Updated 1.20pm with PN statement

The first phase of an "exit roadmap" to gradually unwind existing COVID-19 health restrictions will be unveiled next week, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Saturday.

The plan will spell out the dates when certain measures will be removed, he said without elaborating.

Sources told Times of Malta that the plan, which is being drafted by the health department, foresees the relaxation of measures at specific points in February. 

Existing restrictions range from a ban on standing events to masking requirements and controversial rules that require a valid vaccine certificate to access places such as restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres, gyms and so on.

Lobbyists have also complained about mandatory quarantine periods, which are longer in Malta than in a number of other countries. Times of Malta understands there are currently no plans to revise those.  

Frustration at existing restrictions has led to weekly protests by COVID sceptics and others who oppose the rules, and arguments by the Nationalist Party that vaccine certificate rules are "almost an inquisition on people's rights."

Speaking on Saturday, Fearne said that growing frustration was an indication sign that public health measures had worked in limiting the impact of the virus.

A recent study showed that Malta now has one of the world's lowest rates of public concern about COVID-19 worldwide, he said.

"I would rather see people grumbling that they want to go out rather than people calling for a lockdown because people are dying. 

“We kept things under control in the hospital and ITU in the past months,” he said. “The number of COVID patients there has remained manageable.”

Malta has reported a declining number of new infections in recent days when compared to record highs registered one month ago.

'We know what we are doing'

The health minister noted that Malta had managed to maintain the hospitalisation rate at world-record lows throughout the pandemic, and urged people to keep the faith.

"We know what we are doing," the health minister said, "and we have been showing it. And we know what we need to do with these measures. As soon as we are sure that people's health is not at risk, we will be removing them." 

Malta has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, with Fearne saying that roughly 75 per cent of adults will have received a booster dose by the end of this week.

According to Times of Malta calculations, just over 73 per cent of adults had received a booster dose as of Thursday.

Vaccinating children

The health minister reiterated the importance of getting vaccinated, highlighting international reports that the Omicron variant had led to an increased number of children being admitted to hospital.

Vaccination is currently open to all residents aged five and over, with booster doses available to anyone aged over 18.

Parents who wish to inoculate their children can do so by visiting the University Gateway building between 8am and 8pm on Saturday and Sunday. No appointment is necessary.

"This is a vaccine like any other," Fearne advised parents.

"There are many fantastical claims being made about the vaccine. But get your information from the experts. The Omicron variant is leading to more hospitalised children. Those are the facts." 

Data from Europe and the US suggests that COVID hospital admissions among children have reached record highs in recent weeks, though severe cases are rare among the youngest age group. Children are reporting symptoms like other respiratory illnesses such as croup and bronchiolitis. 

PN: We were proven right

In a statement, the PN said that news of an exit strategy showed that it was right to call existing measures excessive and discriminatory. 

It said that while it encouraged people to take a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, public health measures must be proportionate.

The party also said Fearne was "dodging debates" and avoiding uncomfortable questions about a €13,500-a-month contract given to FMS CEO Carmen Ciantar, who previously served as his campaign manager. 

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