It is a matter of weeks before Malta can start to reduce its defences against Covid-19, Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne told The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview – something which is down to the country’s strong vaccination efforts.
Speaking on the occasion of a year since the first Covid-19 case landed in Malta, Fearne said that it is the vaccine which gives the country the possibility to “attack” the virus. Up until the day that the vaccine arrived in the country, Malta was only defending against the virus.
Now, he said, as Malta remains vaccinating at double the European Union average rate, the country is fighting back against the virus – however even while this attack is going on, the country must continue to defend.
“There will be a time when we have attacked so much that we can reduce the defence – but that time hasn’t arrived yet. It’s not far – it’s a matter of weeks away – but we have to remain vigilant till then and as a government we need to identify where people are tired and keep pressing through education and measures with the proper enforcement”, Fearne said.
Fearne was speaking in an interview which took place on Wednesday – a day before the government announced a host of new measures which include the closure of restaurants and limits on household gatherings.
The measures came into force after Malta has seen record numbers of Covid-19 cases in previous days – with the average number of cases found in the last week standing at 285 every day.
Asked why, despite the ongoing vaccine process, cases are increasing at an unprecedented rate, Fearne put this down to two principal factors: the presence of the more transmissible UK variant of the virus in the community and pandemic fatigue.
On the latter point, which has seemingly become more prevalent, with an illegal rave even being organised last weekend, Fearne said that authorities had immediately understood that this would be a pandemic which will be long-term, and so implemented measures at the time which were not more severe than they needed to be. “The more restrictions you do, the quicker people will get tired”, he explained.
“From the get-go we followed what science was telling us. We didn’t do what was populist or what was being bandied around on Facebook – if we did we would have been going from one extreme to another”, Fearne said.
He noted that it doesn’t mean that the measures taken were always exact, as the science on the virus had to start from scratch and has evolved since – however, he added, the government’s policies have likewise evolved in parallel with science.
Those policies, he said, where to turn the “tsunami into a river” so that Malta’s health system could avoid being overwhelmed, much like hospitals across the world were. Measures – both in terms of restrictive measures and in terms of decisions to open new wards and ITUs and acquire equipment like ventilators – were taken with this in mind, he explained.
One of the most controversial decisions which the government did take was to reopen schools after the Christmas period – when Malta was facing a holiday-induced spike in cases. The government had argued that with schools open, cases would decrease – however, at least today, this has not materialised.
Asked about this, Fearne said that he has no doubt whatsoever that opening schools was the correct decision to take. He said that the government had recognised that the pandemic was to be a long-term situation, and he said that the country would never recover if children were to lose a year or two’s worth of education.
He said that originally there were no problems being faced in schools – cases were being found in adult school staff but not in students. The new UK variant however has been seen to affect children more, something which Fearne said has been identified to a lesser extent in Malta.
As a result, he said that measures “around schools” would be taken so that schools could remain open. In fact, the day after this interview took place, the government announced that all contact sports for children 16 years old or younger was temporarily banned.
Discussing the pandemic, Fearne was unequivocal in his belief that the vaccine is the tool which can change the course of the pandemic, and said that he firmly believes that herd immunity can be achieved by the end of summer. There is only one factor which might change this, he said.
“The only situation which can change this timeline is if variants emerge which today’s vaccines don’t work on”, Fearne said. This, however, is not the case so far.
“So far, there aren’t any such variants – the vaccines work on the UK variant, which remains the most prevalent. This includes the AstraZeneca vaccine; in fact studies in Scotland are showing that this is the vaccine which works the most against this variant – which is good because we have a million doses of those on order and because they are the easiest to administer”, Fearne explained.
Nonetheless, Fearne said that Malta is pushing – as it did with procurement of the vaccine itself – for a bloc-wide agreement for vaccines or booster shots against any particular variant.
“If you had to ask me what our biggest success was during the past year, I would tell you that it was that we managed to get all the countries in the EU to negotiate buying the vaccine together. Had we not done this, the big countries would have the vaccine and we wouldn’t – there are countries like Andorra or San Marino who still don’t have the vaccine.”
With over 90,000 doses of the vaccine administered up till Friday, Malta remains the EU frontrunner in the race to herd immunity. Asked about the uptake of the vaccine so far, Fearne said that the response has been “very good”.
He said that 94% of medical frontliners accepted to get vaccinated, adding that the 6% who did not get vaccinated yet did not do so because they were either pregnant, had a medical reason for not doing so, or where sick at the time of their appointment.
“We had practically nobody who refused the vaccine – which is not necessarily what is happening in the rest of Europe”, Fearne said.
Looking back on the past year as a whole, Fearne said that his biggest worry was seeing what happened in hospitals in Italy, Madrid, London, and New York amongst others happen in Malta.
“People were dying not necessarily because of the virus, but because they couldn’t be treated”, he said – a situation which had been avoided completely in Malta owing only to the “miracles” by those working in the health department – be them in leadership positions, management, or on the ground.
“We still had people dying, and unfortunately we will continue to have people dying, and these are all tragedies which affect our staff and even myself – but we can say that no person died because we could not care for them”, he said.
“The whole service rose to the occasion – our frontliners truly are heroes”, he added.