Poland misspent billions on Covid response, finds state auditor, calling for charges against minister

Poland’s state auditor has applied for prosecutors to bring charges against the minister for state assets, Jacek Sasin, over failings in the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Announcing the results of inspections carried out in relation to the pandemic, the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) claimed that around 7 billion zloty (€1.5 billion) was spent on maintaining empty Covid beds, which was 2 billion more than was spent on actually treating Covid patients.

Meanwhile, further billions of extra Covid pay for medical staff were spent without proper oversight and hundreds of millions were spent on building poorly planned and often unnecessary temporary hospitals.

In response, Sasin, who is also a deputy prime minister, dismissed NIK’s announcement as a “purely political” attempt to influence upcoming elections. NIK’s president, Marian Banaś, is an opponent of the government and his son is standing as an election candidate for an opposition party.

Blisko 9 mld na dodatki covidowe, prawie 1 mld na szpitale tymczasowe, ponad 82 mln zł na niekompletne, niesprawne i nie spełniające polskich norm respiratory. NIK podsumowuje jak państwo (nie)radziło sobie z COVID-19. Zapraszamy do oglądania konferencji: https://t.co/TFYdmg8NxU

— Wydział Prasowy NIK (@NIKgovPL_Media) September 12, 2023

One of NIK’s audits unveiled today related to the temporary Covid hospitals that the government began to create in October 2020, at a time when the country was experiencing its first major wave of infections.

Those facilities were “created on a scale unprecedented in Europe” but “without any plan, without reliable analysis of data on the epidemic situation and the availability of medical staff, and without cost calculations”, found NIK.

That resulted in “decisions to create many of the 33 temporary hospitals being made without any connection to the current and forecast state of the epidemic in individual provinces and throughout the country”.

As a consequence of such poor planning, 31.5 million zloty was spent on creating three facilities that were never opened, and 29 million on one that opened but never received a single patient.

Only 30 of 300 beds are occupied at the government’s emergency hospital three weeks after it opened.

Other hospitals complain it has been rejecting transfers of patients deemed „too sick”, but officials says it was never meant to accept more serious cases https://t.co/FomEtB6duY

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 18, 2020

Meanwhile, between March 2020 and April 2022, the state spent around 7 billion zloty on maintaining staff, equipment and beds in readiness for treating Covid patients but only 5 billion zloty on actually treating such patients.

“This means that it cost over 2 billion zloty more to maintain empty hospital beds and pay doctors and nurses ready to work, if necessary, than to actually help the sick,” wrote NIK. Moreover, the unnecessarily high spending on Covid readiness limited and worsened treatment for non-Covid patients.

Such “improper management of the hospital care system in the field of counteracting COVID-19 by two successive health ministers” contributed to Poland’s spike in excess mortality rates in 2020 and 2021, which were among the highest in Europe, found NIK.

Almost 520,000 people died in Poland last year, the highest figure since WWII.

It was also 29% above the annual average in the four years before the pandemic and 7% more than in 2020, when Poland had the EU’s highest excess death rate https://t.co/8eRqmr7tY1

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 18, 2022

In relation to the creation of temporary hospitals, NIK has notified prosecutors of two potential crimes by Sasin concerning 2.4 million zloty spent on creating one such facility in the city of Tarnów that never opened.

Meanwhile, a further four notifications have been sent to prosecutors in relation to the purchase of “incomplete, faulty” ventilators by the health minister and prime minister’s chancellery. NIK has also asked the constitutional court to consider whether restrictions introduced during the pandemic complied with the constitution.

The auditor also found that 9 billion zloty was spent on additional Covid pay for medics by the health ministry without proper oversight. That resulted in some unauthorised personnel receiving money while others were mistakenly paid multiple times.

Blisko 9 mld na dodatki covidowe, prawie 1 mld na szpitale tymczasowe, ponad 82 mln zł na niekompletne, niesprawne i nie spełniające polskich norm respiratory. NIK podsumowuje jak państwo (nie)radziło sobie z COVID-19. Zapraszamy do oglądania konferencji: https://t.co/TFYdmg8NxU

— Wydział Prasowy NIK (@NIKgovPL_Media) September 12, 2023

“In a state of law, even the unpredictable nature of tasks does not justify waste, and the suddenness of events does not justify violating regulations,” said Banaś today, quoted by broadcaster TVN.

“The government did not rise to the challenge,” he continued. “It has not ensured that the huge public funds, amounting to billions, allocated for healthcare during the epidemic were fully cost-effective. The authorities also did not fulfil the constitutional obligation to combat epidemic diseases.”

“Poland was not prepared to effectively counteract COVID-19 or any other mass epidemic,” concluded Banaś. “No medical staff training was carried out, and no realistic plans for the operation of the healthcare sector, especially hospitals, in the conditions of a truly massive epidemic were drawn up.”

Poland’s state auditor has notified prosecutors of suspected crimes by four government ministers, including the PM.

The claims relate to last year’s abandoned presidential election, which officials tried to organise before relevant legislation was passed https://t.co/Q5WHxYsOKw

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 26, 2021

NIK’s accusations were, however, immediately rejected by Sasin, who argued that “Marian Banaś has very clearly proven that he is in a political alliance with one of the parties taking part in the elections”, reports the Polish Press Agency (PAP).

Banaś’s son, Jakub, is a candidate for the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) party and Banaś senior himself in July appeared at a press conference outside NIK headquarters alongside Confederation leader Sławomir Mentzen.

Sasin said that he is “proud that state-owned companies…were on the front line of fighting in the interests of Poles in the very difficult crisis situation” of the pandemic. NIK’s claims against them and him are nothing more than a “political attack during the campaign”, added the minister.

NIK has previously notified prosecutors of potential crimes committed by four members of the government, including the prime minister, in connection with abandoned presidential elections during the pandemic. It has also accused the government of evading public debt limits during the pandemic.

The head of the state audit office held a press conference alongside the main leader of Poland’s largest far-right party, which has been surging in the polls.

The pair announced a bill intended to strengthen the office, which monitors government spending https://t.co/rCxyUxFv9t

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 27, 2023

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Main image credit: Daniel Gnap / KPRM (under public domain)


Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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