[WATCH] Steward must fulfil its commitments or government will take action, Chris Fearne insists

Health Minister Chris Fearne insists government will ensure it gets what it paid for from Steward Health Care, says contract negotiation is not an option

Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne was a guest on last night's Xtra
Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne was a guest on last night's Xtra

Chris Fearne has insisted the government will make sure it gets its money’s worth from Steward Health Care in terms of its hospitals’ concession.

He said that, should Steward fail to fulfil its commitments, the government would take steps to remedy the situation.

The Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said that as he was not involved in the contract negotiations with Vitals Global Healthcare – the predecessors to Stewards - he could not say if the matter could have been negotiated differently.

He emphasised that his obligation was to ensure that the government honoured its obligations to Steward, and in turn, got what was owed.

Fearne was speaking during a wide-ranging interview on TVM’s Xtra on Thursday evening.

“I will continue to insist that the government should get what is written in the contract”, Fearne said.

“I want to see that we will have a new hospital in Gozo, that St Luke’s will be modernised, and that the structure of Karin Grech will be arranged. As long as they can provide this I will be content”.

The minster stressed that Stewards knew what they were getting in for when they took over the concession from Vitals, noting that when they took over Vitals’ business, they also took on that company’s debts.

When asked about Steward’s attempts to renegotiate their contract, Fearne appeared to shut the idea down.

READ ALSO | Vitals accounts revealed ‘material weakness’ and losses in first year of operation

“We have many other agreements with private parties”, Fearne said, “and no one tries to renegotiate in the middle of the agreed upon period. The concession is for 30 years, and there are 26 years remaining”.

He said that the government did not enter into the initial deal with Vitals because it could not carry out the planned building and renovation projects itself, but merely because this was a tried and tested model which has worked with other schemes, such as that of the POYC.

“If Stewards were to leave, we would still be able to carry out these projects, but the government decided to work with private investors”, Fearne said.

Fearne also reiterated comments he made at the Labour Party general conference, insisting that “if a project is going badly, we should not bury our heads in the sand, but should have the courage to change what is wrong”.

However, the Health Minister appeared optimistic, noting that “Steward’s obligations are clear, they are listed in the contract. We will work in line with those obligations, and I don’t see why there should be any problems”.

Fearne also pointed out that Stewards have already completed some of their contractual obligations, noting that they have built the Barts medical school in Gozo, which he described as “the best medical school in Europe”.

“If we are going to keep up this standard of quality with the hospitals, we are going to have hospitals which are phenomenal”, the Minister said.

Malta taking measures against Coronavirus

Fearne belied fears of a coronavirus epidemic in Malta, noting that the virus is not yet classed as an epidemic anywhere in Europe.

The Health Minister explained that measures are being taken to prevent the virus from taking hold in Malta, with screening procedures being put in place at the airport and the cruise liner terminal.

“We are not only screening those who are sick but even those who, in the previous two weeks, would have been in places where they could have come in contact with the virus”, Fearne said, so as to take account of the virus’s incubation period.

Fearne noted that there are also preparations being put in place in case the virus, which has a 98% recovery rate, does enter the island.

“We are keeping ourselves updated as to what is going on; in fact we always try to be one step ahead of what is taking place”, the Minister said.

Country's reputation already recovering

Fearne said that Robert Abela’s cabinet is already up and running smoothly, adding that the new additions to the cabinet have integrated well and are already carrying out good work.

“It is already clear that the new cabinet has already started reaping results, as we have been doing for the past 7 years”, Fearne said.

Fearne also noted that Malta’s reputation on the global stage has already started to recover, claiming that, in his experience, “if there was any anxiety on the part of our colleagues [in Europe], this appears to have calmed down”.

However, Fearne called out those who have criticised Malta in the past, arguing that “if they truly love their country, they should now acknowledge that things are going well”.

He underlined that there was no room for a culture of impunity in the country, pointing to the recent revelations within the police corps as a case in point.

“No one should feel as though they are above the law. No one should think that someone will cover for them if they have done something wrong”, he insisted.

“These standards should be adhered to across the board”, Fearne added. “The government must be whiter than snow”.