Updated 1pm with MHRA's reaction

Doctors are calling for a weekend curfew and stronger enforcement as they sound the alarm over the flow of COVID-19 patients to Mater Dei hospital. 

On Friday morning, the Medical Association of Malta said it was "seriously preoccupied" with the "persistently high number" of daily coronavirus cases, averaging more than 150 a day. 

They claimed that Mater Dei, in particular medical wards and the intensive care unit, could soon reach a breaking point and will not be able to cope with the flow of patients.

The association provided no figures to back that claim. 

Mater Dei has around 75 intensive care beds and 125 ordinary beds reserved for COVID-19 patients, health authorities said last October. Further beds are available at Gozo General Hospital and others, such as Boffa. 

As of Friday, January 15, there were 16 COVID-19 patients in Mater Dei's intensive care unit, seven in the infectious diseases unit and 35 others hospitalised in other wards, according to figures provided by public health chief Charmaine Gauci.    

The MAM recommended introducing a 9pm curfew from Friday to Sunday for at least two weeks, and scaling up enforcement on non-compliant establishments in particular at hotspots such as Paceville and Buġibba. 

This curfew should also be enforced on the two days following carnival Sunday.

In their statement, the doctors referred to a recent Eurobarometer survey which showed that 83 per cent of the Maltese were worried about possible infection with COVID - clearly the highest in the EU.

It was also clear that the vast majority of the Maltese wore masks and followed social distancing mitigations and the advice of the health authorities, MAM added.

"However, a minority of people chose to have a good time and ignored preventive measures between Christmas to New Year, causing the number of daily cases to rise sharply by four times for a period of a few weeks.

"MAM has repeatedly warned that daily rates should be kept below 100 per day, otherwise the health care system might not cope with the load. That point is now dangerously close."

MAM called for immediate action to break the "vicious cycle" of a minority of “risk-taking individuals" who pick up COVID-19 at social events over the weekend and then pass it on to their family members and work colleagues a few days later.

'Curfews are draconian'

Reacting to the doctors' comments, the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association said that curfews were draconian, unnecessary, and counterproductive if enforcement was adequately applied.

"Curfews will kill off the business of all restaurants or other places that operate in the evening. The authorities should and must ensure that those who do not abide by the rules are sanctioned, including closing their establishment if necessary," MHRA said in a statement.

"The introduction of any form of curfew will not only serve to create further hardship on the hospitality sector in particular hotels and restaurants, but more significantly will not achieve the desired objectives of better managing the spread of COVID."

MHRA believes that curfews will push activities underground.

It called on the government to ensure that those responsible for enforcement were adequately equipped to be more effective in enforcing the rules that are already in place, not only with restaurants but also private gatherings.

MHRA said that those who booked self-catering units such as farmhouses or apartments for weekend breaks will not be affected by a curfew as they will still carry-on partying indoors in defiance to social distancing protocols.

It added that such self-catering units should not be allowed to cater for more than four people, and fines should be imposed on those flouting the rules.  

The authorities, MHRA said, need to send a clear message that they mean business.

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