Dr Muscat: ‘Government did not ignore STAC but had to act fast’

MINISTERS were forced to ‘react rather than delay’ and make tough decisions, the deputy medical officer for health has said as he defended the government for failing to consult scientific advisers before issuing guidance about Christmas gatherings.

Dr Ivan Muscat. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30072215)
Dr Ivan Muscat. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30072215)

Dr Ivan Muscat said that ministers did not ignore advice from the Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell and had to act quickly to avoid public confusion.

Minutes released this week from STAC meetings suggest that members of the cell were left ‘questioning the group’s role’ after ministers made a decision about Christmas gatherings without seeking advice.

And in a meeting in September, Dr Muscat said that he was opposed to changing the criteria under which an area was classed as green for travel purposes. A green zone had been classified as being somewhere with up to 25 cases per 100,000 people. However, the government increased that to up to 50 cases per 100,000.

The minutes from the meeting state: ‘The Consultant in Communicable Disease Control [Dr Muscat] opined that the local controls appeared to be performing well when compared with neighbouring jurisdictions where the infection rates were increasing and did not believe that it would be helpful to make the requested change at this juncture.’

However, following the publication of the minutes, Dr Muscat defended the government’s decisions.

He said: ‘A number of individuals from STAC, such as myself and [medical director] Patrick Armstrong, attend Competent Authorities and Council of Ministers meetings. There are times when, in an emergency situation, it’s safer to react rather than delay and cause confusion among the public. It wasn’t a question of STAC being ignored; there are times when it’s necessary to act much more quickly.’

Defending the actions of ministers, Chief Minister John Le Fondré explained that while STAC played a fundamental role, it was sometimes necessary to move at speed and take decisions before the committee could be convened. He pointed out that members of STAC did attend meetings of the Competent Authority decision-making group of ministers and took part in discussions.

He said: ‘When ministers were briefed by STAC at the start of December, they were informed that there were more cases in hospital and in the community and that the R rate was 1.6-2.0. It was also clear that, after gently declining for the previous few days, the number of positive cases, and importantly the positivity rates, were rapidly increasing.

‘Ministers had already made mask-wearing and contact-tracing legal requirements and the permitted size of gatherings had been reduced. A hospitality circuit-break was agreed following advice from STAC. Then, after a briefing from the interim director of public health policy, in the presence of the deputy medical officer of health, [who both attend STAC] ministers decided it was essential to limit the potential for uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 by limiting gatherings over Christmas and new year. It is clear that these measures needed to be taken and that they have worked.’

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