Who really decides on public health emergency?

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

It is technically up to Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci, but it is yet to be confirmed whether the decision to declare a public health emergency or not effectively rests with her or the government.

A public health emergency had been declared on 1 April, when there were 186 active cases and 2 recoveries, and backdated to 7 March. It was declared lifted at the end of June, as the situation improved. However, an alarming rise in cases began in July, and continues unabated.

Presently, there are 505 active cases of Covid-19, but no new emergency is being declared.

With this in mind, a number of journalists asked Gauci about a state of emergency in her briefing on Friday, including Newsbook.com.mt’s correspondent. The journalists aimed to determine whether her office was truly free to determine the health authorities’ response to the pandemic.

The Public Health Act sets out that the Superintendent of Public Health “may, if he is so satisfied, declare that a public health emergency exists.” It also goes on to highlight the various orders that the superintendent may issue in response to epidemics and infectious diseases.

Gauci told journalists that at present, the health authorities had all the necessary tools in hand to issue legal notices, as has been the case last week. She also said that should the need for a public health emergency be felt, it would be launched.

But Newsbook.com.mt then asked whether the decision not to declare a public health emergency for now was the government’s or her own. But Gauci was evasive, stating that she had already answered the question though the issue had not been specifically addressed.

During the programme Newsbook Hour on 103 Malta’s Heart, Medical Association of Malta president Martin Balzan had emphasised that in the absence of a state of emergency, the situation was in the hands of politicians, while an emergency would establish that Gauci would be in control. On his part, Health Minister Chris Fearne maintained that declaring a public health emergency would not make a difference.

Fewer details on positive cases

Newsbook.com.mt also questioned why the information on new positive cases was now less detailed than it had been early on in the pandemic. Back then, Gauci delivered a daily briefing, before these were scaled back and eventually stopped, only for weekly briefings to return as the number of cases shot up alarmingly.

Gauci observed that it was possible to give more detail when daily briefings were held, but going over 300 individual cases reported in the space of a week would not be feasible. However, such information could also be transmitted in other ways, including through a more detailed daily bulletin.

The superintendent observed that the ages of new Covid-19 pages was made evident through an infographic displayed during the briefing, and that information about the different clusters was also shown.

As is likely the case with other newsrooms, Newsbook.com.mt has regularly received information about specific Covid-19 cases, including cases reported in the Gozo General Hospital and in a Gozitan supermarket. But when the Health Ministry was reached for comment, a spokesman replied that the hands of the public health authorities were full with contact tracing. She said that the media “should know” that the authorities do not delve into individual cases, and that a statement is issued whenever it is deemed fit to inform the public on specific cases.

But this, of course, contrasts with the practice that had been in case only a few months ago, with detailed overviews of each individual case.

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