Charmaine Gauci among medical experts critical of ‘open for business attitude’ during pandemic

A paper published in an international medical journal has five health care experts lashing out at false assurances given by “non-health authorities” and mass gatherings which triggered a dangerous second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Malta.

The paper, co-authored by five experts including Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci, is significant because it criticises decisions taken by the government and refers to “inconsistent” statements made by Prime Minister Robert Abela.

“Inconsistent messages were disseminated to the population from some sectors outside health, reassuring the public that ‘everything is under control’ and ‘Malta is open for business’, issuing false signals that COVID-19 was over and all touristic activities could resume without limitation,” the medical profeessionals state.

“Everything is under control” and “Malta is open for business” are two of the most common phrases used by the Prime Minister during his appearances on Labour Party media. He was quoted as saying the “situation was under control” as recently as 23 August.

The paper, published in the Journal of Community Health, was penned by Gauci, Medical Association of Malta president Martin Balzan, Mater Dei’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Aguis, as well as Sarah Cuschieri from the Faculty of Medicine and Victor Grech from the Department of Paediatrics at Mater Dei.

Gauci has become a household name, due to her daily appearances at press conferences updating the public on the COVID-19 situation in Malta. She was praised for her composure and professional manner in reassuring the public about the spread of the pandemic.

Her name on this paper raises the question of whether she is taking a public stance against the Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic.

Recently, when the government chose to disregard professional advice and open the country to tourists, Gauci’s presence on national television was reduced to once a week. Speculation was rife that she had clashed with the Prime Minister and Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli on the handling of the pandemic.

It had become clear that the Prime Minister would only be present for press conferences announcing good news, and would leave Health Minister Chris Fearne and Gauci to fend for themselves when bad news had to be announced.

During one of the peaks in the number of infection rates in August, the Prime Minister was criticised for spending a long weekend on his luxury yacht in Sicily while the health authorities were left grappling with the crisis.

While Balzan has been openly criticised government decisions that led to a spike in infection rates, another author who stands out is Aguis who is is the brother of Labour Party MP Chris Agius. Sources within the medical services describe him as one of the best health services managers, noting that “his signature on this paper carries significant weight”.

The Journal of Community Health is a scientific publication.  Its expert papers are written with the aim of sharing research and experiences with scientists and officials in other countries.

“There’s no two ways about it. Malta’s mass events were a major blunder. This is what the paper is clearly stating,” one of the authors told The Shift.

‘Poster child of Europe falls victim to second wave’

“Malta, the poster child of Europe’s COVID-19 first wave success, fell victim shortly after it welcomed the first tourists on 1 July 2020,” the paper starts.

The Shift had earlier reported that the same people who had received millions of euros through Malta Tourism Authority sponsorships were promoting mass events in Malta targeting British party-goers and marketing Malta as Europe’s party destination for the summer.

The paper notes that it was not the opening of the airports which brought about a significant rise in infections, but the mass gatherings organised.

“Stability was disrupted when two major mass events were organised, despite various health professional warnings. In a matter of just a few days, daily cases rose to double-digit figures, with high community transmission, a drastic rise in active cases, and a rate per hundred thousand in Europe, second only to Spain.”

“Malta is an island, and the potential for containment would have been relatively simple and effective, but permitting mass gatherings was unwise,” it states.

The paper lashes out at the MTA for promoting “Island festival hotspots” attracting young adults from across Europe, particularly “while other countries had restricted such organised mass events”.

MTA Head of Events Lionel Gerada saying Malta had a unique opportunity due to other party destinations being closed down due to the pandemic.

MTA Head of Events Lionel Gerada kept insisting the pandemic had provided a unique opportunity for Malta, even dismissing COVID-19 as “media hype“.

These statements were made at a time when Gauci, along with the Minister of Health, continued to stress the importance of remaining vigilant.

“The combination of the influx of tourists, relaxation of social distancing measures, lack of coherence with mitigation standards in place after relaxation of measures, irresponsible behaviour, especially among youths and mass events, produces the ‘lethal cocktail’ and onset of the second wave in Malta,” the medical professionals noted.

                           
                               
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