Updated 5.15pm with Fearne, Abela comments
Members of Malta’s COVID-19 public health response team are understood to be livid after the team’s coordinator was removed from his post with no explanation, sources told Times of Malta on Monday.
Kenneth Grech, a consultant and lecturer, was told over the weekend that his services within the response team were no longer needed and that he would be redeployed.
As coordinator of the COVID-19 team, Grech was one of 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.
Around 40 doctors are on the team.
A Health Ministry spokesperson told Times of Malta that Grech had been moved back to his previous job, working on Malta's national health strategy.
Grech, a former permanent secretary at the Health Ministry during the PN administration, is an expert in public health.
Doctors, nurses, teachers and church schools have all demanded that he be reinstated in his COVID-19 response team post.
Advice on schools
Grech is understood to have advised the Education Ministry and other school stakeholders to keep schools closed following the Christmas holidays. Sources told Times of Malta that he emailed Frank Fabri, the permanent secretary of the education ministry, as well as to representatives of Malta’s church schools with that advice last week.
The advice was eventually leaked to the teachers’ union, which called a strike after the government refused to order schools to stay shut and revert to online lessons. That strike was called off on Friday evening and schools reopened on Monday morning.
Sources told Times of Malta that Grech has been singled out for blame following the leak, although the matter was not spelt out in writing.
'Grech needed to prevent losing millions in funding' - ministry
But in a reaction on Monday afternoon, the government denied any link between Grech's redeployment and his advice concerning schools reopening.
"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 ministry said.
The ministry said that Grech was being redeployed to work on Malta's national health strategy "since deadlines have approached, and to prevent the risk of missing out on millions of EU funds for this sector."
"The Chief Medical Officer required Dr Grech’s expertise to make sure that the strategy is 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 government said.
When contacted, Grech declined to comment saying he was prohibited from doing so without the government’s approval.
Speaking outside parliament on Monday, Health Minister Chris Fearne insisted there was nothing suspicious about the timing of Grech's redeployment. Prime Minister Robert Abela said he did not get involved in personnel decisions made by the health department.
'We will not be muzzled'
Members of the COVID-19 response team Grech led were furious to learn of the redeployment and hinted that they might down tools in protest.
"Our job is to advise the government. We are the experts. They can choose to take it or leave it, but we will not be muzzled," one colleague of his told Times of Malta.
"If the team is treated like this for doing their work, they will stop doing it."
The Medical Association of Malta was the first to break the news of Grech’s sudden redeployment, saying the coordinator – who it did not name – had been “removed” after he “had the courage to recommend caution on the consequences re-opening for the schools.”
The Malta Union of Teachers also condemned the personnel change, saying “all professionals are duty-bound to provide scientific advice about their own specialisation and this should never lead to their removal."
Nurses’ union chief Paul Pace said the incident showed there was “unacceptable” political interference in the medical profession and sent a chilling message to other professionals who had advice to give.
Pace called for Grech to be reinstated and urged the government to respect medical advice being given by professionals.
Church schools also called for Grech's immediate reinstatement, saying that he had "given very valid advice" concerning schools since the start of the pandemic.
"Dr Grech has been rendering a sterling service as coordinator of the COVID-19 team and always sought to safeguard public health," the Secretariat for Catholic Education said in a statement.
PN slams 'arrogance' behind decision
Opposition leader Bernard Grech said that news of Kenneth Grech's redeployment was evidence of Prime Minister Rober Abela's "arrogance".
"This is a prime minister who does not allow his medical experts provide advice that runs counter to what he wants, and who wants to decide everything himself without paying attention to anyone," Grech said.
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