Grech insists PM interference on Covid-19 must stop

Miguela Xuereb

Opposition Leader Bernard Grech condemned what he described as interference by Prime Minister Robert Abela on the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, arguing that his approach was detrimental to the country’s handling of the crisis.

Grech was speaking in response to a ministerial statement by Health Minister Chris Fearne, which was itself delivered on the request of the Opposition.

While he recognised that the pandemic had repercussions on issues beyond health – not least the economy – one could not ignore health in any case as people’s lives were at stake.

In his speech, Grech said that while the opposition had a duty to pull the same rope in such circumstances, it also had the duty to make suggestions and even criticism where things could be better. But the government was similarly obliged to tell the truth, according to Grech.

Among other things, the Nationalist Party leader highlighted that the public was still kept in the dark on what led to the spread of Covid-19 in a number of care homes, and on what measures have been implemented to avoid a repeat of the situation. Above all, he added, no one assumed responsibility over this: Grech has repeatedly called for the resignation of Parliamentary Secretary Silvio Parnis.

PN MPs focus criticism on Abela

According to parliamentary procedure, following a ministerial statement and the opposition’s response, MPs may choose to ask questions to the minister, and many PN MPs seized the opportunity to highlight what they fekt were shortcomings in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Speaker Anġlu Farrugia repeatedly had to remind MPs that their “questions” should take no longer than 3 minutes.

Most chose to focus their criticism on Abela rather than Fearne, suggesting that the former was at fault for allowing the spread of Covid-19 to go out of hand. Among others, former PN leader Adrian Delia noted that Fearne was preaching caution and a scientific approach, but accused Abela of populism in the face of the crisis.

Beppe Fenech Adami highlighted Abela’s notorious remark, made last May as the number of cases dwindled, that the only waves were to be found at sea, and his suggestion that people enjoy a summer which was ultimately marked by a fresh resurgence in Covid-19 cases. Ryan Callus even went as far as stating that Abela appeared to prioritise his summer holidays over everything else.

Vaccine likely in early 2021 – full immunisation would take 6 months

In his address, delivered in the face of rising numbers of Covid-19 – the number of active cases is now 1,543 – Fearne opted to focus on what the health authorities had done to address the pandemic and what they were doing.

He confirmed that through the advance purchase agreements the EU is signing with the developers of potential vaccines, Malta would secure enough doses to vaccinate its entire population within 6 months. According to Abela, such a vaccine would not be mandatory.

Fearne also said that if the advanced trials presently taking place for some vaccine candidates achieve the desired results, the first vaccines would be available early next year. The minister had explained last summer that once vaccines arrive, front-line workers and the vulnerable would be prioritised until enough doses are available to immunise the entire population.

The minister also highlighted that the resources devoted to case management and contact tracing are being boosted considerably. From a team of 32 people, the number has been increased to 53 in the space of a week, and will reach 80 people in the coming days

Cases increasing in all of Europe, Fearne highlights

As he addressed the various contributions made, Fearne said that he expected the opposition to come up with proposals as it criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic, but only one worthy proposal was made – by Toni Bezzina, to ensure that hand sanitisers are made available on buses. Fearne pledged to implement this proposal if it has not been implemented already.

He also pointed out that while cases were increasing in Malta, they were also increasing in the rest of Europe, rhetorically questioning whether the Maltese government could also be held responsible for this.

Fearne also defended the controversial exemption which would allow smokers to remove their face mask to smoke outdoors, questioning how smokers could be expected to smoke with their mask on. He did emphasise, however, that as a doctor, his advice was for people not to smoke in any case.