Chris Fearne and Silvio Schembri avoid questions on start of air ambulances

Health Minister Chris Fearne and Economy Minister Silvio Schembri have both avoided providing any details about the start of the air ambulance service between Gozo General Hospital and Mater Dei – even after two new choppers were purchased by Steward Healthcare.

The clear lack of answers in the past few months raises questions about precisely when and how the air helicopters are going to be used.

Gozo General Hospital is one of the three state hospitals run by private company Steward Healthcare, which is being paid €70 million per year, or €188,000 per day from the Maltese government.

During a COVID-19 press conference in Gozo on 28 March, Fearne announced that two Airbus Helicopter EC135’s were launched by Steward “in the last few days”. When replying to parliamentary questions filed by Nationalist MP Kevin Cutajar two days later, he clarified that the service was renewed on 19 March and was operated by Gulfmed Aviation Services.

However, in the same set of parliamentary questions, Fearne failed to answer questions about when the air ambulance will be used and where it would land in both Malta and Gozo.

These were not the only instances where the government failed to give details when questioned about the helicopter service. On 10 March, Gozo Shadow Minister Chris Said asked Schembri about the preparations underway for air ambulance service that was “announced a year ago”.

In a parliamentary question, Said specifically asked whether the service would begin before summer and, if not, the month and year these were scheduled to operate.

In his reply, Schembri completely avoided answering the question: “The connectivity between the islands remains a priority for this government. The connection via air was made up of a series of initiatives, which the government is working on to keep implementing, all the while respecting long-term sustainability as well as the environment.”

Said pressed Schembri on the issue again on 2 April and filed a parliamentary question, bluntly asking the minister to answer it “in its entirety”. However, Schembri replied that he had “nothing else to add”.

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In January, Steward Healthcare announced improvements to the air ambulance service, saying “the new service is expected to come into effect in February 2020”. 

“We are not only fulfilling our obligations under the concession but going above and beyond to make sure that the highest level of care is provided to our patients, notwithstanding the cost,” company president Nadine Delicata said

Since then, the company has faced criticism on its contribution to the national crisis that emerged as a result of COVID-19. In March, Delicata then addressed the government’s health briefing in Gozo and said the transportation of patients infected with coronavirus would occur by ferry or air ambulance.

The Shift revealed last month that coronavirus patients in Gozo were being transported to Mater Dei by ferry – a move that was criticised even by medical professionals in Malta for increasing the burden of the workload as well as potentially increasing the spread of the virus.

PN MP Kevin Cutajar asked Fearne to explain the measures being implemented to protect the crew, medical team and the general public during the transportation of coronavirus patients on board the ferry. Fearne did not reply to the question. 

In a separate question, Cutajar also asked why these patients were not transferred by the recently inaugurated air ambulances. Fearne said the decision “about who and how patients will be transported between the Gozo Hospital and Mater Dei is a joined, clinical decision between medical teams of the two hospitals, always in the best interest of the particular patient and according to protocols”.

The Steward Healthcare contract with the Maltese government, which is for a potential 99 years so guaranteeing €7 billion in revenue, has come under scrutiny as the role of the American company is questioned in light of the pandemic. Further controversy was fuelled following revelations that a new contract signed in August 2019 permitted Steward Healthcare to receive a contribution of €100 million from taxpayers even if it failed to meet commitments.

Steward Healthcare paid the total sum of €1 to take over the concession from Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) for three of the country’s public hospitals, while the original once-secret owners left with millions.

                           
                               
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