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Steward: If not now, when?

During a press conference devoted to how seriously the government was taking the national interest, in the face of the coronavirus, the Prime Minister was asked about the role of Steward Healthcare. It was an inevitable question. It’s on everyone’s lips. What wasn’t inevitable was the answer.

Steward has taken ownership of three of our hospitals, practically for free, with the promise that it would increase the number of hospital beds available to us and improve the quality of healthcare. Since then, Steward has been conspicuous by its missed investment deadlines. It even owes money to the government.

Its role in combatting the pandemic is also a mystery. When this website asked Steward directly, all it got was waffle and something about participation in ‘the second phase’ of combatting the virus. But questions to the government about what this phase entails have remained unanswered.

Now, it’s official. The government’s position on Steward’s role is: It’s not the time to raise such issues.

The government wants to take credit for acting decisively in commissioning a prefabricated hospital to be ready in eight weeks – but questions about three hospitals already built are brushed away as untimely.

There’s more. We’re told that, had it not been for the coronavirus, the outstanding questions with Steward would have by now been settled. Interesting, if for the wrong reasons.

First, the question wasn’t about settling issues with Steward, which is demanding further concessions. It was about whether Steward had any obligations in the current crisis.

That question was avoided. We must assume that Steward has no obligations that Malta can enforce. So much for the public interest of the deal struck by Joseph Muscat and cronies. The deal is not only bad. The government knows it is. Why else avoid answering?

Instead, we get an implied assurance to a different question: that, after this crisis is over, a new agreement can be reached between the government and Steward.

But how can Robert Abela be so confident, given that there is a magisterial inquiry underway? The magistrate could conclude that the concession deal to Steward’s predecessor warrants charges be brought. That would blow any new understanding with Steward out of the water.

By the way, the new arrangement that Abela has in mind will still see Malta needing a prefabricated hospital for the future. The government intends to buy the hospital about to be built –  in case of a second wave of COVID-19 or future pandemics.

Even the reassurance, that a deal could easily have been reached with Steward had the pandemic not broken out now, turns out to raise questions about Steward’s role in future public health crises.

None of this inspires public trust. It’s not transparent. It does not add up. It makes any reasonable person doubt that the government is levelling with it. It looks like the cover-up of past misdeeds is taking precedence over the national interest.

This is about much more than a deal that stinks. It’s about more than the hospitals themselves. Other doctors and medical resources are being stretched to the limit to take up the slack. The financial resources that have been sunk into Steward (to the tune of €188,000 a day), and the funds needed for the prefabricated hospital, are diverted from addressing the economic crisis.

Nor is the financial issue just about addressing the economic crisis. It will haunt the aftermath. Putting the crisis behind us means building back the nation’s economic strength: paying for the public spending.

No one grudges the vast sums that need to be spent to save jobs and industries. But once we begin to pay for it, our government will need the moral authority to persuade us that our sacrifices are fair. Otherwise, there will be political and economic unrest that, in themselves, will put recovery in peril.

No government can exercise moral authority if it is distrusted about something fundamental to how the whole pandemic is being addressed. The government knows it. Abela felt the need to insist that when the airport was being closed down it had nothing to do with Muscat’s return from the UK.

But the issue, at this stage, is public perception. It is telling that so many do not exclude that the Prime Minister is undertaking certain actions to protect private interests, not the national one. His lack of transparency is wearing out his credibility.

That’s not a win for his critics. It’s a problem for the country.

Mater Dei emergency doctors being sent to work at Steward’s Gozo Hospital

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