The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

Updated (3): Kenneth Grech removed from Covid-19 team; ministry denies relation to teachers' strike

Monday, 11 January 2021, 10:03 Last update: about 10 days ago

Health consultant Kenneth Grech has been removed from the Covid-19 public health response team, prompting anger from doctors and members of public health, The Malta Independent can confirm.

The Health Ministry have denied that Grech was dismissed outright, saying that his redeployment was because his expertise was needed in order for Malta to obtain EU funds.

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Grech was removed from his post as the coordinator of the Covid-19 team after he recommended caution when it comes to the reopening of schools, this newsroom understands, with sources describing how many doctors have expressed their anger at the news.

The news was first broken by the Medical Association of Malta, who did not name Grech, but who lambasted the government for what they called an "episode of intimidation."

Grech, also a lecturer, was one of those responsible for the coordination of the public health response to Covid-19, and in a statement the MAM said that they had been removed because they “had the courage to recommend caution on the consequences re-opening for the schools.”

Replying to questions sent by The Malta Independent, the Health Ministry said that “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.”

The spokesperson said 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 Grech’s expertise was required by the Chief Medical Officer 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.

Teachers headed back to school classrooms today after a teachers’ strike was called off on Friday.  The strike was called after Covid-19 cases spiked to record-high numbers, largely as a result of festivities over the Christmas and New Year’s period, and after the MUT received information that the Education Ministry had been advised by the Covid-19 response team to keep schools shut - something health authorities later denied.

The MAM said it will convene to evaluate the situation and decide on its reaction after this “episode of intimidation.”  This newsroom understands that the MAM will be meeting to decide the way forward on Monday evening.

Grech declined a request for comment, saying that he was prohibited from doing so without government approval.

The association also expressed its disappointment that "that the same reckless mistakes due to decisions taken by politicians based on short-sighted populism rather than the advice of medical experts have led to the current situation.”

"A mass event for the elderly in San Ġwann, a music concert held in Valletta, free for all New Year’s Eve events in many restaurants, and many private parties in Gozo, together with repeated mixed messages from the government side have caused numbers to shoot up from 50 a day to 200 a day in a couple of weeks," it said.

The claimed that a number of positive cases are arriving from the UK, noting that regular flights between Malta and the UK had remained operational.

The association called on the government to support the tourism industry through financial means rather than through encouraging behaviour that puts people’s lives at risk.

"Only people out of their senses would consider issuing vouchers at this stage. A classic case of biting your nose to spite your face”, the association said – referring to the next set of stimulus vouchers which will be issued to the public this month.

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

The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses weighed in on the situation. It said that the transfer was “clearly political and shows that politicians want to influence doctors in order for them not to give the proper advice. It is clear that they are putting political pressure on health professionals for this reason.”

MUMN said that it knows very well that recruitment doctors and nurses was taking place for the public health service, and so removing a consultant at this moment in time “is unbelievable.”

MUT, Church's education wing calls for reversal of decision

In a separate statement, the Malta Union of Teachers said that it joins the MAM in condemning the removal of the consultant.

The union expressed its concern about the news, and said that it is the duty of every professional to give scientific advice in their area of specialization, and this can never result in their sacking.

The MUT urged the government to reverse its position and allow all professionals – particularly those in the health sector – to work without interference to be the ones who guide the decisions on the necessary measures to control the pandemic.

They noted that this confirms what the MUT said about the advice that the government had in hand about schools.  The MUT had claimed that there had been advice from health consultants to keep schools closed for the second semester – a claim denied by health authorities.

Meanwhile, the Secretariat for Catholic Education and the Church Schools Association also expressed its dismay at Grech's dismissal.

"Since the start of the pandemic, Dr Grech, in his official capacity and along with his colleagues, has given very valid advice when considering whether or not to physically welcome students, educators and staff in schools. Dr Grech has been rendering a sterling service as coordinator of the COVID-19 team and always sought to safeguard public health", a statement read.

They too called for Grech to be re-instated.

Meanwhile, the Independent Schools Association expressed its "concern and disappointment" at the news, saying that Grech had worked tirelessly to coordinate the team and was instrumental in the fight against the virus.

"The ISA re-iterates the need for independent unbiased medical opinion which informs the public debate. The ISA expresses its solidarity with Dr. Grech and furthermore, it calls upon the Government to revise its position and repeal this startling decision", the association said in a statement. 


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