Over 500 foreign students who came to Malta to study English have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.
As the health authorities continue to grapple with a spike in the number of new cases all eyes have been on the unvaccinated youths in Malta to learn English, especially after the schools were ordered to shut because of clusters in many of them.
At least a quarter of the country’s active COVID-19 cases are young students who travelled to the island this summer.
The information was supplied to Times of Malta by the health ministry after Malta made its way back on to the EU’s travel red list amid reports hundreds of students have had to quarantine.
According to a ministry spokesperson, by the end of last week, “over 500 of the [active cases] were from students who came to study English”.
“Approximately 60 per cent of the daily cases are non-residents. One is also to note that the higher proportion of cases is in the under-19 age group,” the ministry spokesperson said.
Of those infected with coronavirus, 40 per cent are “not symptomatic”, the spokesperson added.
“Given the situation, the authorities immediately acted to keep in mind the need to protect the lives and livelihoods of the Maltese citizens, a consistent principle that has been guiding decisions throughout this pandemic,” the spokesperson said.
English language schools were forced to close last week as part of efforts to slow down the spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated young people.
Despite the schools’ closures, hundreds of students are still in Malta, with some, including a number of minors, in mandatory quarantine.
Sources have also suggested the authorities are currently struggling with contact tracing because of the spike in cases.
We are going to places that strictly speaking we didn’t have to go to
The fact that a good number of the students are still young is further compounding the issue, the sources added.
The decision to keep children in isolation has raised eyebrows both locally and abroad.
On Tuesday, two teenage students were rushed to hospital with food poisoning a few days before after being served undercooked chicken while in quarantine at a Pembroke residential facility run by a language school.
Meanwhile, the authorities have also had to organise repatriation flights for students from Italy, Germany, Spain and France. It is not yet clear who will foot the bill for the trips, when the students will be repatriated and if this applies to quarantined students who test negative to coronavirus.
In comments to Times of Malta, Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo said the schools formed an important part of the tourism sector and it was in the country’s interest to try push the industry back onto its feet with incentives.
Although he would not comment on the number of cases involving students, Bartolo gave assurances those in quarantine are well taken care of.
“From our end, especially through the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), we are conducting the inspections required,” he said.
“We are going to places that strictly speaking we didn’t have to go to. But we have taken the initiative and are going to inspect the conditions the students are living in,” he said.
Before summer, Bartolo was at the forefront of Malta’s post-pandemic tourism campaign launching several schemes in an attempt to lure travellers to the island.
In one of the schemes, aimed at boosting the English Language Tuition sector in particular, the government had offered students up to €300 in vouchers to spend anywhere on the island.
The scheme has since been rescinded after the schools’ closure was ordered.
It remains unclear how much was generated back into the economy through the scheme before it was cancelled.