Updated | Vaccine queue-skipping to be independently investigated, Health Minister says

The contact-tracing team will receive further strengthening, while a new vaccination centre has been set up at MCAST

Parliament debated the COVID-19 emergency, following a motion put forward by the Opposition leader for an urgent discussion in the wake of rising infection cases
Parliament debated the COVID-19 emergency, following a motion put forward by the Opposition leader for an urgent discussion in the wake of rising infection cases

Updated at 11:55am with comments from the Health Minister and Opposition leader

This morning, members of parliament discussed COVID-19 in an urgent parliamentary debate on the pandemic emergency requested by the Opposition.

“The economic wheel needs to continue, because that leads to quality of life,” Prime Minister Robert Abela said as he kicked off his parliamentary address.

“We took measures according to what was happening. There were times when we increased and removed measures, but we let science guide us and we did what was in the interest of the public,” Abela said.

Abela touched on the procurement struggles at the start of the pandemic to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and other gear.

“We had a situation in March where even to buy apparatus and PPE was like a pirate battle. You order this equipment, and it’s stolen in transit. This is something most countries experienced.”

He admitted that the new variant brought forward additional challenges to pandemic management, given its increased transmissability and the existing challenge of COVID fatigue among people.

However, Abela explained that vaccine efforts have nonetheless been successful – especially among the 80+ age group. He said that among this demographic there have been lowered hospital admissions and mortality rates since they started receiving the jab.

On enforcement, the Prime Minister said that the pandemic need not be a battle between the public and authorities.

“I’m convinced that the message will go through – that people will understand why these measures are in place.”

Abela was particularly proud of economic efforts, including the wage supplement and quarantine leave.

“Today, we have an unemployment rate that is the same as pre-COVID levels,” he exclaimed. “If we left everything to chance, we would have had thousands of people lose their jobs. We didn’t allow this to happen because we moved forward with prudence.”

New vaccination centres

Health Minister Chris Fearne announced that a new, larger vaccination centre was opened at MCAST today, while an additional centre will be set up at Teatru Aurora in Gozo. This will be the sister island's four vaccination centre, with spots set up in Kerċem, Rabat, and the Gozo General Hospital.

He added that an independent investigation has bene ordered into vaccine queue-skipping allegations from the Opposition leader. The investigation will be carried out by Dr John Cachia, the Commissioner for Mental Health.

Fearne appealed that, if there are suspicions that someone has received the vaccine before they were entitled to do so, such information should be passed on to him for further investigations. 

On the vaccine roll-out, the Health Minister said that 80 private doctors have agreed to administer vaccine doses once distribution is extended to the general public.

He said that the contact-tracing team will be receiving more resources, and that authorities are strengthening the team so that positive patients can be contacted within the first few crucial hours.

Earlier in his speech, Fearne said that he yesterday held a meeting with Carmelo Abela, the Minister within OPM, and social partners in MCESD. Some stakeholders told government that it needs to do more in the wake of rising cases, while others said that government has done too much. 

"We need to always find the road most important for the public's health, but we know he can't please everyone," he admitted.

Further to this, the Health Minister briefly apologised to those who may have suffered a blow to their company's profitability, but insisted that the decisions had to be taken.

From the Opposition

Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech was highly critical of the government's handling of the pandemic, insisting that the Labour administration should have taken proper precautions to avoid the spike in COVID cases.

"This is what we've been warning you about. Before conducting a diagnosis, and implementing a solution, you need to keep your eyes open for precautions," Grech said. 

He took aim at the Prime Minister for saying that Malta is "heaven on earth" last February, despite having knowledge of the variant back in December.

Earlier in the debate, the Health Minister described the variant as a nuclear bomb, or invasive species - but, Bernard Grech lambasted him over this, saying that government had to be more careful if it knew that this would be a nuclear bomb.

"We told you that a dangerous variant had been identified, and to be careful not to have it enter our country. When we told you to invest in airport screenings, you laughed at us. Today it's useless - it entered and it's causing ruin."

Grech further insisted that the vaccine by itself is not the solution to the pandemic, and that measures need to be implemented in parallel to vaccination efforts. 

Among the Nationalist benches, Stephen Spiteri emphasised the need to declare a public health emergency.

“We believe that in the present situation, it should be the direction of the Superintendent to direct and not only comment.”

He warned about the associated morbidity of COVID-19, as health experts are still learning what long-term effects the virus could have on those affected, commonly known as “long COVID”.

Spiteri further cautioned the House over added pressure on cure services in local hospitals, adding that intensive care units are at a stretch.

“It’s not only about beds, but also the specialised human resources that could give the best cure.”

In a brief speech, Nationalist MP Claudio Grech more sharply rebuked government leadership under the pandemic.

“Today, a year after taking the biggest sacrifice in Malta’s modern history, we are in an unprecedented crisis. Leadership is built on ability, virtue and value, by taking decisions with thought out and calculated responsibility... Foresight was lacking in this government. We could have avoided deaths, alleviated the challenges,” he said, adding that despite Abela's call for national unity the Prime Minister ignored the Opposition's suggestions throughout the past 12 months.

"I am glad to hear the Prime Minister say that government wanted to safeguard health first and foremost because when the Opposition made that observation early on in the pandemic it was derided as being negative and uninterested in the economic wellbeing of the country... this is not a choice between health and the economy, health is the priority," Grech said.