The courage to rectify past mistakes

The government would be wise to rekindle a proposal made in one of its own budgets, and set up a public agency that would be responsible for tracking contractual obligations emanating from deals involving transfers of public property

In a speech at the Labour Party’s extraordinary general conference, Health Minister Chris Fearne appeared to be urging his own government to take stock of public projects that have not yet delivered, and have the courage to stop them if need be.

“There were things we did wrong, or things that did not go as planned. We have to admit this and arrange things,” he told PL delegates at Sunday’s event.

Fearne continued: “It is not easy to do so when these include projects you started with your colleagues but we have to be courageous and understand that where things did not work out, we should draw a line and change direction or stop projects.”

Fearne’s statement did not specify what projects should be re-evaluated or indeed outrightly stopped. However - given the specific reference to ‘projects you started with your colleagues’ - many took it to mean that he was referring to the hospitals concession agreement entered into during the Muscat administration.

The health minister appeared to suggest that this deal should be stopped because it has failed to deliver as promised; and certainly, he is well-positioned to make that assessment. Fearne was health parliamentary secretary under Konrad Mizzi when the government transferred three public hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare, an obscure company with no track record in the health sector.

The deal was handled by Projects Malta, a government agency that answered to Mizzi, and was a key plank during the Muscat administration.

The project should have seen the construction of a state-of-the-art general hospital in Gozo, and the complete refurbishment of St Luke’s and Karin Grech. The deal would have also seen the private company attract medical tourists.

But VGH failed to deliver on the promised €200 million investment while receiving millions from the government that remain unaccounted for.

As health minister, Fearne himself eventually oversaw the transfer of the concession agreement to Steward Healthcare: though he had described Steward as the “real deal”, given the American company’s healthcare background.

Hence the context within which Feane’s comment must be adjudicated: for Steward is now seeking a renegotiation of the hospitals concession deal, asking for more money from the government.

Unions representing doctors and nurses have called on the government to pull the plug on the hospitals deal, insisting the private companies failed to deliver.

Indirectly, this entails political implications: for if Fearne is interpreted as likewise calling for the Steward deal to be annulled, it would align him with Opposition leader Adrian Delia, who has separately gone to court asking for the contract to be cancelled.

This may prove unfortunate, as undue political interpretation risks overshadowing the validity of Fearne’s argument as a whole – i.e., that government should have the courage to admit to, and rectify, past mistakes.

Clearly, the VGH deal was a case in point; but it may be too early to reach the same conclusions about the Steward Healthcare deal.

It is public knowledge that an evaluation committee has been appointed to draw up recommendations, especially in the wake of a renewed request by Steward Healthcare for more money.

Under the circumstances, surely any decision with regard to this contract should wait until this review is completed. Only a thorough review of the deal, including whether all contractual obligations have been satisfied, should form the basis for a political decision on the matter.

This is a decision that has to be taken quickly, judiciously and in the best interest of the country. The review should be concluded expeditiously, and with enough depth to help the government draw its own conclusions. All options should be on the table, including total cancellation and the return of the three hospitals to the public.

But Fearne’s argument was not limited to this one contract alone; and there are other examples of ’past mistakes’, as well as other public contracts which may likewise have ‘failed to deliver’.

For the long term, the government would be wise to rekindle a proposal made in one of its own budgets, and set up a public agency that would be responsible for tracking contractual obligations emanating from deals involving transfers of public property.

This would remove the need for any knee-jerk ‘mea culpas’ further down the line…

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