Updated 5.35pm with Fearne's second letter to PM

Chris Fearne resigned as deputy prime minister and minister on Friday, days after prosecutors filed fraud charges against him related to a deal to privatise three state hospitals. 

Posting his resignation letter to social media, Fearne said that despite facing "injustice" he had a duty to "put the people first". 

"This is likely to take a long time, and I cannot keep waiting. The country and its institutions deserve better," he wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Robert Abela.  

Fearne also withdrew his nomination as Malta's nominee to the next EU Commission. He did not say whether he intended to stay on as deputy leader of the Labour Party. 

Abela promptly published a response that he sent to Fearne, asking him to reconsider the decision. In a second letter, Fearne thanked Abela for his support but said he would be sticking to his resignation decision.

Fearne, Edward Scicluna and others are facing charges of fraud, misappropriation and fraudulent gain in connection with the hospitals' deal. 

They are among a second tier of defendants: Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri also stand accused of corruption and trading in influence in connection with the deal. 

Fearne had said earlier this week that he had learnt of the criminal charges through the media and had not received formal notification of them. 

It is unclear whether he submitted his resignation letter after being formally notified of the charges. 

Fearne: I know I am innocent

Fearne is the first of those facing charges to resign from his post. Others in public office, such as Central Bank governor Edward Scicluna and permanent secretary Ronald Mizzi, have yet to comment on their future.

Fearne has repeatedly insisted that he did nothing wrong while overseeing the now-annulled privatisation deal with Vitals [later Steward].

He reiterated that point in his resignation letter, which was addressed to Prime Minister Robert Abela and dated May 10.  

"I know what I did and didn’t do as minister. Nobody knows more than me that the only thing the court will find is that I am innocent," he said.

"I am resigning not because I have any doubts about my innocence, but rather because it's the right thing to do." 

Representing Malta as a minister was the "biggest honour of my life," he wrote. 

Backbench MP

Fearne told Abela that he was resigning as deputy prime minister and EU Funds Minister, and also asking for his name to be withdrawn for consideration as Malta's next EU Commissioner.

Abela had said that he intended to nominate Fearne to serve on the European Commission later this year. 

The decision means Fearne will now serve as Labour backbench MP, representing the third district. 

He did not rule out a return to top political office in the future, saying that he would consider a return if his good name was rapidly cleared "and my country calls on me to serve again".  

Abela asks Fearne to reconsider

The prime minister has publicly defended Fearne and continued to do so in a reply to Fearne's resignation letter. 

"Please reconsider your decision," Abela wrote to Fearne, emphasising that he had full faith in his integrity and capabilities.

"In our country's darkest hours, I found you by my side and the country benefited greatly from your abilities - something that was also noted internationally," Abela added. 

Bernard Grech: Others must follow

Opposition leader Bernard Grech said that Fearne's resignation was inevitable and was further proof of how out of touch the prime minister was by insisting nobody had to resign. 

"No public official facing these sorts of accusations can remain in their post," Grech wrote on Facebook. 

"Robert Abela is obliged to sack Edward Scicluna as Central Bank governor, and if that doesn't happen Scicluna should resign," Grech said. "Robert Abela is obliged to sack Ronald Mizzi as permanent secretary of the Economy Ministry, and if that doesn't happen Mizzi should resign." 

ADPD: A good first step

The Green Party said Fearne had done the right thing and noted that it was rare for Maltese politicians to resign of their own volition. 

"He has led by example. Now we need more resignations, primarily that of Edward Scicluna as Central Bank governor," ADPD chairperson Sandra Gauci said. 

Bolt from the blue

Fearne had never been directly linked to fallout from the Vitals privatisation deal and news that he was to be prosecuted is understood to have stunned him. 

In his resignation letter, he noted that three separate reports into the hospitals deal by the National Audit Office had “completely exonerated me of any blame”.

Quoting from one of those reports, he noted how the auditor had concluded that he had been “sidelined from every significant development related to the concession.” 

My parents raised me well, to be upstanding at all times. I intend to continue being so," Fearne wrote.

"Political propriety, the oath I took as a minister and my loyalty to the party I gave my life to demand that I do. In the present circumstances – and given my immense respect for the country’s institutions – I cannot continue to honour these sacrosanct obligations, as I have always done.”

A decade in politics

A paediatric surgeon by profession, Fearne was active within the Labour Party as a young man but steered clear of frontline politics to focus on his medical profession.

That changed in 2013, when he was one of the crop of new faces that the Muscat-led Opposition presented for the general election.

He was elected as a fourth district MP and one year into his political career was promoted to parliamentary secretary for health. 

Following the 2017 general election, he was promoted to health minister. However, responsibility for the hospitals concession to Vitals Global Healthcare was kept by Konrad Mizzi, the minister who negotiated the deal. 

That changed in late 2019, when Mizzi was forced to resign from cabinet and oversight of the concession shifted to Fearne's ministry. 

The Fearne-led ministry continued talks with Vitals' successor, Steward Health Care, to renegotiate the concession contract. But those talks fell apart. 

In 2023, a civil court dealt the deal a final blow, annulling all contracts related to it on the basis that Vitals and Steward had failed to live up to contractual obligations and the deal was tainted by fraud. 

Fearne before his entry into politics. Photo: Jason BorgFearne before his entry into politics. Photo: Jason Borg

Fearne remained as health minister throughout that period, leading Malta's response to the COVID-19 pandemic after weathering the disappointment of losing a Labour leadership race to Abela. 

Earlier this year, Abela said that he intended to nominate Fearne to join the European Commission and reassigned him to the EU Funds ministerial portfolio in anticipation of that now-scuppered move. 

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