Restaurants and cafes are being ordered to close until April 11, while private family gatherings are being limited amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, Robert Abela said on Thursday.

In a reaction to a record number of COVID-19 cases, the prime minister told a press conference that bars and clubs will remain closed and the fine for those breaking the rules will be doubled to €6,000.

The prime minister announced that:

• Restaurants and other catering establishments can only offer take-aways;

• Events in private homes can only host people from a maximum of four households;

• Mass organised events have been banned, except for weddings and religious events;

• Contact sport for children younger than 16 has been banned;

• Public workers must work from home when possible. The private sector is being encouraged to follow suit;  

• Wage supplement extended to June;

• €100 fine for every person caught in breach of the law;

• Fines for establishments which break the law will double to €6,000

• Measures will apply until April 11.

During the press conference, a visibly tense prime minister admitted he has been under immense pressure in last weeks as the figures mounted and demands increased.

But he said the government will continue helping businesses impacted by the measures and will be extending the wage supplement to June.

He said restaurants which want to go online will also be assisted. The restaurants and kiosks will go back on full wage supplements.

"I am very proud of every single one of you," Abela said as he sought to instil confidence in the future, pointing to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

UK variant causing more infections among children

Malta currently ranks fourth in the EU in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, according to the weekly European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control statistics released on Thursday. 

Health Minister Chris Fearne said there is no doubt that the increased number of new cases was a cause for concern with the UK variant of the virus appeared to be largely to blame for the increase.  

He said the number of patients in hospital had increased but the hospitals could handle the demand.

Fearne said the vaccine was working and very good results were being seen abroad and also in Malta. In Malta there were no people aged over 80 in intensive therapy wards.

Thirteen per cent of the population has been vaccinated so far, half of them also with the second dose. 

"It’s important to get the vaccine if you’re invited. We need to speed up vaccination and slow down the spread," he said. 

Fearne said that the authorities did not wish to close schools, because of the importance of education and now that teachers are being vaccinated.

But sports and other activities for children are being stopped for a few weeks because the UK variant is causing more infections among children. Although the cases were not serious, the virus could then be transmitted to adults.

Charmaine Gauci, Superintendent of Public Health called for increased vigilance by everyone in view of the UK variant, which is far more infectious than the original form of COVID-19.

She said that over 7,000 people are currently in quarantine.

Asked if gyms, hairdressers and other activities will remain open, the prime minister said they have to operate within the current protocols and he was urging people to be responsible.

Cinemas, theatres and museums may also remain open provided they continue following the existing protocols.

New testing kits to identify variants immediately

Fearne said there are currently some 150 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, which was not much more than recent months. 

He said new PCR testing kits have been imported that will show in real time which of the patients who test positive have the UK variant. 

Asked about enforcement and whether he still expected Malta to return to "business as usual" in May, as he had pledged, the prime minister said the government would maximise its resources on enforcement.

The authorities cannot knock on all doors in Malta, he said, but they would immediately investigate any known cases where too many people were meeting.

As for the return to normality, he said he would continue working with all his energy to ensure this country recovers. 

Asked if he would apologise for his declaration about normality by May, Abela fired off a long list of reasons why he should not apologise, including unprecedented spending on preventive measures, measures to save jobs and businesses, the issuing of vouchers and plans for another round of vouchers. 

Abela also defended Gauci of claims that she had succumbed to political pressure.

Dire forecasts of deaths never materialised

The prime minister said the government had faced dire forecasts of a large number of victims during the start of the pandemic. While some deaths were unfortunately inevitable, all involved had managed to protect the country in the medical, social and economic spheres. As a result, unemployment had remained at the same level as last year. 

Earlier in the press conference, Abela and Fearne stressed that all of the government's decisions were faced on science and the medical facts on the ground. 

The new measures, he said, had been written for him by Fearne and Gauci while he was ill at home. It was his responsibility, he said, to safeguard people's lives as well as livelihoods. 

The government had been facing pressure to take decisive action to curb COVID-19 after a record 362 daily cases was announced on Thursday. Four more victims were also announced, two men and two women.   

COVID-19 cases have surged over the past week, hitting repeated records, and the Malta College of Pathologists earlier in the day observed that the island Malta has one of the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in Europe and one of the fewest restrictions.

Home Affairs minister, Byron Camilleri, however, defended the level of enforcement, saying that in the first two months of the year, the police and LESA issued 2,300 fines.

The College of Pathologists said on Thursday that new mitigation measures should include banning the mixing of families, reducing the numbers of people allowed to gather, and temporarily closing non-essential services. Strict enforcement of measures is also needed, it said

It said measures should be escalated during the Easter holidays, including banning of family gatherings, banning holiday travel to Gozo and enforcement of strict measures in restaurants. 

Similar calls were made by other bodies and trade unions earlier in the week. 

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