The government’s explanation for the removal of Kenneth Grech as the coordinator of the COVID-19 response team is being viewed as a whitewash by numerous medical and professional associations, including those representing his fellow doctors and public health experts.
The Medical Association of Malta has registered an industrial dispute with the government over the matter, rejecting the stated reason for Grech’s transfer: that he has been deployed to work on the national health strategy so as not to miss out on EU funds.
The redeployment came after Grech, a consultant and public health expert, advised schools against reopening due to COVID-19 concerns. That clashed with the government’s position in favour of children going back to school after the holidays. This is being seen as a much more likely explanation for the transfer.
If this is indeed the reason, it speaks not only of a serious rift between medical and political opinion on the best way forward at the current stage of the pandemic but points to a serious misjudgement by his bosses, Health Minister Chris Fearne and Prime Minister Robert Abela.
It is utterly unacceptable that a medical professional is booted out because he expressed an opinion based on his diagnosis of the situation, which would, no doubt, have been evidence-based. Essentially, he appears to have been removed for doing his duty.
The public has a right to know the truth. It also has a right to know what Grech’s advice was based on.
This episode calls into doubt the rest of the government’s decisions on COVID-19. Is it discarding scientific advice in the same way it seems to have treated Grech himself?
On what basis, for example, did the government decide not to impose stricter restrictions on entertainment activities over the festive season? Why were 25,000 people allowed to cross to Gozo, throwing to the wind the concept of social distancing? Was scientific opinion discarded there too?
There has been a surge in infections and active cases over the past week, which, by Fearne’s admission, is almost certainly due to the Christmas and New Year festivities. This was entirely predictable. It happened after the summer. Why did we not do better this time?
Despite the many advantages of opening schools, was this done without first assessing whether the new wave of COVID-19 cases was due to the new and more contagious strain that originated in Britain?
The public needs anwers now.
The numbers we are seeing are not yet quite at the level of those in the worst-hit areas of Europe. But it is well to recall that the second wave only hit Malta two weeks or so after the rest of Europe. We ended up being one of the worst-hit countries during that period.
Meanwhile, the vaccine offers more than hope. With it comes the promise of release from this terrible disease. There are already two being administered and, with the approval of a third, it would allow mass vaccination of the populace to be speeded up and the pandemic to be brought under control.
Until then, letting down our guard and becoming complacent, putting entertainment and convenience before caution, will only lead to more illness and death, along with the risk of overwhelming the health service. Patience is called for, as is solidarity with our front liners – and clear, honest information.
But after the Grech incident, the question must be asked: is the government following its best scientific advice in its efforts to keep down the number of infections?
The public needs answers now.
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