Tsunami: health minister blames foreign ministry

Sweden's health minister Ylva Johansson has told a parliamentary constitution committee that she regrets going on holiday just three days after the tsunami catastrophe.

She also revealed that a new organisation to offer healthcare to Swedes abroad is being created.

Ylva Johansson was the first minister to be questioned by the committee in connection with the inquiry into the government’s response to the disaster.

She said that she had thought a great deal about her own reaction to the crisis after the tsunami on December 26th 2004.

In December Johansson was fiercely criticised by the catastrophe commission for having been far too passive. According to the commission, she ought to have done more to make the Ministry for Foreign Affairs understand earlier the need for healthcare support.

“I have been criticised for not having seized the initiative from the foreign ministry,” she said.

“I doubt very much that that would have been possible and that it would have made any difference.”

On December 28th that a group of three people was sent to Thailand to assess the need for Swedish healthcare. The following day a further 16 doctors and nurses were sent to the region.

According to Johansson the main failing was that there was no organisation set up to arrange healthcare abroad. If such a unit had existed, the first assessment group would have been sent within six hours, said the minister. And a care team would have been on their way within twelve hours.

Legislation to pave the way for such an organisation is now being taken forward by the Government Offices.

But Christian Democrat committee member Helena Höij pointed out that despite the fact that there was no law in place, there was nothing to stop care personnel from being sent to Thailand.

In answer to the question about why this could not have been done earlier, Johansson answered that it was clear that healthcare support abroad was the responsibility of the foreign ministry. That, she said, had been established after the Estonia disaster when the National Board of Health and Welfare was criticised for flying home injured Swedes.

“It was clear that we did not have the right to act. That was the foreign ministry’s responsibility,” she said.

After the tsunami the welfare board put itself at the disposal of the foreign ministry to coordinate healthcare abroad. It was decided that they were not needed and from then on the board did not take any initiative.

According to the minister, her absence did not affect her department’s ability to act. Nevertheless, she said that she was regretful and believes that the government and ministers must be present when the country is affected by disaster.

“From this moral perspective I regret that I went on holiday,” she said.

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