Poland’s health minister, Łukasz Szumowski, unexpectedly announced his resignation on Tuesday – just one day after his deputy minister, Janusz Cieszyński, had also resigned.
The sudden nature of the decisions has prompted speculation as to the motivation behind them. Some, particularly in the opposition, have pointed to accusations of wrongdoing against Szumowski and Cieszyński regarding the purchase of medical equipment during the pandemic.
But government figures have paid tribute to Szumowski, and described him as the victim of unsubstantiated attacks by the opposition.
The ministers’ departures come at a sensitive time, with Poland currently experiencing a peak of new coronavirus infections while also preparing to reopen schools in September. The head of Poland’s medical council has warned that a lack of leadership at such a difficult moment could result in “tragedy”.
Earlier rumours had suggested that Szumowski would leave his position during a planned government reshuffle in the autumn. However, less than two weeks ago, the minister responded to the reports by pledging that he would not “abandon ship” during the current situation. Yesterday’s announcement, therefore, came as a surprise.
Speaking to Polsat News yesterday evening, Szumowski said that he had previously planned to leave his position in the spring, but that the coronavirus pandemic had forced him to delay his departure.
Szumowski had therefore reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, that he would leave once he had “completed some important matters”.
Before this year, Szumowski – who has been health minister since January 2018 – was a relatively little-known figure. However, his role in responding to the coronavirus pandemic brought him to prominence, and also led him to be rated in polls as Poland’s most trusted politician.
That status was subsequently undermined, however, by accusations that Szumowski’s ministry had purchased defective masks from a friend of his family and overpriced respirators from a former arms dealer.
Controversy was also aroused when it emerged that a firm run by Szumowski’s brother has received 140 million zloty in state grants under the current government. Further question marks were raised by the fact that the minister had transferred shares in his brother’s companies to his wife, thereby avoiding having to declare them.
Some of the accusations surrounding Szumowski are currently being investigated by prosecutors. The minister denies any wrongdoing. Yesterday evening he publicly thanked his wife and children for “withstanding the pressure of aggression and hatred” directed against his family.
Opposition figures have suggested that Szumowski and Cieszyński’s resignations are related to these scandals. They note that last week PiS MPs submitted a bill that would retroactively shield officials who broke the law if they deemed it necessary for the fight against coronavirus.
A bill submitted by MPs from the ruling PiS party would allow officials to break the law if they deem it necessary for the fight against coronavirus.
It would be retroactive, applying to actions already taken https://t.co/f8nVknTNXV
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 13, 2020
“We are probably the only country in Europe where in the midst of a pandemic, the leadership of the health ministry stealthily abandons their jobs overnight,” tweeted opposition MP and former health minister Bartosz Arłukowicz. “It is the symbolic escape of a captain and officer from a sinking ship [with] people still on board.”
Media commentators have also argued that the sudden and unexpected nature of Szumowski’s resignation, coming so soon after he assured that he would not be leaving, suggests that there is more to the story. “Something is not right here,” wrote Marcin Makowski for Wirtualna Polska.
A senior PiS figure, former Senate speaker Stanisław Karczewski, also suggested that the accusations against Szumowski could be behind his resignation – but only because he was tired of unjustified attacks from the opposition.
“The opposition furiously began to attack Minister Szumowski [over the purchase of medical equipment] and who knows whether this led to his resignation,” Karczewski told Super Express. “At some point a man loses his patience and wants to return to his work [as a doctor].”
Karczewski paid tribute to Szumowski for his leadership during the pandemic, as did deputy prime minister Jadwiga Emilewicz, who told TVN Szumowski was “probably the most hard-working health minister and one of the most effective in 30 years”.
Emilewicz did admit that the timing of Szumowski’s resignation was a “slight surprise” and “not a decision that is good for the government”. But she added that now is “the best moment” for it to happen, as it gives a new minister time to prepare for a potential second wave of the virus in the autumn.
The president of Poland’s Supreme Medical Council (NRL), Andrzej Matyja, said that the resignations of Szumowski and Cieszyński had also come as a “huge surprise for the entire medical community”. He expressed “concern about what may be happening now in healthcare”.
The resignations have come during “a very difficult period…and we do not really know the reason” for it, Matyja told TVN. “In recent days the pandemic has intensified, we have a record number of cases,” he noted.
“Diseases don’t wait” for government decisions, warned Matyja. It is vital that “very quick decisions” are made regarding personnel and organisational issues. If not, “the resignations could lead to a systemic tragedy”.
Speaking this morning, the prime minister assured that Szumowski’s successor will be announced “within a few days” and will be “a competent person with extensive knowledge of healthcare”.
In an interview with the Polish Press Agency, Morawiecki praised Szumowski for “standing up to the most serious test that has ever faced any health minister”. Thanks to his policies, “Poland has survived the COVID-19 epidemic in much better condition than many much richer countries in Western Europe”.
Potential candidates to replace Szumowski include Karczewski, Waldemar Kraska (a deputy health minister), Wojciech Maksymowicz (a deputy higher education minister) and Andrzej Sośnierz (an MP and former head of the National Health Fund). All four are medical doctors by training.
Sośnierz, despite being part of the ruling camp, has been a prominent critic of the government’s response to the coronavirus, and of Szumowski’s role in particular. In May, he claimed that Poland had “the worst epidemic in Europe [apart from] Russia, Belarus and Ukraine”.
Despite a relatively low number of infections at the time, Sośnierz warned that there “will be more coronavirus outbreaks in Poland…because we haven’t prepared ourselves to smother the epidemic, we haven’t prepared a coherent model to fight it”.
Since late July, there has been a significant rise in new coronavirus infections, which have now reached their highest level since the pandemic began.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.