Malta’s economy was bracing itself for a bumpy ride as regardless of any aid package being rolled out by the government, businesses would still feel the pinch, the finance minister said in parliament on Tuesday.
“There is no doubt that there will be repercussions. You can say the entertainment industry like bars and restaurants is already in lockdown,” Edward Scicluna said during a debate on the coronavirus, which, strangely, did not include the participation of the Prime Minister.
While reiterating that an aid package was on its way as part of a mini-budget later this week, the finance minister said government could only mitigate the effects up to a certain point. Moreover, there would also be an impact on public finances. “Government revenue will go down while expenditure will increase to offer certain guarantees,” he said.
Opposition leader Adrian Delia warned that the situation warranted drastic measures from the moment the virus started spreading within the community.
While reiterating the proposals outlined by the Nationalist Party, including shouldering the cost of quarantine leave and subsidising up to half of salaries, he warned that failing to act immediately would result in huge unemployment.
Delia also vented his frustration at what he described as government’s reluctance to accept the Opposition’s support.
“This is a war, not between us but against a virus,” he said.
Earlier, PN MP Mario de Marco branded government’s measures for the business community announced so far, as "completely ineffective".
“Let us follow the example set by the French government which vowed to safeguard all jobs. We cannot wait till the end of the week to take action,” he said.
Economy Minister Silvio Schembri stoked controversy when he said that government’s priority would be to safeguard the jobs of Maltese nationals
“Charity begins at home. Our primary focus are Maltese and Gozitan workers. The moment foreign workers lose their job they will have to go back to their country,” he said.
Schembri was reacting to concerns about social unrest from foreigners expressed earlier by Opposition MP Beppe Fenech Adami. According to the latter, criminality could be on the rise as a result of hundreds of foreign low-income workers being laid off, particularly in the tourism industry.
Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne said government was approaching this challenge by spreading out the cases through containment measures as otherwise Malta’s healthcare system would be overwhelmed.
“Our objective is to turn this tsunami into a river,” he said.
Measures were also being taken to ensure essential services such as water, electricity, telephony, and telecommunication would remain operational if employees were infected. Similarly, government was ensuring Malta had enough food and medicine supplies, Fearne said.
Speaking about Gozo, Opposition MP Chris Said expressed his dismay at Steward Health Care's silence. “What measures are they taking to cope with this crisis at the Gozo General Hospital,” he asked
He noted that the brand new hospital which they were committed to build by June 2018 had remained on paper.