[WATCH] Science and the crystal ball: Chris Fearne’s predictions

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne thinks the first COVID-19 vaccine could reach Malta in January... he also predicts Labour winning the election with same lead over the Nationalists

Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne
Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne

Bars and social clubs were shut a month ago and yet the number of new COVID-19 cases has not dropped dramatically. Bar owners justly feel that they have been made sacrificial lambs. What do you tell these people? 

I disagree. The pandemic had an impact on everyone in society. The worst off were those who ended up in hospital and those who died and their relatives… our elderly, some of who have spent weeks and months inside their homes were affected badly. It also hurt many commercial sectors, especially those dependent on tourism and now the leisure industry – bars, night clubs and social clubs. The numbers show that the measures we adopted were a success. In September, we were seeing the number of cases increasing on a weekly basis but now we have been seeing stable numbers for the past few weeks… we have an average of new cases per day of between 120 and 130, and that is how it stayed. The cases have not decreased and are not decreasing and that is why the existing measures, which are working, have to be kept in place. 

When we introduced the legal notice forcing bars and social clubs to close we did so until the end of November but unfortunately, we have had to extend it to the end of December.   

Christmas is coming and you, Charmaine Gauci and other health professionals have been asking people not to meet at each other’s houses and avoid parties. The reality is that many families will meet for Christmas lunch at each other’s house. Rather than simply warning people not to congregate, isn’t it better if you give them advice on how best to organise the family lunch in a safe way? 

The truth is that the safest thing to do is maintain social distance in an absolute manner with everyone staying at home by having a lockdown. We did not do that, have no plan to do it and we do not want to be in a position where it becomes necessary. We have limited the number of people who can gather in public to six… What is relevant for the public sphere also applies to our households. The virus makes no distinction between meeting people outside or inside. The difference is that in public we can enforce the limit through a law but in private we cannot and do not want to. We are appealing to people’s responsibility. 

Everyone is waiting for the COVID-19 vaccine. The studies are still ongoing and none of the companies have finalised them. When you tell people that we have to wait for a few more weeks, aren’t you being optimistic? Science can have setbacks. 

We say this because we are seeing the results of scientific work… we have agreements with six companies that are in the most advanced stages of producing the vaccine… From Pfizer, which is the company that appears to be closest to developing the vaccine first, we have half-a-million doses ordered… we have a similar agreement with AstraZeneca… Malta will be receiving its share with the first countries, whichever of these six companies produces the vaccine first. 

Pfizer is so close [to producing the vaccine] that in the last days of December, the European Medicines Agency will be evaluating the last submissions by the company. After all the trials they did, Pfizer feel comfortable enough to seek final authorisation from the EMA. If market authorisation is given, the vaccine will start being distributed at the start of the year and it will arrive in Malta within a few days. 

Some countries are announcing when they will start vaccinating people. I’m not sure whether this is just guesswork. When can Malta expect to receive the vaccine if Pfizer receive authorisation at the end of December? 

With Pfizer, we not only have vaccine orders but also logistical arrangements on how it will reach Malta. Pfizer are producing a vaccine that has to be kept at cold temperatures and so cannot arrive by airfreight and will have to be transported overland. When the vaccine is approved, and released, the first trucks will depart to Malta. The overland journey will take between four and five days, which means that within a week the vaccine will be here and we can start vaccinating people. We have the cold stores ready to store the vaccine. We know from where we will distribute it and who shall start receiving it first. 

The moment this vaccine is out there will be a rush for it, globally. What guarantee can you give that Malta will not lose out? 

The biggest achievement for Malta was to convince the other EU member states to agree on joint procurement of the vaccine through the European Commission. This was a Maltese initiative. In this way, the vaccine will be bought by the EU and not the individual countries. This was not going to happen initially and there were some countries that did not want the joint procurement. Eventually, a group of large countries – Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands – agreed to buy the vaccine jointly. Malta joined this group but kept insisting on an EU-wide system until the joint procurement was agreed. Every country knows exactly how many doses it will receive from each of the companies that have reached agreements with the EU. The vaccines are partly-funded by the EU and partly financed by the individual countries. 

Malta has enough vaccine doses to inoculate all people one-and-a-half times if need be. 

The vaccines will not arrive all at one go. What are we expecting in January? 

The vaccine will arrive in batches every month. We have plans on how we will start notifying people to offer them the vaccine. To start with, we will inoculate the front liners who deal with sick patients and the most vulnerable people – those aged 80 and over. There are other groups of people who will receive the vaccine when other batches arrive. To avoid confusion, as we speak, we are compiling a list of people entitled to receive the vaccine in the first two batches so that we can send them an appointment indicating the place and time where they can get inoculated. 

Our plan is to have everyone vaccinated within six months. It does not mean that we will wait six months to remove the restrictive measures because with more people inoculated the number of new infections will start to decrease and we will have fewer people treated at hospitals for coronavirus. 

These vaccines would have been developed in record time, considering that it normally takes years to produce one. There are people who are scared and question the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. What is your message to these people? 

The EMA will be certifying the vaccines for safety and efficacy. The normal standards adopted when producing all other vaccines remained in place. The bar during testing was not lowered for the sake of speed. What happened was that there was much more investment poured into the development process, which meant that research continued 24 hours a day unlike normal circumstances where scientists work an eight-hour day. Additionally, the regulator, unlike normal circumstances where it receives test results, analysis them and communicates back its conclusions, was performing a rolling analysis. 

EMA was seeing the test results in real time, which meant that while standards remained high, bureaucracy was cut and so the vaccine could be produced at a faster pace. There is no fear that this vaccine will have any more side effects than other vaccines. Every new vaccine can have its side effects but this is no different to when other vaccines are developed. 

Shifting to the political realm. On the 4th District you are in a pretty good position – Konrad Mizzi was axed from the Labour Party, Etienne Grech resigned from parliament, and in the latest reshuffle former parliamentary secretary Silvio Parnis lost his Cabinet job and is now saying he will not contest the next election. You are practically the only heavyweight on the district. 

I am going to contest the next general election on the 4th and the 3rd districts like I did in the last election. In the 2017 election I got 5,000 first preference votes in each district. I was already in a good position but I believe that you have to remain in touch with people and their problems. You have to treat an individual’s problem as if it were your own. This is what I have done and will continue doing irrespective of who will be contesting on my districts. But it is also important for the party to have a strong candidature on all districts. 

What is your relationship with Robert Abela? 

It is very good. I have known Robert Abela for a long time. We have been attending the same gym for many years. Obviously, in December and January there was the leadership contest. Robert won, I did not. Obviously, one sulks for the first few days but life goes on. I entered politics to serve… the party and whoever voted in the contest wanted me to continue serving as a minister and that is what I am doing… In every Cabinet, there is disagreement but finally when a decision is taken we all pull the same rope. The Prime Minister and myself work well together.

Is the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry uncomfortable for government? 

I believe the public inquiry, the first of its kind, symbolises the party’s and government’s credentials on the rule of law. We were the party in government that put the spotlight on itself, knowing full well the inquiry will concern elements in government. This is not only a sign of courage but of our belief in the rule of law.

With what is emerging from this inquiry and the various court cases connected to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, should the people trust the Labour Party in government again? 

I believe people should trust this government more than ever before. If there are allegations, conspiracy theories, or stories and you try to sweep them underneath the carpet and ignore them; that is the worst thing you could do. 

There were also facts, not just allegations. 

That will be established by the inquiry. We have to allow the inquiry to do its work… but opening up and shedding light [on government’s workings] helps increase transparency and the electorate’s trust. I don’t know any other government in this country’s history that opened itself up to scrutiny like this administration has done. We appointed a Commissioner for Standards in Public Life who came from the opposing political camp to scrutinise our behaviour and this shows that transparency does not bother us. 

Months before the last general election you had predicted the extent of the Labour Party’s victory. What is your forecast for the next election? 

As a party, we still have a lot to offer the electorate and our country… But I understand that the next general election will not be an easy one for us because it would be the second one which we will be contesting as a party in government. People normally decide how to vote based on what the Opposition says and what the government does. It’s easier to say things than actually do them… People will judge us on what we delivered and I believe this is good enough to help us retain the majority we obtained in the last general election.