Labour fought off last night’s action by PN but larger battle remains open

The government last night moved an amendment to the Opposition’s motion in parliament to revoke the privatisation of three hospitals and won the day, but the fight is far from over.

The votes went for the amendment, which offered support to the government in its negotiations with Steward Healthcare.

Although there was never any doubt that Labour MPs would vote as a block, the amendment and Robert Abela’s speech and timing (in the midst of a pandemic) gave any wavering MPs the cover they needed in the fight taken to them by the Opposition.

The PN attempted to sow discord among Labour MPs by characterising a vote against its motion as a vote against the people reclaiming their hospitals from the clutches of a foreign corporation.

Abela attempted to turn the troubling concession that his predecessors from his own ranks reportedly made last summer – that Steward would be paid €100 million if the contract were revoked – into an advantage. He said an immediate vote for the Opposition’s motion would cost the country €100 million.

The prime minister amplified this point by talking about the badly-timed motion amid a health emergency, claiming that the government would have taken a decision if it weren’t for the health emergency. He didn’t specify or indicate what the decision would be about, only rhetorically brandishing the supposed decision so as to depict the PN’s motion as premature.

That the government would exploit the health emergency to move amendments and easily defeat the Opposition was predictable to political observers. In fact, given this predictable outcome, mutterings in political circles questioned why the Opposition decided to move the motion now and give Labour an easy fight?

From the Opposition’s perspective, although they were aware they would lose this skirmish, the intention might have been to keep the larger battle alive and gain momentum towards the final outcome.

Then, the PN hopes to turn that final outcome into vindication or victory for the Opposition, something that Labour would seek to deny it by attempting to retain the initiative and own up to any eventual decision.

The PN believes – as does anyone with political insight, including many among Labour – that the unravelling of the hospitals’ privatisation deal, which has been going on for a few years, is intensifying.

The latest issue is Steward’s flimsy contribution to the coronavirus emergency. The picture that has emerged from The Shift’s investigative articles over the past six weeks is that it is probably or mostly the government that has organisationally led and funded Steward’s preparedness for possible coronavirus patients in Gozo.

This includes the scandalous payment of €1.6 million to Downtown Hotel for this month’s relocation of geriatric patients to below-standard premises paid at above-market rates – a largesse of the Ministry of Gozo to Downtown Ltd, even while the permit for the relocation by the Social Care Standards Authority was issued to Steward Healthcare.

All of this continues to contribute to the shift in sentiment in the country.

That decisive shift can be gauged among medical professionals at the Gozo hospital. After years of neglect during the PN’s tenure prior to 2013, the hospital had become rundown and the privatisation plan – including the entry of Barts medical school – was accepted by a majority of Gozo’s medical professionals as something that could bring investment and prestige to the hospital.

That hope has now been lost amid widespread revulsion towards money frittered in murky, apparently-corrupt dealings, and the idea that a central plank of the plan – medical tourism – was either a sham or a stillbirth. There’s still some confidence in Barts, although much diminished.

In this increasingly hostile or sceptical environment, the insertion of the clause last summer that would see Steward get €100 million if the government rescinds the deal, reportedly even if Steward contractually defaults, may have given reassurance to Steward and given pause to the gathering forces calling for an ousting.

Although it’s not clear at this stage whether that clause would save or reward Steward in any event, or whether it can be circumvented, most political observers believe that the departure of Steward is a matter of when, not if.

Read the investigation into the hospitals’ deal.


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