Updated 2.50pm with reactions by the doctors union and the UĦM insisting on a lockdown -
Ordering a complete lockdown of the country to halt the spread of the coronavirus is premature at this stage and would cause more harm than the virus itself, the prime minister warned on Saturday.
Robert Abela said the government was acting in line with the advice of public health experts, led by Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci and pathology professor Chris Barbara.
Their assessment, he said, was that mitigation measures should be introduced gradually and there was no need to lock down the country at this stage, with no confirmed cases of local transmission.
“I don’t want our people to suffer any more than they need to. Lockdown will effectively be house arrest. The suffering it will cause will be much bigger than the harm caused by the virus itself,” the prime minister said.
Abela begins answering questions about a lockdown at around 25 minutes into the video.
“Public health officials are not telling us that a total lockdown right now will lead to the desired result,” Abela said.
“It would be the easier thing for the government to just order everything to shut down. But looking at the numbers, it is not warranted.”
Public health experts argue that the key to weathering the impact of COVID-19 is in managing the rate of infections, to prevent a sudden spike in hospital admissions that might overwhelm hospitals and healthcare systems.
Abela made a similar argument on Saturday.
"You can have 100 cases in a day, or 100 cases over three to four weeks. We want to aim for the latter," he said.
"The secret to success is to not have a huge spike in transmissions".
Doctors' union reacts: 'lockdown a necessary sacrifice'
In a reaction the MAM doctors' union, which had called for a lockdown, said Abela's statement that a lockdown would cause more hardship than the coronavirus appeared to be in direct contradiction to his declared intention to introduce it at more troubled times.
"Undoubtedly it will be a necessary sacrifice," the union said.
"This is a new disease and there is no textbook solution, but we must learn from other countries' mistakes," the union said.
The problem about waiting for confirmation of local person-to-person transmission was that there would a significant time lag between infection and clinical illness.
"This means that a lockdown would then come into effect only after there is uncontrollable spread, with potentially devastating consequences on human health. This is more probable in a small and densely populated country like ours," the union warned.
Length of lockdown
Doctors and unions have said that the country should shut its borders and order everyone to remain inside their homes for a three-week period to contain the spread of the virus.
But Abela questioned their logic, saying it was not clear on what basis they had decided that a lockdown order would only last for three weeks.
Hubei province in China, where the COVID-19 virus is believed to have originated, remains under lockdown almost eight weeks since it was first ordered on January 23.
Delia demands lockdown
Opposition leader Adrian Delia is also calling for a complete lockdown, arguing that introducing one earlier could have prevented some of Malta's 18 known COVID-19 cases.
"It is time to close the country to all incoming passengers," he said, adding that a lockdown would mean "having fewer people on the streets and on public transport, reducing the risk of transmission from one person to another".
Delia was speaking during a meeting he held with social partners on Saturday.
The UHM Voice of the Workers in a statement said it supported calls for a lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.
It observed that many establishments had, on their own initiative, taken lockdown measures, but a national lockdown should be coordinated by the government after proper notice.
Malta has closed schools, cancelled public events and gatherings and limited public services. Many government agencies - from the Planning Authority to Heritage Malta – have announced indefinite closures as Malta works to contain the coronavirus.
Spot checks on people in quarantine
Anyone landing in Malta as of Friday afternoon has been ordered to undergo 14 days of mandatory quarantine, a measure which Abela argued has effectively closed the country off to foreign visitors.
“Nobody is going to come to Malta to lock themselves in a hotel room,” the prime minister said on Saturday.
Police on Friday carried out 20 spot checks at homes of people who should be in quarantine, the prime minister said, and found nobody breaching quarantine rules.
Anybody caught not respecting quarantine instructions will be fined €1,000 for each day they do not remain at home.
Eighteen people have tested positive for the virus so far. One of them, a woman patient, has since tested negative twice and is considered to have recovered, although she remains under observation at home.
Abela said that Malta was “fortunate” to have the experience of other, similar countries to learn from, noting that “our friends in Italy were not so lucky”.
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