Have you ever sat in front of a tele­vision and cringed in embarrassment while watching a person taking questions? This is what happened to me as I watched our very own Minister of Tourism, Julia Farrugia Portelli, answer questions on BBC Breakfast regarding the reopening of our airports. I have not stopped thinking about that disastrous interview, which went viral and caused not only much amusement but also much concern.

I had already experienced that horrible feeling of deep embarrassment before when I watched her bumble her way through questions put by French reporters asking her about the abuses of our passport scheme. Whereas the former interview might have passed unnoticed because fewer people in Malta watch French television, this time, the BBC breakfast show was there for all Malta to see.

Farrugia Portelli being interviewed on the BBC.

Farrugia Portelli did not give one straight answer to some very direct and common sense questions, foremost of which were the following: how is Malta preparing to receive British tourists, when Britain has the worst COVID-19 infection rate in Europe; what is going to happen when a tourist steps onto our islands and falls ill; how long would the period (obviously, of quarantine) for other tourists and personnel in the same hotel be if that happens?

Her answers were so inane that the two highly professional journalists, Charlie Stayt and Nagy Munchetty, were totally justified in showing some slight impatience. Had some of us Maltese been there, we would probably have had a bigger go at her. My first reaction to the whole embarrassing interview is: why don’t we prepare ministers better when we send them to represent us, all Maltese, on an international channel?

But then, after seeing the horribly typed letter and the bad English used in an official letter to the Venice Commission, I ask myself why I am asking this question. Maybe some of us could form a volunteer team to proofread official letters in English sent to foreign entities, out of a sense of national duty, in order to avoid cringing embarrassment, especially since we live a country that advertises itself as a place to learn English.

Farrugia Portelli did not give one straight answer to some very direct and common sense questions

To sum up Farrugia Portelli’s answers: we have a good healthcare system; we will take temperatures at the airport; if some tourist falls ill, we will send the medical team and isolate them. Certainly nowhere near enough, Ms Farrugia Portelli! Our healthcare system has shown its efficacy during the COVID-19 outbreak because it was administered by competent people like Charmaine Gauci and Health Minister Chris Fearne, who, at least, as far as the medical sector is concerned, knows what he is doing. Neither of the two ever insulted our intelligence by appearing before a TV camera totally unprepared.

Farrugia Portelli kept telling the world and us that “we are totally geared up” but never illuminated anyone as to what this “geared up” meant. The first solution offered: that we will take temperatures at the airport, is certainly not reassuring enough. Is that the only ‘protocol’ we Maltese have to offer as a health precaution when faced with the onslaught of foreigners coming from a country with the highest rate of infection in Europe?

Her answer justifies the journalists’ question about whether Farrugia Por­telli understood anything about health statistics in the UK, which she manifestly doesn’t, unless she didn’t even understand the question. I would have added another question to that: what about people who opt to stay in Malta on a B&B arrangement? How are we going to monitor them?

Farrugia Portelli went on to tell us and the world that all hotels are “COVID tested”. Well, of course, they are free from COVID-19 at the moment, since they are practically empty! But how will Portelli Farrugia be protecting us, Maltese, from possible infections? By iso­lating a tourist if s/he develops symptoms? I would say that is the minimum. But what about the people this person comes into contact with? Are you going to place everyone in that particular hotel in qua­rantine, tourists and employees alike?

And, if yes, for how long? And how are you going to contact trace anyone else the tourist may have come across? If no such protocols are in place, can you please explain to us Maltese, who have patiently practically locked ourselves up for two months, what these protocols are? You owe these explanations to us before you owe them to anyone else.

We are not impressed with your solution of a “direct line to the health authori­ties”. Thank God, in Malta, everyone has a direct line to the health authorities – and during the worst COVID-19 period, there was a special number for this.

Farrugia Portelli should stop beating about the bush. She should produce some intelligent and direct answers to the questions that we, as Maltese, deserve to have answered and address our concerns. Or get someone more competent than her to do it. Before she opens the airport to every destination.

Vickie Ann Cremona is president of civil society organisations Repubblika.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us