The Malta Independent 25 September 2020, Friday

Indepth: Being selective in who to support financially amounts to social injustice – Delia

INDEPTH online Saturday, 18 April 2020, 07:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

The government cannot be selective and choose which parts of the population to aid financially, while leaving others to fend for themselves, as that would amount to social injustice, Opposition Leader Adrian Delia said.

He was being interviewed by The Malta Independent's Deputy Editor Kevin Schembri Orland on the latest edition of Indepth.

During the interview, Delia was asked about hunting, the economic and social measures being taken to help combat the Coronavirus situation, and also about his stances on government's actions.

The government has introduced a number of economic measures aimed at helping businesses, primarily those in the worst hit sectors.

The PN says the government seems to have forgotten about 100,000 or so workers in its proposed economic measures. Delia was asked whether, by this statement, he wants the €800 per employee measure to be expanded to all sectors.

He mentioned a recent virtual meeting he held with representatives from the real estate sector, which has over 3,000 employees.

"These are people who do not live from pay cheque to pay cheque but from commission cheque to commission cheque. So like any other sector, there is a small percentage who do very well and have the means, but the bulk do not. They are workers, individuals, who have families and children who need to eat and survive like everyone else. Is there any single reason why those parts of the economy have to be ignored? Why are those people, those Maltese and Gozitan citizens not aided?  Is it because we deem them not to be fit for aid?"

"Why would we forget any employee, in whichever sector, who is carrying the burden, who is suffering, who still needs to survive like all of us? So yes, I think that the government has been selective."

He said he understands the argument for helping sectors in structured stages, where, for example, if the hotel industry is hit first, then they need to be aided first.

"Anyone who is suffering the burden of the COVID-19 scenario reality has to be helped proportionately, and it has to be structured in a manner of time which is proportionate to when they get hit hardest as we should leave nobody to fend for themselves and the burden should be shared as a country."

Told that there is only so much support that the government can give, and that finances are limited, he was asked where the finances to support everyone at the stages they require it would come from.

 

Energy tariffs

"Let's start with one of our proposals, to give a 50% cut on water and electricity prices. We have a very simple answer. €86 million in the last years have benefited somebody, not the population at large, as the reduction in the price of oil and gas have left an €86 million saving. That saving has not been passed over to businesses or employees or families. That would certainly be enough to sustain the proposal we came up with, in so far as the water and electricity packages contain."

Referring to the PN's proposals regarding moratoriums on bank loans, repayments and such, he was pleased to note the Finance Ministry's recent announcements in this area while highlighting that more can be done.

He highlighted that there are people who pay rent who, despite having their income significantly reduced or stopped altogether, still need to pay that rent or risk being put out onto the street.

"So the government has a limited budget, every country does, but we have had countries like France who has declared that not one euro cent will be lost through the virus, and I think that we have the resources in this country. Yes, we need to cost, but we cannot be selective. So, if the total amount that I have for distribution is x amount, I cannot be selective and only choose part of the population leaving others to fend for themselves. That would amount to social injustice."

 

Reactive rather than proactive

Delia has called out the government for being reactive, rather than proactive, in the Coronavirus pandemic. He was asked what he would have done differently.

Delia said that the Opposition's job is to critically analyse and criticise constructively. He said that an issue the PN raised from the beginning was that, rather than following the virus and acting in retrospect, it would be better for the country to pre-empt and take decisions in advance, both in terms of the medical structures as well as the economic ones as far as one could anticipate.

The Opposition Leader said that the country started reacting to the virus situation a few weeks back, when in January we already had a declaration of a health emergency by the World Health Organisation.

"So, by the time this hit Malta, which was around two months after this WHO declaration, we had time to think and time to start anticipating."

Delia highlighted the time it took the government to close the country's borders, and said that by anticipating the situation even a week earlier would have led to a lower number of imported cases. "Then there was the issue of school closures. There were private sector schools which had decided to start closing down and only after they did so, the Prime Minister reacted and decided on that issue."

He also spoke about the issuance of aid packages and said that the government was reluctant to gauge the situation until the first such package was issued, which was immediately described as falling short of what was needed. "And so even here the government was reactive."

"While looking at the messages coming from the Superintendent of Public Health, who was very punctual, precise and organised in her approach, on the other hand we had instances where the government and particularly the Prime Minister were not only reactive but also sent messages which were in contradiction to the Superintendent's. On one day in particular, we had a message telling us to stay home and keep safe, with the vulnerable being identified, and less than 24 hours later the Prime Minister said 'well it's not really staying home and you can go out and this and that'. That is not the right message to give."

"We had also said that they had not only been reactive but selective, and we had said this when there was the package relative to the employees and the self-employed. There are 172,000 employees (including self-employed) and only 50,000 to 60,000 were given assistance or aid. So that is 110,000 employees who to date, have been left alone."

 

Lockdown and a change of heart?

At the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, the Opposition Leader was relatively vocal in calling for a lockdown, however he then toned this rhetoric down after meeting with the Superintendent of Public Health. This newsroom asked Delia whether he had a change of heart.

"Not at all. I am making a clear distinction between the health authorities, including the Superintendent of Public Health, and Central Government, including the Prime Minister. I would have thought that the Prime Minister would have engaged with us, as we were saying that we were prepared to help, prepared to rise to the occasion and bring the national interest above all else and eliminate partisan politics and do our bit towards having the best for our country and our citizens at this moment in time. Nothing ensued from that."

"Therefore, I thought that it was my responsibility to engage myself. I wrote to the Superintendent of Public Health and within 24 hours she accepted to meet us. When I understood that, even at that point in time, the idea was that there would be the invocation of a health emergency, which means that the last word would be taken by the Health Superintendent, I got comfort from that. I understood that we would be receiving and sharing information and be involved in at least the effort towards having the health measures which were being embraced by all."

He said that the PN's obligation was to adhere to and reinforce her message as they understood that this was the best for the people and the country.

"Indeed, my criticism after that was nearly next to nil insofar as the orders of the Superintendent, and our message has been to listen to the health authorities, basically stay home and stay safe, yet critical of the government where it was trying to sort of manipulate that message for some populist gain. So no, this was not a change of heart, but in full responsibility, understanding, interacting and embracing what the Superintendent's plan was, and supporting it."

 

Socially restrictive measures

The Easter break brought with it a number of fines handed out to people who met in groups of more than three people in public. Delia was asked whether he believes more socially restrictive measures are needed.

"I remain firm to our commitment that we will not come out with the medical side of initiatives ourselves because that would confuse people, but we retain our trust and faith in the Superintendent of Public Health and support the measures that she issues. These measures are well-informed, have the benefit of research, modelling, and experience, and it would be grossly irresponsible of us simply to come up with something different or to go against what are informed decisions taken on medical and scientific research."

 

Spring hunting

The government recently opened the spring hunting season, despite concerns from sections of the public regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked whether he agrees with this decision, Delia made clear that such an answer is dependent on who took such a decision.

"This is not an issue with regard to spring hunting or not per se, as in Malta spring hunting was decided through a referendum some years ago... I have my own views and had expressed them at the appropriate time regarding hunting, but this is an issue of health measures."

"In my mind, if it is the Superintendent of Public Health who has evaluated the considerations and decided, then we will support that decision. If that decision was not taken by the Superintendent of Public Health, but by the government for political reasons, then that is not something which should have been done."

He said that If that measure is supported by the Superintendent of Public Health and therefore does not pose any public health danger either to the persons going out hunting or to others who he or she is in contact with, "then that is a public health consideration, and we have taken a stand that we would support those. If not, then yes, I would be critical of that, if it was taken only on a populist basis."

The interview was conducted on Thursday
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