The government was not ruling out the cancellation of the concession granted to Steward Healthcare to operate three private hospitals, Prime Minister Robert Abela said this evening.
Abela was speaking during debate on a motion by the opposition, which called for the revocation of the Steward Healthcare contract and which was rejected along party lines. The bill also called for the cancellation of a restatement agreement signed with Steward last year, which was reported to commit the government to the company €100 million if the contract is cancelled, even if this is ordered by the Courts.
But the Prime Minister also argued that the Opposition was undermining the government’s negotiations with Steward by presenting this assertion as fact, stating that while the claim that the €100 million would be owed no matter what was Steward’s position, the government believed otherwise.
“The Opposition is acting like Steward’s lawyer,” Abela insisted. “When we resume our talks next week, rest assured that the first thing they will tell us is that the Opposition agrees with them.”
This line of reasoning, however, was met with derision by Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia.
“We have a situation brought about through a contract signed by a government minister, and the Prime Minister has the cheek to face the nation and imply it is our fault because he is unable to defend it,” Delia exclaimed.
Delia argued that the government could have had an easy way out if it chose to pursue it, only to undermine its own position by signing the restatement agreement. He also pinned responsibility for the agreement on Abela, as the personal lawyer to his predecessor Joseph Muscat.
“According to his reasoning, he is directly responsible,” Delia said, in reference to Abela lashing out at MP Jason Azzopardi for representing NGO Repubblika when they filed a criminal complaint over the deaths at sea of asylum seekers in Malta’s search-and-rescue area, and the survivors’ push-back to war-torn Libya.
Government amends opposition’s bill to its favour
The bill also specifically called on MPs to condemn former minister Konrad Mizzi for his role in both of the contracts in question.
But ultimately, government members chose to approve an “amendment” presented by Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis which excised every word in favour of a motion praising the government’s conduct and removing all mentions of Mizzi. The amended motion calls on the government to continue to evaluate the agreement and take the necessary decisions in the public interest.
Zammit Lewis said that he was particularly concerned by the suggestion that the government make use of emergency powers to rescind the contract, stating that this would send the wrong message to prospective investors. But independent MP Marlene Farrugia then quipped that MPs should, in fact, send a message to “investors” who sought to rip off the country.
Fearne stands up for Steward
Health Minister Chris Fearne opened by highlighting that Malta’s record in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic spoke for itself, with a mortality rate roughly a tenth the international average.
He insisted that Steward contributed to these efforts, stating that it provided 110 beds for Covid-19 patients and 10 ventilators in the Gozo General Hospital, as well as 28 beds for Covid-19 patients at the Karin Grech Hospital. Fearne also touted Steward’s credentials as the largest provider of healthcare in the US.
Fearne then observed that the opposition neither opposed private hospitals – since a number had been opened under previous governments – nor private-public partnerships in the health sector, citing the Pharmacy of Your Choice Scheme.
The minister also emphasised that when payments to Steward are considered, one had to keep in mind that the government would have had to cover salaries, free medicines and other expenses nevertheless, and was adamant that the cost to government would have been equivalent had Steward not been involved. This did, however, prompt Marlene Farrugia to question why they were brought in in the first place.
What about Vitals?
In her speech, PN MP Claudette Buttigieg noted that the minister had glossed over the original concessionaires, the mysterious Vitals Global Healthcare, which had no apparent experience in the sector and whose ultimate beneficial owners remain unknown.
She noted how on paper, Vitals is owned by Bluestone Investments Malta, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, which set up a company in Malta before the government issued a call for expressions of interest on the concession.
Jason Azzopardi similarly focused on Vitals, noting that the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had once published a due diligence report commissioned by a private company which described it as a sham company with “no wherewithal to either execute or manage a project of this magnitude.”
The MP also pointed out that Caruana Galizia had flagged the company’s plans in Montenegro and questioned why Mizzi had travelled to the country 8 times in a year and a half, accompanied by his personal lawyer.
Opposition refuses pairing as government seeks to pair absent Mizzi
As the final votes were taken, opposition whip Robert Cutajar said that there would be no pairing agreement over this vote, but presented a note by MP Frederick Azzopardi – who is indisposed due to illness – stating his intention to vote in favour.
But government whip Glenn Bedingfield protested that Cutajar had originally requested a pairing agreement earlier in the afternoon.
Cutajar confirmed that this was the case, but said that the opposition refused as the government wanted to pair the MP with Konrad Mizzi for the purpose of the vote, which it deemed unacceptable.
There were protests from government MPs, particularly since MP Manuel Mallia needed to leave the House earlier in the day on the assumption that he would be paired. But ultimately no pairing took place, and the house voted along party lines, 35 votes to 29.
Mizzi’s prolonged absence from Parliament was questioned by both Delia and Buttigieg during the sitting. Last week, Speaker Anġlu Farrugia had announced that Mizzi was to be considered excused since 17 March, though no reason was provided.