8th February 2022, 17:47
Relations between the Government and the former Director of Public Health have soured, ahead of a possible legal battle.
Following comments by Dr Sohail Bhatti to GBC, Number Six says they have not taken any legal action in the UK to limit any reporting of potentially life-threatening issues in Gibraltar.
The Government has confirmed it has instructed solicitors in Gibraltar to defend a claim made by Dr Bhatti for hundreds of thousands of pounds of additional remuneration.
Dr Sohail Bhatti was Gibraltar’s Public Health Director for much of the pandemic, until late 2021. Last September, the Chief Minister presented him with the Gibraltar Medallion of Honour in recognition of his "extraordinary contribution".
Last week, Dr Bhatti admitted on Viewpoint that something changed in his relationship with the Government towards the end of 2020.
After his interview, he told GBC he believed solicitors in London had been instructed by the Government or the GHA to issue an injunction - or gagging order - against the professional regulatory bodies in the UK that might seek to escalate any reporting by Dr Bhatti of potentially life-threatening issues in Gibraltar during his time in post.
He is now working in Slough, in the UK and is is due to do an annual professional appraisal, which is is required of all doctors registered with the General Medical Council (GMC). GBC understands this would be in the UK with an officer from the Faculty of Public Health.
Dr Bhatti says an appraisal is meant to be a confidential discussion amongst professionals, “but where issues of potential life-threatening findings are discovered regulators may feel the need to raise matters to a higher authority”. He has condemned any legal action which may have been taken that would prevent this.
He says “The GHA and Ministry cannot hope to improve if they limit honest, open and transparent discussion of mistakes, errors and oversights”. Dr Bhatti said “secrecy is the enemy of safety as the airline industry found decades ago”.
He said reviews and investigations of adverse events are routine in the UK, where the system learns from its mistakes. He alleges that this learning “is absent in Gibraltar in the GHA”.
… But, in response to GBC questions, a spokesperson for Number Six said: “No such action has been taken, either as GHA or as HMGoG”.
Last week GBC revealed that Dr Bhatti may be taking legal action against the Health Authority for alleged breach of contract.
However, the Government has confirmed it has instructed lawyers to defend the claim made by Dr Bhatti for what it says is almost £500,000 of additional remuneration. The Government says Dr Bhatti claims he is due this money because he worked long hours during the pandemic. A spokesperson for Number Six said these monies are being claimed over and above the 20% additional allowance that Dr Bhatti was already paid for COVID-19, which was on top of his salary of £191,122.30.
The Government says it will defend any claim brought by Dr Bhatti.
In response to the allegation that it might be seeking to gag the UK professional regulatory bodies that might seek to escalate any reporting by Dr Bhatti of potentially life-threatening issues in Gibraltar during his time in post, the GSLP-Liberal Government says it was the alliance “that introduced Gibraltar’s affiliation to the GMC and the aspects of regulatory benefits that this provides healthcare in Gibraltar”.
Dr Bhatti told GBC the sum he is claiming is £440,000, which he believes is fair based on what the Acting Medical Director got paid and the hours he knows he worked over three years, as evidenced by his diary. He stresses his contract was drafted before the pandemic.
In any case, Dr Bhatti says the dispute is not about money per se but about a Job Plan. The British Medical Association (BMA) says a clinical contract of employment - such as Dr Bhatti’s - should include a Job Plan: an annual agreement that is supposed to set out duties, responsibilities and objectives for the coming year, including specific pay arrangements negotiated for undertaking extra work.
According to Dr Bhatti, his requests for a Job Plan were repeatedly ignored whilst other consultants had theirs agreed. His position is that a Job Plan can be agreed retrospectively, but this has to be based on the work done.
Dr Bhatti says the GHA responded to him “immediately after” his Viewpoint interview on Thursday and says he is surprised that the response is being led by Gilbert Licudi QC. He points to the frequent contact and “extensive interaction” he had as Director of Public Health with Mr Licudi when he was the Minister for Education, the Port and the University. Dr Bhatti asks: “Can’t a firm as large as Hassan’s find someone without that conflict of interest?”
The Government and Mr Licudi have so far declined to comment on this aspect.