Three cases of the more contagious variant of COVID-19 have been registered in Malta, health authorities have confirmed.

Two of the new infections are linked to people who arrived on the island from the UK, where it was first identified, while a third case is still being investigated.

Health Minister Chris Fearne first revealed the new variant had appeared in Malta in a tweet on Wednesday morning and Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci gave further details in a news conference in the afternoon.

The variant, first reported earlier this month by the UK, where it has been rapidly circulating, is said to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible. 

Both cases linked to travel are a 37-year-old woman and a 47-year-old man, who both arrived from the UK on December 19 and tested positive at the airport. 

The third person to contract the new variant is a 75-year-old Maltese woman, whose case is still being investigated, health authorities said. They did not say whether she had recent history of travel, how she contracted the virus or her condition.

News of the new variant has led to dozens of countries, including Malta, banning travel from the UK, except for repatriation of residents and citizens. 

Since the variant was reported, it has been confirmed worldwide, including in several European countries, mostly linked to people arriving from Britain.

However an infection in Canada was found in a couple who had no known travel history. 

Fearne appealed to the public to stay vigilant and safe.

Earlier this month, health authorities said they were planning to introduce new gene sequencing tests to identify any further strains of COVID-19 after the variant was detected in the UK.

Fearne said that samples would be taken from active cases in an effort to map out the scope of the disease in Malta with more detail. 

The announcement comes as the island is in the first week of a nationwide vaccination programme against the virus, with healthcare workers and the elderly first in line for the jab. 

In a statement, the Nationalist Party called for safer measures to avoid the importation of new infections and local transmissions. 

The government, it said, should ensure people observe rules issued by health authorities and avoid pressure on health services that could lead to repercussions on patients.

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