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Government’s Decision was CLINICAL NOT POLITICAL - 372/2021

May 14, 2021

Government’s Decision was CLINICAL NOT POLITICAL: Clinical advice from GHA Gold Commander and the Clinical Director of CCU to Government was not to film ill or dying patients

The Opposition, as usual, have shot from the hip in a cynical and calculated manner on the question of whether media access should have been allowed inside the hospital at the height of the pandemic.

Their latest statement on the grant of access to GBC to St Bernard’s Hospital in January is full of inaccuracies and their approach is as reprehensible as it is irresponsible.

It is deeply saddening that the GSD have chosen to make a political football of such a sensitive matter without the full knowledge of the facts and without bothering to seek a private or public explanation from the Government and instead assuming that they know the facts.

In fact, the Government has at every stage acted in good faith, in the interests first and foremost of patient care and seeking to provide the maximum access to all media to information and whatever other resources have been available.

The plain fact is that a decision to allow any GBC reporter and camera to film inside a hospital at a time of serious infection and death is not one that can be taken lightly.  A request from the national broadcaster, and others, to film and photograph inside St Bernard’s was politically acceptable to the Government and was approved by No6 and would have been approved by the Ministry for Health subject to the clinical advice confirming it was safe and appropriate.  Nonetheless, as there needs to be a careful balance drawn between the understandable desire of a broadcaster to report on the news, on the one hand, and the need to respect patient confidentiality and privacy, on the other, the Government sought clinical advice on the requests. It is true that in other parts of the world film crews have entered hospitals and subsequently broadcast images of overwhelmed health services with patients waiting in corridors in obvious distress or at the doors of death.   In Gibraltar, however, there is only one hospital and the identification of patients is easier than it would be in other nations, thereby potentially more likely causing distress to relatives who might not have had access to their loved ones at such a time.

The Opposition need to remember that GBC, by their own admission, formally requested permission to film inside the hospital on 7 January. On that day, there were 22 positive cases in the COVID ward, 8 positive cases in the CCU, 78 positive cases in ERS, 1180 active positive cases of COVID in Gibraltar as a whole and already 11 people had sadly lost their lives.  This was probably the most testing moment in the history of our health services.

It must be obvious to everyone that the staff at the GHA and at ERS already had enough on their plate - in full and uncomfortable PPE - without having the additional pressure (as the clinicians saw it) of having a GBC reporter and camera thrust upon them as they went about the business of making patients more comfortable at the end of their lives and saving their lives.

Moreover, this was precisely the clinical advice given to the Government and the view that was taken by senior medical staff at the GHA and by GHA Gold Command itself which was strongly opposed to media access at a time when families could not even visit their dying relatives and when the staff were under intense pressure.

The reason why consideration was, nonetheless, given to the use of a private film crew was at the express request also of the senior clinicians in the GHA, to maintain a record for posterity and for use in the GHA’s own internal debrief on the pandemic. It was argued at the time BY THE CLINCIANS ADVISING THE GOVERNMENT that this was the best compromise.  The Government acceded to the clinician’s request and advice.

Therefore, the privately filmed footage would have been and remained private. It was not intended for broadcast through the airwaves for all and sundry to find their seriously ill or dying relatives unexpectedly appear on a television screen in front of them. While the Government understands why GBC might be disappointed at this situation, it is clear that an analysis of the facts and of the context does not bear out the wild accusations that have been made by the Opposition.  What is remarkable is the Opposition’s blatant attempt to unscrupulously seek to exploit that this sensitive issue and the absolutely right and proper advice of the clinicians, which the Government stands by.

Moreover, the Government has issued a huge amount of information to the press and to the public throughout the two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic that have hit Gibraltar. This has included daily and then weekly press conferences, it has included providing unrestricted access to the medical and public health protagonists, the provision of detailed statistics on a daily basis and providing the answers to innumerable press questions. The current criticism is therefore unfair and uncalled for. The reality is that the Government has worked in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation with the media and that this will continue going forward.

The Opposition, for its part, would do well to ponder on the exaggerated distortions that they have put forward and on the consequences of taking their position to its logical conclusion. This would have meant having disturbing images of dying or seriously ill Gibraltarian patients plastered all over our television screens, as has happened elsewhere. Therefore, as so often happens, Mr Azopardi does not have a clue as to what he is talking about when he shoots off ‘half-cocked’ and he should be ashamed of himself for the position where he has taken the GSD on this delicate and sensitive matter.

The Chief Minister, the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP, said: ‘I personally approved the GBC request for filming but always – as everything else we did during the pandemic - subject to the GHA clinicians’ concerns being satisfied.  My Cabinet colleagues and I put those clinical issues first.  I know that was the right thing to do.  I am totally confident that the vast majority of the public will agree that it was right to follow the CLINICAL advice on these issues and not to permit POLITICAL or MEDIA considerations to trump the medical considerations on this.  Mr Azopardi has been Minister for Health and he should understand the sensitivity of these matters more than most, but he has really let himself down over this issue, shooting from the hip like a frustrated cowboy without first ascertaining the facts.  What is now clear, however, is that the GSD and Mr Azopardi would have allowed their egotistical desires to seek political advantage to prevail over the clinical advice of what was best for the patients and the GHA in the middle of the pandemic.  The GSD and Mr Azopardi would have looked first at their media strategy and not at their clinical strategy when faced with a broadcaster’s request to film in the GHA.  Given their chequered history of censorship against the media when they were in Government, the GSD had better realise that they have no lessons to teach us on press freedom. Given the facts now demonstrate how wrong Mr Azopardi has been, he might want to apologise to the clinicians who made absolutely the right decision in respect of this matter and withdraw his ridiculous statement.’