A "brand new hospital" in St Paul's Bay is receiving patients who test positive for COVID-19 in old people's homes, thus ensuring that other residents stay safe, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Monday.

The new facility, named the Good Samaritan, is already caring for 23 patients, Fearne said. He described the facility as being of "very high standard" but provided no further details. 

News that authorities were planning a special unit for elderly COVID-19 patients in care homes had first been revealed by Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci last week.  

Speaking in parliament, Fearne also warned that the coming weeks could be the toughest for Europe, including Malta,  since the war owing to the COVID-19. 

"The coming weeks, for all of Europe, and Malta is part of Europe, could be the toughest since the war. This is, therefore, the time to show solidarity, to forget partisan politics, and to work together for Malta to successfully emerge from this pandemic," Fearne said.

Everyone had somehow been affected by the pandemic, he said. The worst hit were those who had died, their families and other patients. Every death was a devastating loss to the relatives and the health service. 

"Our work is to heal the sick, ease hardship and save lives, and when somebody dies, we feel the blow," he said as he expressed his condolences.

It was no consolation, he said, that the COVID-19 death rate in Malta was some 1% compared to 4% in Spain and France, eight per cent in Italy and six per cent in the UK.

Healthcare professionals and the government would continue to do their best to keep the pandemic under control as much as possible.   

The minister went over preparations made by his ministry in the event of a worst-case scenario, including the acquisition of 100 ventilators, the setting up  of four ITUs, procurement of five ultrasound machines and the preparation of 680 new beds including new wards on the university grounds.

Fearne said Malta had been better prepared to handle the pandemic than many other countries, and the budget allocated funds for preparations to be made well ahead of any other pandemic in the future.

Fearne listed frontliners in the fight against COVID-19 and thanked them all. He said the helpline on some days received 12,000 calls. 95% of calls on 111 were answered within a minute. 

Another two testing centres open next week.Another two testing centres open next week.

Malta now had seven testing hubs and 350,000 tests had been made so far Another two swabbing hubs will be opened next week, one in the North and another at the airport.  In this way, the testing of arrivals from so-called 'amber countries' (countries with medium risk) would be increased five-fold. (Arrivals from 'red' high risk countries are banned or need to go to quarantine). 

Fearne said the staff employed on contract tracing was continuing to increase and would soon reach 100.

Deals with Italy, Czechia

The minister also announced that agreement had been reached with the Italian and Czech health ministers which would ensure that hundreds more vials of remdesivir would be received to help COVID-19 patients in Malta. 

The minister described healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients as heroes. He said that over the past fortnight 30 new nurses were engaged and over the coming four months another 200 would be engaged, many of them foreign. Staff from six operating theatres had also been redeployed.   

The COVID-19 vaccine was expected early next year but it would not be introduced even one day before it was declared safe, the minister assured. In the meantime he insisted that precautionary measures needed to be respected.

This was a time of sacrifice but also of solidarity, he said. Overcoming the pandemic did not depend solely on the government but on everyone, he said. 

'Heed the medical experts' Opposition urges government 

Earlier in the debate, the shadow minister for health, Stephen Spiteri said the world was going through extraordinary times owing to COVID-19. The opposition wanted to contribute ideas for this pandemic to be overcome.

Spiteri said the pandemic was putting pressure on the hospital and the primary health service, not least the staff, whom he wanted to salute.  Non-urgent surgeries were being put off, but the most worrying aspect was how intensive care capacity could be overcome. It was true that the number of beds and equipment, such as ventilators had been increased, but human resources were already overloaded. More investment was needed to train workers.

Unless COVID-19 measures were enforced, the virus would not be contained and there was a risk of a collapse of the health service, something which no one wanted. Therefore, the recommendations being made by the various health-sector bodies about possible measures should be heeded.  

He reiterated the PN call for a National Surveillance Committee composed mostly of healthcare professionals to advise the government on COVID-19 measures; testing for all those arriving in Malta; wider rapid testing and stronger contact tracing.  

Effective enforcement of COVID-19 measures is needed.Effective enforcement of COVID-19 measures is needed.

Monday’s spike of 218 cases was worrying, Spiteri said, and enforcement of regulations was needed to protect the health service and also to avoid a forced lock-down, if possible.  The government needed to take important decisions with health being an over-riding priority.

Spiteri also spoke on various other aspects of the health sectors, noting a lack of adequate resources at the GU clinic to tackle sexually transmitted disease, which, he said, was increasing. Patients were waiting weeks for an appointment, with the resultant risk of more people being put at risk of infection, he said.  

Spiteri also hit out at the privatisation of public hospitals. This shameful deal put business before patients, he said, and contract conditions had not been observed, including the provision of 400 beds at St Luke’s and a new hospital in Gozo.  The contract, he insisted, should be rescinded because it was a disgrace. What had become of the workings of the Evaluation Board appointed by the prime minister to look into the contract?

Spiteri welcomed the increase in medicine on the government formulary but said cancer patients should not be reliant on the Community Chest Fund. This sector should be administered directly by the government.

Former Opposition leader Adrian Delia said Malta had successfully tackled the first wave of the pandemic, but the same could not be said for the present.  What one was seeing was confusion in predictions leading to uncertainty, misinformation, and a lack of explanation of the measures which were actually being taken. True, there was no single solution, but the people needed to be informed and advised so that could look to the future with the least uncertainty possible.

Delia also hit out at the Vitals/Steward Healthcare contract for the management of public hospitals. Millions of euro were being squandered when they could be better used on patients, he said.  The Opposition would continue to insist that the deal be declared null. Was the government making any plans to assume responsibility for those hospitals once again?  

Psychiatric Outpatients Unit closure causes deterioration of service

Earlier Nationalist MP Mario Galea spoke on mental health issues, saying he was doing so as an MP and a patient himself, suffering from depression and anxiety. He expressed concern about an increase of suicides in Malta and said it was a shame that the government had dismantled the Crisis Intervention Team.

He protested over the closure of the Psychiatric Outpatients Unit at Mater Dei Hospital, saying the service was now reliant simply on five clinics in the community, which were ill-equipped for the purpose. Floriana clinic, for example, had seen an increase of 5,000 patients when it was meant to handle 1,000.  This led to a decrease of privacy and a deterioration of service. Patients were ending up being seen by psychiatrists who did not know them and their history.  Furthermore, no funds had been allocated for a new psychiatric hospital despite promises going back eight years.

Medical emergency needs to be declared

Independent MP Godfrey Farrugia said there was a gulf between what the prime minister said in his Budget reaction and reality. In April, when COVID-19 cases were far lower, a national health emergency was declared. Now the number of cases had soared. So what was holding the prime minister from declaring a health emergency?

The medical reasons were clear as crystal.

Measures needed to be enforced to save the health service itself. The prime minister should not interfere in the work of the minister of health and the Superintendent of Public Health, Farrugia insisted.

Nationalist MP Robert Cutajar said legal notices for measures to control obesity, agreed five years ago, had not been published and Malta's population continued to have one of the highest percentages of obese people in the world.

Cutajar underlined a Times of Malta editorial entitled Malta's other health crisis and insisted that what was agreed five years ago needed to be respected. Current educational campaigns were not enough and other measures were needed including a realistic minimum number of hours of physical exercise hours in schools, activities within local councils and a strong accent on sport. 

Another speaker was Labour MP Anthony Agius Decelis, who hit out at the opposition for not saying what it would have done differently in the handling of COVID-19. He also drew contrasts between the current government's actions and the way the PN government acted during the 2018 financial crisis, which, he said, was minuscule compared to the current international crisis. He recalled that the health service was different under the PN - one only needed to remember the shortage of essential medicines and how suppliers were owed many millions. In contrast, the present government was continuing to increase the list of free medicines given to patients. 

Addolorata Cemetery restoration works start

In other parts of his address, Health Minister Fearne said restoration work at Addolorata Cemetery had started. Works on the gothic cemetery chapel would be taken in hand next year. Some 250 new graves will be made available for sale by the end of this year.

He said that over the coming year works would start on a new Outpatients Block and car park at Mater Dei Hospital. The project will be completed in 2024.

Works on the regional hub in Paola was proceeding well, with plans to open it in two years' time. Plans were also being finalised for a regional hub in the North. Both would effectively be small hospitals. 

A 10-year strategic plan for mental health care was launched last year and  included the start of long-overdue works at Mt Carmel Hospital. Block 10 will be demolished and replaced by a garden next year. Block 1 will be renovated as of next year. Many patients were being taken out of the hospital because they did not need to be there. That would continue to be the focus of mental health care policy. It was also the reason why patients were being seen in the community not at Mater Dei Hospital. A site had also been acquired, near Mater Dei Hospital, for an acute psychiatric care hospital. The project would be completed in 2024. 

The minister also explained how new clinics were being set up in the community, new equipment was being bought for Mater Dei, including a new MRI and new medicines were being made available free of charge for a range of patients including those having HIV, and those suffering osteoporosis. 


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