Labour’s Vitals charade was an insult to our intelligence

Konrad Mizzi’s and Joseph Muscat’s attitudes in Parliament during the Vitals debate simply legitimised all the doubts expressed by many over the concession deal

St Luke's hospital is on a 99-year lease to VGH
St Luke's hospital is on a 99-year lease to VGH

Konrad Mizzi made it sound like it was normal practice for a 30-year concession agreement with the private sector for the running of a public hospital be extended to 99 years.

Mizzi was speaking in Parliament on Wednesday evening during the debate on the transfer of St Luke’s, Gozo and Karin Grech hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare.

In ordinary circumstances, 99-year concessions are not out of this world and have been used by previous administrations to lure private investment.

But what appeared so matter-of-factly for Mizzi, is anything but.

The problem with Mizzi’s statement is that until he spoke the way he did all of Malta, apart from him and the Prime Minister, believed the VGH agreement was for 30 years.

Rather than adopt a matter-of-factly attitude, Mizzi and Muscat would have done a better job in publishing the contract in its entirety and give Parliament an adequate explanation on all aspects of the deal that was negotiated

Indeed, the contract tabled in Parliament in October 2016 was heavily redacted but the length of the concession period was clearly stated to be 30 years.

But now, Mizzi speaks of the possibility that the concession covering St Luke’s hospital be extended to 99 years. “This is normal practice in deals of this sort,” he said.

It may very well be normal practice but nobody was told about it. All government statements until now had indicated that the VGH concession was for 30 years and no more.

And it was not just the 99-year lease that came as a surprise this week but also the fact that government had an option to buy back Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals after 30 years for €80 million. Again, when confirming this in Parliament, the Prime Minister made it seem matter-of-factly. It is anything but.

Whether €80 million is a judicious price to pay in 30 years’ time is irrelevant. The point here is the complete lack of transparency that has characterised this agreement from day one.

While commercial sensitivity is a fact of life in such complex arrangements, unnecessary secrecy erodes trust. There was nothing commercially sensitive in telling people about the 99-year lease or the buy-back option after 30 years and Mizzi and Joseph Muscat speaking about them in a matter-of-factly way was nothing more than an insult to everyone’s intelligence.

This attitude simply legitimises all the doubts that have been expressed by many over the concession deal.

It was already questionable to have an international company with no healthcare background being roped in for this flagship project, let alone springing surprises along the way.

Rather than adopt a matter-of-factly attitude, Mizzi and Muscat would have done a better job in publishing the contract in its entirety and give Parliament an adequate explanation on all aspects of the deal that was negotiated.

Last June, people heeded the Labour Party’s call and gave it a strong second mandate to govern this country. But trust is a currency that can quickly lose its value if politicians treat their constituents with disdain. Mizzi and Muscat should have known better.

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