Schools, gyms, and non-essential shops – amongst others – will close down while travel to Gozo is also being restricted, the government has announced.
In a press conference on the day that Malta reported a record-setting 510 cases of the virus, the Prime Minister announced a raft of new measures which heavily resemble the measures taken almost a year to day ago when Malta first started to face the pandemic.
PM Robert Abela said that various measures have been introduced over the past year according to scientific advice and changing circumstances. New challenges have presented themselves over the past few days, he said, announcing that over 60% of new cases found were linked to the more transmissible UK variant of the virus.
“It is clear that the vaccine is working and the rate of vaccination is very strong. More than 100,000 doses administered so far. But, while we attack with the vaccine, we need to defend with measures that stop the spread.”
Abela said new measures needed to be taken to protect the hospitals and reduce the infection rate.
As from Friday, shops offering non-essential services will remain closed. These include shops that sell clothes, sportswear, jewellery, perfumes, beaty products, soft furnishings, souvenirs, discount shops, toyshops and hoppy shops, florists, vaping shops, hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, tattooists and nail technicians.
Travelling to Gozo will be limited to essential activities and residents.
People cannot gather in groups of more than 4 outdoors. The mixing of households, even at private residences, is being greatly discouraged.
All organised sports, gyms, cinemas, museums and theatres will close down.
Weddings and religious activities will stop, but funerals will continue.
From Monday, educational institutions will close down until the start of the Easter holidays. Until then, lessons will be given online.
Abela said there was no need to introduce new measures at the airport and seaports because the measures in place were deemed to be sufficient.
Abela said there are clear priorities: to protect public health and the economy.
The businesses that are affected by these new measures will receive the full wage supplement for the duration of their shut-down.
Abela said the vaccination drive is crucial. He also insisted that the government will remain behind the country’s front liners.
Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne said that, at this time last year, Mater Dei Hospital had one Intensive Therapy Unit. There are currently three ITUs providing care for Covid-19 patients, apart from two other ones. Another ward is immediately available and a seventh one is on stand-by. There is also an ITU at the Gozo General Hospital.
“To be able to operate them we do not only need equipment but also human resources.
Non-elective surgery is being suspended so that the staff can help out at the ITUs,” he said. The Deputy Prime Minster said a plan is in place to make sure that waiting lists that will be created as a result of these measures will be addressed in the near future.
Fearne said the testing being used today not only gives a positive or negative result but also indicates which variant of the virus the patient is infected with.
He also said the vaccination programme is on track. “We are administering between 3,500 and 4,000 doses every day. 17% of the population has received the first dose and 8% have received both doses.”
Fearne also said that 55% of vulnerable people and 82% of the elderly have been vaccinated.
The European Medicines Agency is set to approve the fourth vaccine, made by Johnson and Johnson, of which Malta has 250,000 doses reserved.
Two more vaccination centres are set to open on Friday – one at MCAST and the other one at the Aurora in Gozo.
Avoid social contact
Fearne said the UK variant is highly transmissible and the only way to reduce the spread is to reduce social contact a much as possible. “People should be responsible and, where possible, avoid social contact.”
He also conceded that the contact tracing service is under greater strain due to the high case numbers. “We are increasing human resources in this sector so that we can reach positive persons within 24 hours and their contacts within a few days.”
Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci said the virus has always presented challenges and the variant is affecting transmission. “We always tried to control the situation while giving our patients the best quality care.”
The fact that the mortality rate is decreasing shows that the vaccine is successful in protecting the elderly and vulnerable, she said.
“It is true that these are harsh but it is important that we follow them rigorously,” she said.
Asked if the elderly should stay indoors, Gauci said that they should be more careful. If they need to go out shopping, they should avoid busy hours, and prevention measures such as the wearing of masks and handwashing remain as important as ever.
Fearne added that the measures in place at care homes will remain for the time being since the vaccine is still not 100% effective (but around 95%) and in view of the high numbers in the community.
No health emergency
Asked why he did not declare a public health emergency, the Prime Minister said the country was in a different scenario last year. “Back then, there was a lot we did not know and we did not have the vaccine either. We discussed with the experts. The easiest thing would have been to place all responsibility on Professor Gauci, but we decided to shoulder the responsibility together.”
Asked by this newsroom why he did not declare a lockdown, Abela said “the expert advice did not take us in that direction but, nonetheless, we are stepping up measures to restrict measures to essentials only.”
Gauci added that the measures taken are “always proportionate to the situation.”
Asked if he still wants to be Prime Minister and whether he still feels he is the right man for the job, Abela said he will keep working with determination so that the country emerges from this challenge.
MUMN President Paul Pace told The Malta Independent earlier today that the increase in cases means that doctors will have to start choosing between who will live and who will die, while MAM President Martin Balzan while speaking to this newsroom appealed to the public to take matters into their own hands and stay at home, rather than to wait for the government to issue restrictions.
The government’s press conference can be followed below, and will be updated live. Keep refreshing for new details.