Two of Malta’s wealthiest businessmen pocketed €6.2 million earlier this year from a direct order tender issued by the ministry of health for ‘outsourcing services of nurses, managers and clerks as part of the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out programme’, The Shift has learned.
The deal, awarded in April of this year via a short-notice negotiated procedure tender, was assigned to Healthmark Care Services, a company owned by Silvio Debono’s DB Group and James Barbara’s James Caterers.
Two weeks ago, The Shift reported that Barbara and Debono are also set to get their hands on a further €7.69 million negotiated procedure contract spread out over 12 months for the provision of residential nursing and caring services provided through the Ministry for Active Ageing.
The request for participation (RFP) was issued by the health ministry’s Central Procurement and Supplies Unit on 24 February, with the time frame for applications closing 14 days later on 10 March. In those two weeks, a total of three applications were received, all filed by Healthmark Care Services. No other applications were listed in the schedule of participation (list of interested parties) published by the ministry’s procurement unit.
Debono and Barbara’s business interests regularly intertwine with major government contracts. The National Audit Office had made it clear that a highly irregular €327 million concession involving home for the elderly St Vincent de Paule and a company also fronted by Debono and Barbara was essentially overcharging taxpayers. The government is shelling out €60,000 a day, with the direct order being renewed illegally upon expiry several times.
The office further outlined that it had found sustained evidence of the pricing being inflated through flawed cost estimates for the project.
However, rather than acting on the findings of the NAO report, with ministers repeatedly refusing to take responsibility while simultaneously promising that the report would be ‘studied’, the government continues to grant lucrative contracts to two of the most well-known political party donors on the island.
To date, no official decision has been taken on a way forward from the NAO’s report or on whether Debono and Barbara should be awarded any further contracts given the serious irregularities that have been flagged.
No official explanation was provided as to why the service was deemed urgent enough to warrant for such a short-notice negotiated procedure, although EU Commission public procurement guidelines do allow for fast-tracking of COVID-19 related services.
However, the same guidelines also explicitly outline that contracted authorities should duly substantiate the reasons for any form of accelerated procedure, along with making sure the call for services is made available to a range of competing bidders.
Authorities are also allowed to negotiate directly with potential contractors in the case of a negotiated procedure without prior publication. However, it also stipulates that such a procedure should only be used as “a stop-gap solution” until a more permanent way of addressing shortcomings is established.
The guidelines add: “The negotiated procedure without prior publication should continue to be used on an exceptional basis in order to avoid market distortions and unnecessary breaches of the general principles of public procurement”.
The negotiated procedure contract was awarded on the tail end of Malta’s drive to vaccinate its entire population against COVID-19. According to Reuters’ data, 81.4% of the population is now fully vaccinated. Since the start of the pandemic in Malta, a total of 436 deaths have been attributed to the pandemic, with a total of 35,831 cases detected and 34,312 recoveries as of 23 August.