Weldon denies government claim her MDL lab had 60 staff
The scientist who spearheaded the island’s battle against Covid-19 yesterday denied a government claim that up to 60 people had worked at her lab.
Carika Weldon, the former director of the Medical Diagnostic and Research Laboratory, known as MDL, was speaking as she questioned the Cabinet Office’s decision to slash staff numbers at the lab in an attempt to cut costs.
Dr Weldon said staff numbers at the laboratory, which she led until she left at the end of January, had never been close to 60 people.
She added: “I don’t know where they got that number — we would never have been struggling for staff with that many people.”
Dr Weldon estimated about 38 staff were employed in the lab and its test teams “at the peak” and that the number included volunteers.
Dr Weldon said numbers could drop to as few as ten on Friday when redundancies are scheduled to take effect.
She also questioned the need for cuts and insisted that the MDL was “not intended as a pop-up lab — it was meant to be a permanent fixture”.
Dr Weldon said: “MDL does not have Covid in its name. It was never a Covid-specific lab.
“It was created with the purpose of dealing with Covid, but there was always going to be a time when Covid-19 would diminish.”
Dr Weldon said the aim had been to have a centre on the island that was equipped to test for DNA and RNA, which could also be used to test for influenza variants.
She asked: “Otherwise, why would the Government have put so much money into creating a lab just for Covid?”
Dr Weldon hit out in the wake of anonymous e-mails to the media that accused the Government of an attempt “dismantle” the lab, with changes made to staff contracts.
But the Cabinet Office said there had been up to 60 people working at the lab at its peak and that “no revenue has been generated” to offset the costs of the massive Covid-19 test programme.
Dr Weldon said yesterday that both statements appeared incorrect.
She insisted: “To say there’s no revenue generated isn’t accurate.
“If funding is coming from the Travel Authorisation Form that we have kept until 2023, where is the money going if not to the lab?
“All that travel money was revenue that should be attributed to MDL.”
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said last night that the figure for the number of staff had come from MDL directly and included “students who were part of the team briefly to assist during the height of the outbreaks”.
Responsibility for MDL is to be moved from the Cabinet Office to the health ministry from April 1.
The Cabinet Office said on Monday that MDL staff in December had been incorrectly given an extension on their contracts until the end of June, when it should have been granted until March 31 to coincide with the end of the financial year.
A Cabinet spokeswoman said the six-month extension to the end of June had been “made without authority”.
She added that the Government cut a compromise deal with the Bermuda Public Services Union that allowed staff to be paid until the end of April, even though their jobs would end this month.
Dr Weldon confirmed yesterday that staff had been on six-month contracts of employment from April 1, 2021.
A fresh round of statements of employment were renewed at the end of December, signed and posted to Cabinet.
She said she had known cuts were on their way and that by December 2021, when the island was on the verge of a predicted surge in cases from the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, she had been “asked to lay staff off”.
Dr Weldon added that, to her knowledge, the decision to end MDL staff contracts at the end of March had been made after staff signed their new statements of employment.
She added: “There are people who found out last week that they should not show up for work this Friday. I do not know why it became March 18.”
Dr Weldon also queried the Cabinet Office’s statement on Monday that there was an “accelerated transition plan actioned” immediately after her resignation.
She quit as director of the lab on December 31 and highlighted her frustration with the Government’s decision to push ahead with the reopening of schools when test capacity was being outstripped by high infection numbers.
Dr Weldon confirmed that she had tried to withdraw her resignation after she talked to staff, who appealed to her to “tough it out”.
She said: “It was not a quick decision. I had not been happy for a very long time and I got to the point where I realised that I needed to put myself first.”
Dr Weldon added that she was told the next Monday that her resignation had been received and that it could not be reversed.
But she added: “An accelerated transition plan did not happen. I didn’t hear a thing about the transition until January 12.”