19 Feb 2021

The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has concluded that Prime Minister Robert Abela was not in breach of ethics when he replied to questions from journalists without wearing a mask.

This incident occurred on 23 October 2020, when the Prime Minister inaugurated the new tunnel underpass at Santa Luċija. Shortly after the official inauguration ended, several journalists approached the Prime Minister to ask questions. Dr Abela was wearing a facemask but removed it to answer the questions. This prompted a complaint to the Commissioner.

The Commissioner noted that it was ironic that the Prime Minister removed his mask to answer a question about the use of masks, but this in itself indicates that the incident was an oversight and it was not the Prime Minister’s intention to defy the regulations in any way.

According to a legal notice issued by the Ministry for Health a few days earlier, a mask was not required for official public speaking as long as the speaker kept a distance of at least two metres from other persons. In this case the distance between the Prime Minister and the journalists was shorter.

The Commissioner concluded that in the circumstances the Prime Minister should have kept his mask on, even if this would have made it harder for him to be understood, but bearing in mind that the Prime Minister and his team were wearing masks continuously (except for those minutes that gave rise to the complaint), the removal of his mask when faced with questions to which his replies would be reported by the media amounted to minor negligence and did not merit a finding of a breach of ethics. The Commissioner therefore dismissed the complaint.

The Commissioner stated that in such circumstances it would be advisable for the Prime Minister’s staff to ask journalists to move back, and for the Prime Minister not to answer questions (should he wish to remove his facemask) until they were at a distance of two metres. On their part, journalists should keep the required distance and for this reason the use of microphones on poles was recommendable.

The Commissioner’s report on this case is available from here.