For Abela, an urgent political decision is up next...

Robert Abela is in a quandary. Apart from the NAO investigation, he will soon have a very important political decision to make on the Steward concession

Robert Abela was introduced to Steward Healthcare's president Armin Ernst by Joseph Muscat
Robert Abela was introduced to Steward Healthcare's president Armin Ernst by Joseph Muscat

When Nationalist Party leader (and cliffhanger supreme) Adrian Delia refers to the MaltaToday survey published today – a survey which shows that under 60% of all PN members want him to stay – I will be looking forward to see how he interprets our results.

He will be feeling great with the outcome because he knows in his heart of hearts that they are correct. Yet last week behind closed doors he was regurgitating all over MaltaToday, accusing us of having cooked the results.

Then again, he should not be entirely happy or relieved with the results. 40% of his members still want him out, while the vast majority do not even realise the Nationalist Party has a problem with its vision. What is suggestive in the survey is that predominant Nationalist strongholds like the 10th ‘Sliema’ district want Delia to step down.

Delia, of course, continues to hang on, too self-centred to realise that he cannot bring the Nationalist Party to the start of the race, let alone to the finish line.

He does not even realise that he carries no currency, weight or credibility and therefore anything that he says has no value.

To make matters worse, the crowd around him and the ‘new’ faces on the block are all political dinosaurs. Louis Galea is certainly a blast from the past who surely had much to offer but is not exactly a fresh face. The new secretary-general Francis Zammit Dimech might be oblivious to the fact that his presence is not going to electrify the masses – sure enough, he is a nice guy, but it stops there at this point in the PN’s need for reform.

One by one, we have the old guard returning, with only yesterday morning Censu Galea, a former minister in the Fenech Adami administration, elected president of the PN’s General Council. Could it get any worse? I’m not trying to say the age and wisdom of the former ministers do not give the PN some benefit; but this is not what everyone was expecting when a new leader was elected in 2017.

Some insiders probably think that things are normalising in the PN. To me and many others out there it looks like an episode from Dad’s Army. And as all this is unfolding, the real issues get to be tackled by the press.

Chief among them is the future of the PPP devised by Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi for the hitherto-unknown Vitals Global Healthcare, a multi-million euro operation to run three state hospitals that has now passed to the otherwise reputable Steward Healthcare.

Yet as matters in this privatisation deal are about to enter a delicate phase, its main critics today are emboldened to call out the genesis of this project as some nefarious plan to enrich a small group of people, and no doubt facilitated by Castille way back when.

To simplify it for readers, Vitals was chosen to run Karin Grech, St Luke’s and the Gozo hospitals. They were given in payment the entire budget that was previously paid by government to run these hospitals, with added cream on top, to deliver a better service (arguably) to Maltese patients, as well as build a campus for QMUL’s Barts in Gozo from which to make money of course, as well as top up the profits with medical tourism attracted to Malta.

The big mystery is what exactly VGH did with the money, something that is now under investigation by the National Audit Office. We know for sure that they used the millions from the State to purchase Maltese medicine suppliers like Technoline and Mtrace, with exclusive contracts to supply the hospitals. For an offshore set-up like VGH to run into serious debt in its first three years, there is no doubt that some are suspected this might be just another tale of fraud and criminality.

I, for one, was exceptionally daft not to have seen through the machinations of Schembri and Muscat, and Mizzi – especially when Nexia BT was on the adjudicating board to select VGH, with its main man Ram Tumuluri taking on as publicist Lou Bondì on a €6,000 retainer...

Now I see Joseph Muscat being called up by Steward to take their case to new Prime Minister Robert Abela after having spent the whole of 2019 renegiotiating the deal so that the Americans get more cash for what they are supposed to be delivering.

Sure enough, it begs the question as to what VGH’s chief executive officer Armin Ernst (formerly of Steward Healthcare in Boston) was doing at the time that Vitals amassed all its debts, before leaving and returning on behalf of Steward to take over the concession (now he is president of Steward Healthcare International, the overseas company of Steward).

Is it not arguable to say that Ernest himself presided over the daylight robbery of well over €50 million in taxpayers’ money when Vitals was amassing debts which so far have not been explained?

So how can anyone argue that Steward should get a new deal that should make it, one surmises, richer or at least ‘more solvent’ without the deliverables being in place?

I say this because I note that on their website, Steward gloats of their state-of-the-art hospital in Malta as a way of exporting their concept abroad and, naturally enough, make money for their shareholders. I don’t need to explain how I want no truck with this ‘American way’ when it comes to taxpayers’ money and sensitive sectors such as healthcare. Malta can already run its own national health system; why three state hospitals should go into private hands with no obvious public benefit, is beyond me.

But this is also the reason why the Cabinet is baulking at the prospect of having Steward’s ‘Muscat’ deal go forward, because they refuse to be personally responsible for the scheming of Muscat and Schembri. Their exact words are even more colourful...

But that leaves us with Robert Abela. For he is in a quandary. Apart from the NAO investigation, he will soon have a very important political decision to make. The only reason to keep Steward is for government not to incur a hefty €100-€150 million penalty (unless they can prove Steward is in default on deliverables). A legal battle may well end up victorious for the government.

My opinion is that politically, Abela needs to send Steward packing if they cannot hold up their end if the bargain. If Steward wants a showcase to pump up shareholders’ dividends they can do it elsewhere. Abela knows that behind VGH some dirty plotting was afoot. He will have to take serious action very soon.