[WATCH] Robert Abela, Chris Fearne insist COVID expert's redeployment not linked to school strike

The Health Ministry says public health consultant Kenneth Grech’s skills were needed elsewhere to secure EU funds and denies his redeployment from the COVID-19 response team is linked in any way to school strike • MUMN says this is 'bollocks'

Health Minister Chris Fearne insists that Kenneth Grech was redeployed because he was needed elsewhere
Health Minister Chris Fearne insists that Kenneth Grech was redeployed because he was needed elsewhere

Updated at 8:00 pm with MAPHM reaction 

PM Robert Abela and Health Minister Chris Fearne are reiterating the Health Ministry's claims that public health consultant Kenneth Grech was redeployed from the COVID-19 response team as his expertise was needed elsewhere, and not due to advice given on the reopening of schools. 

Approached outside parliament, Chris Fearne insisted that Grech was not removed from the team and is instead engaged in the same work he was doing prior to the pandemic.

He cited an EU-funded project as the reason for his redeployment. "We have to finalise this report for the EU, otherwise we will lose funding," he said.

Robert Abela refused to say what advice was given by Kenneth Grech, and insisted that government always acts on the advice of medical experts. He too remarked that there was no outright dismissal in the COVID-19 response team. 

Grech’s redeployment over the weekend caused furore with the doctors’ union claiming this was linked to cautionary advice he gave on schools reopening after the holidays.

The Malta Union of Teachers had accused the government of ignoring the advice and ordered a two-day strike last week. Schools reopened physically today after an agreement was reached on Friday.

The health ministry earlier stated that Kenneth Grech was redeployed to the original post that he occupied, and was not dismissed on the basis of any advice given on schools reopening.

“Claims that Dr Grech was dismissed are completely untrue, as are claims that this event is in any way linked to the MUT situation which was resolved last week,” a ministry spokesperson said.

She added that the health authorities were currently working on securing funds for Malta’s health sector by mapping out a National Health Strategy and the way it will be implemented using the EU’s Coronavirus Recovery Fund.

“During the pandemic, the team of public health experts working on this strategy, which included Dr Grech, was diluted as their focus shifted on COVID-related issues. Since deadlines have approached, and to prevent the risk of missing out on millions of EU funds for this sector, the health authorities are redirecting experts back to their original duties,” the ministry said.

It added that the Chief Medical Officer required Grech’s expertise to make sure that the strategy was on track.

“It is for this reason that he has been asked to focus on the work he was in charge of before the pandemic… the health authorities are doing their best to handle the current pandemic situation whilst preparing for the future of the health sector after COVID-19,” the ministry said, while thanking Grech for his work throughout the pandemic.

MUMN: 'This is bollocks'

However, the ministry's reply elicited a strong response from the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses. "This is bollocks. How can Kenneth Grech's removal from the COVID response team be justified when public health is actively recruiting doctors to help at a time when cases have surged," MUMN President Paul Pace said.

He noted that doctors from various other departments were being drafted to help in contact tracing and investigation, leading to some services being postponed.

"Kenneth Grech's redeployment at this point in time is nothing more than a message to doctors in the public health service not to give advice that goes contrary to the wishes of politicians," Pace charged.

Grech’s redeployment was criticised by unions in the education sector and prompted the Church schools’ secretariat and the association of independent schools to call for his re-instatement.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech blamed the expert’s removal from the COVID-19 response team on the Prime Minister’s “arrogance”.

Malta Association of Public Health Medicine reacts to redeployment statements

The Malta Association of Public Health Medicine (MAPHM) condemned the redeployment of Kenneth Grech, stating it demonstrates a lack of respect towards professionals. 

“This is a shocking development which came completely out of the blue and has obviously nothing to do with mapping out a National Strategy to secure EU funds since other public health specialists were already assigned to work on this,” it said.

According to the association, it is apparent government’s tactics are to punish and intimidate any health care professional carrying out their professional duties. 

“This move is being widely interpreted as an attempt to muzzle those professionals who value evidence-based approaches, integrity and who keep the health and safety of our country paramount," MAPHM said.