also been taken to task for his ministry purchasing ventilators at wildly inflated prices and that some of them were bought from a suspect arms contractor. However, the minister’s allies point to the fact that at the time of the purchase there was a scramble for ventilators with European countries all paying inflated prices to avoid the fate of Italy.

PiS backing the minister all the way

The minister has received strong support from both the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and PM Mateusz Morawiecki who both see him as the architect of a successful campaign against the pandemic. Poland has one of Europe’s lowest rates of both infections and fatalities. Its health service, often the object of criticism and reports of under-funding has coped with the crisis better than many wealthier countries of Western Europe.

Mr Szumowski, who is a professor of medicine and a cardiologist, has been tireless in his efforts to explain the course of the pandemic to the public. He has warned of its dangers and explained all the steps taken in trying to contain it. The response to his recommendations from the public has been favourable. It is only recently that some impatience has been demonstrated on behalf of those who feel the lockdown is lasting too long and that social distancing and face protection measures should be imposed more selectively.

But Łukasz Szumowski is frank in admitting that the pandemic is far from over. In the last two weeks there have been significant pockets of infection identified, mainly in Silesia and the coal mining industry. In the rest of the country, however, the pandemic does seem to be in retreat and the situation in hospitals and care homes looks to be under control.

As health minister Łukasz Szumowski has been arguing within the government for a cautious approach to ending the lockdown. He has also gone on record saying that the only safe way of conducting the imminent presidential election would be by full postal ballot and advised Poland’s political elites to broker a compromise by which the election could be put off for two years so that it does not coincide with the current or likely future waves of the pandemic.