The long queues and waiting times experienced by hundreds of commuters between Malta and Gozo on Sunday, 24 July, were not down to some sudden traffic spike but, rather, a Covid-19 outbreak among the Greek crew members of the MV Nikolaos – the old Greek vessel Gozo Channel has been hiring for the past years.
The Shift is informed that the fourth vessel in the company’s fleet could not run its scheduled routes that day because the Covid-19 virus had spread among the crew and most of them had fallen ill.
The ship was seen stranded in the middle of the channel next to Comino, with many speculating that it had run into engine trouble.
Yet senior Gozo Channel officials have informed The Shift that the real reason was a serious outbreak of the virus that had infected most of the crew and which both the company and the Gozo ministry attempted to keep under wraps.
Joe Cordina, the state entity’s politically-appointed chairman, refused to provide any details as to why the ship was out of service on such a busy Sunday. Nor did he explain how the same vessel was put back into service the following day without explaining what had caused the stoppage just 24 hours earlier.
The Shift also asked Cordina to explain whether the ship’s Greek owners, who are being paid a staggering €13,000 a day out of the public coffers for the vessel’s lease, had managed to supply a new crew before the ship was put back into service.
People testing positive for Covid are required to quarantine for several days, yet the Nikolaos was back in service just a day after the outbreak, and Gozo Channel is refusing even to state whether a new crew had been brought aboard.
It is also unclear whether the ship had been fumigated before being returned to service.
Staff transferred to ministry for ‘cosier and less time-consuming work’
The Shift is also informed that the ailing state entity used before the general elections as another vote-buying machine dishing out jobs for Gozitans in exchange for votes is now ‘loaning’ its employees to the Gozo ministry.
Last week, several of the company’s employees turned up unannounced at Clint Camilleri’s ministry, saying they had been seconded to work there from Gozo Channel.
While still being paid by Gozo Channel, where they enjoy higher salaries than civil servants, some of the workers were given odd jobs at the ministry.
Sources said the move, unprecedented in Gozo Channel’s history, accommodated certain individuals who were promised “cosier and less time-consuming work” before the elections.
Gozo Channel has been in financial turmoil for the past years and is only being kept afloat by state subsidies.
An agreement with the European Commission allowing for some €700,000 in subsidies a year in the form of a Public Service Obligation (PSO) came to an end in 2017, and a public tender that was to have been issued to renew the concession remains unpublished.
Despite the government’s flagrant violation of EU rules, Brussels has not yet taken any legal action.
According to the 2022 budget, Gozo Channel is estimated to cost taxpayers some €10 million in state subsidies this year.