Doctors angered after government removes consultant who recommended caution on school reopening

Doctors angered over removal of COVID-19 response team coordinator Kenneth Grech following his advice to schools to exercise caution on reopening amid infection surge • Unions condemn dismissal

Government redeployed the head of the COVID-19 response team Kenneth Grech following his advice to schools to exercise caution on reopening (Photo: Malta Association of Public Health Medicine/Facebook)
Government redeployed the head of the COVID-19 response team Kenneth Grech following his advice to schools to exercise caution on reopening (Photo: Malta Association of Public Health Medicine/Facebook)

A consultant who recommended caution on schools reopening in wake of the post-holidays COVID-19 surge and who was removed by the government has been named as Kenneth Grech.

Grech is understood to have been told over the weekend that his services within the COVID-19 response team were no longer needed and that he would be redeployed.

As coordinator of the team, Grech was the right-hand man to Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci.

His removal over the weeked was condemned by the Medical Association of Malta, which linked the decision to the advice Grech gave the Education Ministry, church and independent schools not to reopen immediately after the holidays.

MAM president Martin Balzan said the consultant “had the courage to recommend caution on the consequences of re-opening schools.”

The MAM council will convene today Monday evening to evaluate the situation and decide on its reaction to this episode of intimidation.

Grech's recommendation was followed by some independent schools and all church schools, where teaching started online for the first two days. However, it was on the eve of schools reopening that the Malta Union of Teachers was leaked the advice, which prompted the union to order a two-day strike when government refused to the option for State schools to go online.

MUT condemns the dismissal

The Malta Union of Teachers joined MAM in condemning the dismissal of the medical advisor, and is requesting that government review its position on the matter.

"Every professional has a duty to give scientific advice in their area of specialisation, and this should never lead to that person's dismissal," the union said.

Last week the MUT called for a two-day strike among state school educators after government denied the union's request to postpone the reopening of schools and instead offer lessons online. 

The union insisted that a 'top health official' advised government on whether schools should reopen. While it never divulged the details of the communication, it was implied that the advice was given to postpone school reopening.

"This further confirms what the MUT argued about the government's advice," the union said.

UPE 'shocked' by recent events 

The Union of Professional Educators (UPE) expressed its full solidarity with MAM. It said it was shocked at the news that a health consultant responsible for the co-ordination of the public health response to COVID-19  was "removed”.

“The government should not interfere with the advice given by medical professionals, as such interference could potentially cause Covid positive cases to spike unnecessarily,” the union said.

The UPE said it has not yet endorsed the “backdoor deal” reached last Friday between MUT and the government since it hasn't been provided with any details.

Repubblika demands answers

NGO Repubblika is calling on government to give a clear explanation on the removal of Kenneth Grech from the COVID-19 team coordinator.

"This step demoralises and sends a bad message to all medical professions, that they must put the will of government before the oath they take to protect the health of the public," it said. 

Independent candidate Arnold Cassola expressed similar sentiment, but instead called on Profs Charmaine Gauci to take a "clear stand" in favour of the reinstatement of Kenneth Grech.

Doctors blame surge on reckless decisions by politicians

Meanwhile, the doctors union said reckless mistakes because of decisions taken by politicians based on short-sighted populism rather than the advice of medical experts have led to current situation.

Balzan said that a tombola event for the elderly at the San Gwann local council, a music concert held in Valletta, free-for-all New Year’s Eve events in restaurants, and private parties in Gozo, together with repeated mixed messages from the government side, had caused COVID-19 infections to shoot up from 50 a day to 200 a day in a couple of weeks.

Regular flights to the UK have remained operational despite claims to be contrary, Balzan said. “MAM is aware that a number of positive cases of people arriving the UK. Analysis for variants is awaited,” he said.

“Government should continue to support the tourist industry financially rather than encourage behaviours which put people’s lives at risk, and further aggravate the damage to the industry. Only people out of their senses would considering issuing vouchers at this stage. A classic case of ‘biting your nose to spite your face’.

“MAM reminds the government that with numbers above 100 a day, there is a strong risk that Mater Dei intensive care unit and Medical wards may not be able to cope with patients. and that measures are necessary to bring down the numbers. Too many elderly people have died, and every effort must be made to save lives.”