Updated 2.50pm

The Medical Union has registered an industrial dispute with the government over the removal of a public health consultant, who advised schools against reopening due to COVID-19 concerns. 

In a statement, the Medical Union of Malta said the transfer of a public health consultant for expressing his professional judgement “is unacceptable”. 

It gave notice of “demonstrative action” starting Thursday escalating on January 18.

Kenneth Grech, a consultant and lecturer, was told over the weekend that his services within the COVID-19 response team were no longer needed and that he would be redeployed.

As coordinator of the team, Grech was public health chief Charmaine Gauci's right-hand man. During the pandemic he has overseen contact tracing, swabbing hubs, quarantine issues and other major national efforts to battle the virus.

He is understood to have advised the Education Ministry and other school stakeholders to keep schools closed following the Christmas holidays. 

The Health Ministry has however denied any link and said Grech was being redeployed to work on Malta's national health strategy and to prevent the risk of missing out on millions of EU funds for this sector." 

The Medical Association of Malta declared the dispute in a letter to Health Ministry’s permanent secretary saying doctors must be free to express their professional opinion without intimidation or fear of retribution.

“It is the ethical duty of each doctor to give the best possible medical advice. The removal of this consultant is of concern to all professionals in all grades. Patients must know that medical advice is based on evidence and given in their best interests.”

The impression given by the ministry that only one individual can work on EU projects is misleading and unfair to the doctors who are actually already doing this work, MAM said.

In another letter to Health Minister Chris Fearne, MAM requested an urgent meeting with the minister.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech said the prime minister was being "hard-headed" and seemed to believe only he had the answers.

"The government should reverse its decision immediately and reinstate Kenneth Grech in the COVID response team," Grech said in a video message on Facebook.

Malta Association of Public Health Medicine 'shocked'

Grech's removal was on Tuesday also condemned by the Malta Association of Public Health Medicine (MAPHM) which described the event as "a shocking development" that came "completely out of the blue".

It said Grech's removal has obviously nothing to do with mapping out a National Strategy to secure EU funds since other public health specialists were already assigned to work on this.

"This move demonstrates a lack of respect towards professionals and recklessness in decision-making."

"It is apparent that the government’s tactics are to punish and intimidate any health care professional carrying out their professional duties. This consultant was pivotal in the setting up and daily management of the COVID-19 response team and more so now, when we are handling the highest case counts to date and when strong leadership is so necessary.

"This move is being widely interpreted as an attempt to muzzle those professionals who value evidence-based approaches, integrity and who keep the health and safety of our country paramount," MAPHM said.

Malta Health Network asks for decision to be reconsidered

In an open letter to Fearne, the Malta Health Network, which represents 40 health organisations, sought the assurance of the health authorities that decision making will continue to be transparent and evidenced-based as recommended by the public health professions and that the interests of patients and citizens will be safeguarded.

"Whilst we understand that there are other duties within the Ministry for Health, removal of the key-coordinator does not put our minds at rest that public health is being given the due importance it deserves at this time in the country.

"We are therefore calling on the relevant authorities to put our minds at rest and reconsider this decision," it said.

Independent schools concerned

The Independent Schools Association expressed concern at the reports of Grech's dismissal and reiterated the need for "independent unbiased medical opinion" which informs public debate.

It expressed solidarity with Grech and called upon the government to revise its position and repeal "this startling decision". 

Employers react

The Malta Employers’ Association also reacted to the dismissal expressing solidarity with Grech.

It said it is difficult to convince anyone that his redeployment is not related to his stand concerning COVID-19 and the situation in the schools.

"If he was acting in his capacity as a public health consultant, Grech had a right as well as an obligation to provide advice to minimise the impact of the pandemic and there is no reason why he should be penalised for taking a position, even if such position may not be palatable to all stakeholders," the MEA said.

It said the health authorities have to be completely impartial to any external influence that may interfere with their judgement, and this would be the wrong time to start questioning the credibility of the COVID-19 Response team after the sterling work they have done since the outbreak of the pandemic.

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