Updated with Nationalist Party's reaction
The decision to close the ports and refuse entry to NGO migrant rescue vessels was not racially motivated but was taken to preserve the health of the people, Prime Minister Robert Abela insisted on Sunday.
But the Nationalist Party in a reaction said Malta should rescue vulnerable people in danger, such as children and pregnant persons. "To let even one baby or child in danger means we have lost our identity as a people," it said.
The government last week said it could not guarantee migrant rescues and was closing Malta's harbours to migrant landings because its resources were focused on containment of COVID-19.
In an interview on the Labour Party's media, Abela condemned racially motivated hate speech and said that the Maltese were a people of love and tolerance to every race and did not discriminate based on colour.
Over 250 people are out there at sea:— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) April 11, 2020
~47, Malta SAR (last contact 22.14h)
~71, Malta SAR (contact lost 6h ago)
~55, intern. waters (contact lost 12h ago)
~85, unknown pos. (contact lost 24h ago)
By tomorrow, #EasterSunday, they may have died as Europe knew but failed to act. pic.twitter.com/2MvSS9S9dd
The Prime Minister did not make any specific reference. On Saturday, however, the CEO of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, Alfred Grixti, faced calls for his resignation after writing on Facebook that NGO vessels should be seized and sunk - later clarifying that he did not mean sunk with the migrants on them.
Abela said the decision to ban disembarkation of migrants was a difficult one, given the situation in Libya, however it was one that was taken in the best interest of public health.
"The reality is, we have stopped people from crossing to Gozo without a valid reason, we have stopped people from entering the country in any way. It is not the case that we don't want people coming in because they are coming from North Africa," Abela said.
"We couldn't remain in this situation where an influx of migration could endanger us. Our health and law enforcement resources are focused on stopping the spread of coronavirus."
Asked whether authorities still had the spread of the virus under control, given that the first three COVID-19 deaths were recorded in Malta, the prime minister said that the government had prepared contingency plans for every possible scenario.
How quickly the country was able to return to normality depended on how seriously people took the advice of public health authorities.
"We were at an advantage, because we were proactive and observed what other countries had done. We were prepared," Abela said.
"We have a contingency for every possible challenge we can face in the pandemic. Presently we are only using some of the measures that we planned for. But, if people do not take the advice of the health authorities seriously, these measures might need to be stepped up."
"How quickly things go back to normal all depends on how disciplined we are. We are all making this sacrifice together."
The government did not prepare for this - PN
In a reaction, the Nationalist Party said the government had not prepared for this scenario, in the way as it had not prepared for COVID-19 in migrant camps.
"The government knew it had international obligations it has to meet, it knew it could get to this situation, and it did not prepare itself.
"These are challenges which a serious government faces, and this is not done by denying help to children or by allowing a public officer to say that the migrants' boats should be sunk," the PN said.
Malta, throughout its history never lost its sense of humanity.
"To leave even one baby or child in danger means we have lost our identity as a people," it added.
The PN said it was, therefore, urging the government to rescue the vulnerable, especially babies, children and pregnant women seen in clear danger.
It said it remained ready to cooperate with the government.