Nineteen new cases of COVID-19 were identified on Wednesday, the highest one-day total since Malta first confirmed coronavirus infections earlier this month. Malta has now confirmed 129 cases of the virus.

  • A 61-year-old coronavirus patient who was the only one in a critical state remains in intensive care though his condition has stabilised.

  • Social partners unanimously backed a financial stimulus package which the government announced yesterday, though the PN opposition argued that the deal did not go far enough and left entire sectors and tens of thousands of workers on the brink of ruin.

  • Two new COVID-19 testing hubs, one in Gozo and the other in Pembroke, will begin to operate on Thursday.

If you have coronavirus symptoms dial 111 or 2132 4086.
If you are stuck abroad and need assistance dial 00356 2204 2200.
If you are in quarantine and need help, including food or medicine delivery, dial 2141 1411.
If you need education-related advice, dial 2598 1000.
If you an older than 60 and need help at home, dial 25903030.
If you work in the gaming industry and have questions, dial 25469111. 
If you are a tourist or have questions related to the hotel sector, dial 21692447.
If you want to report quarantine abuse, dial 21692447


As it happened


Italy's infection rate slows for the fourth consecutive day 

7.30pm We leave you with some encouraging news: Italy's coronavirus infections rate slowed for a fourth successive day today. 

The daily infection rate fell to a record low of 7.5 per cent and WHO deputy director Ranieri Guerra described the numbers as "extremely positive".

This blog will end here. Thank you for having joined us throughout the day. Send us your story ideas, suggestions and tips on newsroom@timesofmalta.com.


Are you eligible for COVID-19 financial aid? 

7.20pm We've been inundated with questions from readers about the financial aid measures the government announced yesterday. Many want to know whether they qualify for assistance, and if so, how they can apply. 

Read our guide to the financial stimulus package to find out more. 


Economy Minister slams PN's calls as 'financial suicide'

7.10pm Economy Minister Silvio Schembri told parliament that it would be "financial suicide" to do as the PN wants and extend financial aid to the entire private sector. 

Schembri said this would cost €340 million over three months - a sum that would not be recouped even if every public sector worker took a 20 per cent pay cut. 

The minister also had a dig at Opposition leader Adrian Delia, saying he would have expected Delia to follow the example set by himself and the prime minister in forfeiting a month’s wages as a symbolic gesture.

Earlier, Delia had argued that the government should distribute the €70 million which he said were going to be saved in electricity generation costs, thanks to a drop in fuel prices.

In reality, it is doubtful whether the government is saving much money from reduced oil prices, given that much of the country's electricity is generated using gas fixed at 2015 prices.

In 2018, Times of Malta had revealed that the Electrogas consortium that runs Malta's gas-fired power station is bound to buy gas from Azeri company Socar at a fixed price of €9.40 per unit until April 2022. Enemalta is, in turn, contractually bound to buy €131.6 million worth of LNG from Electrogas every year. 

According to NSO figures, in 2018 Malta imported roughly 25% of its electricity, with 67% generated domestically and renewables making up the remainder.


In New York, coronavirus is now 'a bullet train' 

6.51pm The coronavirus is spreading at an alarming rate across the US state of New York, which now has around 25,000 known cases of COVID-19, with numbers doubling every three days. 

"We haven't flattened the curve and the curve is actually increasing," governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday. 

"One of the forecasters said we were looking at a freight train coming across the country. We're now looking at a bullet train."

Cuomo said that within two weeks, up to 40,000 people might need intensive care. Hospitals in the state currently only have 3,000 intensive care unit beds.
New York has all but shut down, with only essential businesses open.


 

How does COVID-19 testing work? 

6.39pm With two new testing hubs - one in Gozo and the other in Pembroke - kicking into action tomorrow, Malta is significantly increasing its testing capacity. 

Readers have been contacting us to ask why they have not been tested despite dialling 111 and exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Claire Caruana put some of their questions to the experts.

See what they had to say.


From school to CPD station 

6.20pm Dingli secondary school has been temporarily turned into a station for the Civil Protection Department in view of the COVID-19 emergency.

Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, who visited the school with Education Minister Owen Bonnici, said the forces of law and order were preparing for any eventuality.


Opposition MPs chastise government 

5.57pm Parliament is currently debating the financial aid package announced yesterday.

Claudio Grech (PN) urged government to extend the measures to the entire workforce, while Herman Schiavone (PN) said the government should halve water and electricity rates. 

Mario de Marco (PN) said the government's "dirtiest deal ever", to privatise three state hospitals, had deprived the country of precious resources like St Luke’s Hospital.

Ivan Bartolo (PN) summarised his view of the aid deal in one sentence:  "It was a step in the right direction, but a few steps short". 


Around the world 

5.40pm Germany’s parliament has approved a €1.1 trillion coronavirus rescue package which includes €156 billion of new borrowing,  €400 billion in guarantees for companies' debts, €100 billion to take stakes in firms, €100 billion in support for state-owned investment bank KfW and €50 billion in handouts for smaller firms. 

Spain has bought €432 million worth of medical equipment from China, as deaths from coronavirus skyrocket. The country will buy more than 550 million masks, 5.5 million rapid testing kits and 11 million pairs of gloves. 

In Russia, president Vladimir Putin has postponed a vote on constitutional reforms which would allow him to remain in power for another 20 years due to the pandemic. 

In Zimbabwe, thousands of nurses have gone on strike over a lack of protective gear and water shortages.

In Sudan, authorities have released thousands of prisoners to prevent the coronavirus from spreading inside the country’s jails. 

The IMF and World Bank both urged governments to freeze debt repayments owed to them by impoverished developing or under-developed nations, warning that the coronavirus pandemic would most likely have “severe economic and social consequences” on poor countries.


Central Bank loosens cheque deposit rules

5.22pm As of tomorrow, people who are in quarantine or who should remain indoors to avoid the risk of COVID-19 infection can get a trusted person to deposit their cheques for them. 

All the details are available in our article about the Central Bank's new measure.


 

Malta's GDP expected to fall by 10%

5pm Finance Minister Edward Scicluna has said that Malta’s GDP is likely to fall by 10 per cent this year, our parliamentary reporter Keith Micallef tells us. 

Expenditure in the health sector, on the other hand, will be more than €100 million over the 2020 Budget allocation.

Scicluna warned that countries with huge debts would move closer to bankruptcy and predicted another crisis  "just like the case of Greece a few years ago”.

Malta's public finances are healthy, he added, with the country's debt-to-GDP ratio at around 45 per cent.

Scicluna was speaking in parliament during the opening of a debate on the government’s financial aid package.


Three things the EU is doing to fight the coronavirus

4.38pm  Earlier, we noted that MEPs would be meeting on Thursday for an extraordinary plenary session, in which they will vote on a Commission proposal to free up an eye-watering €37 billion in cohesion funding, to use in the fight against the coronavirus. 

Apart from that, the EU is also: 

1. Sewing up a joint procurement deal which will allow it to bulk-buy personal protective equipment like masks and face-shields at low cost, to distribute among all member states. There are plans for a similar joint procurement deal for medical equipment such as ventilators - MEP Miriam Dalli is among those pushing for that to happen. 

2. Making a stockpile of medical equipment available to member states through an EU civil protection mechanism. 

3. Freeing up €47.5 million in funding for 17 research projects into a COVID-19 vaccine, with a further €45 million also made available through its Innovative Medicines Initiative. The deadline is 31 March.


UK expects to have home testing kits in the 'near future'

4.20pm People in the UK will soon be able to buy COVID-19 testing kits to take home with them, a top public health official there has told MPs. 

Sharon Peacock told a UK parliamentary committee that the British government was currently “testing the test” to ensure it is reliable and expected to have that
sorted by the end of this week. 

"In the near future, people will be able to order a test that they can test themselves, or go to Boots, or somewhere similar to have their finger prick test done,” the professor said. 


Joseph Calleja to perform live on Friday at 5pm

4pm We’ll be live streaming a Joseph Calleja performance this coming Friday at 5pm, with the world-famous tenor keen to keep people’s spirits up during these strangest of days. 

Calleja will be performing songs and arias selected by fans, so post your suggestions to his official Facebook page. 

Here's a message from the great man himself. 


Happy birthday... from a distance

3.46pm Here’s a lovely little anecdote of a family leading by example. Sisters Daniela and Nella Mizzi wanted to celebrate their mother’s birthday, but did not want to risk placing her or their mother in danger. 

Senior citizens are considered especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. 

Instead of visiting, sisters hung up happy birthday banners on the other side of the road, for her to enjoy from her balcony, and spoke to her by video. 

“Take good care of your elderly, only you can do it!” wrote Daniela. 

“Remember after all this is over, all that will really matter is how we treated each other.”


BOV to offer freezes on loan payments 

3.25pm Bank of Valletta has just announced a series of measures to help businesses and personal clients affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 

They include temporary freezes on both capital and interest of home and personal loans, increased overdraft limits, fee waivers and extensions on draw-downs and credit facilities.

Check out the full details about BOV's measures

HSBC, Lombard and APS banks had announced similar measures earlier this week.


Archbishop on feast cancellations 

3.14pm Archbishop Charles Scicluna has released a brief video explaining how festa celebrations will take place this summer – assuming health authorities give them the go-ahead. 

Some feasts have already been cancelled, and yesterday the Church made it clear others scheduled for the summer will most likely not go ahead either, save for a brief pilgramage with the statue of the patron saint on the feast day.

“We ask everyone to cooperate,” the Archbishop says. “We are advising people from now because we know that preparations will already be under way.”

But many of the questions festa enthusiasts have been asking remain unanswered. People on the ground say the Church could have postponed feasts rather than cancelled them, and ask who will shoulder responsibility for keeping fireworks factories loaded with petards for an entire year. 

Another concern relates to the Church’s plans to hold a pilgrimage for each feat, with enthusiasts wondering why a pilgrimage is allowed, while a band march is not.


Stimulus package is 'late and selective' - Delia

2.48pm Adrian Delia believes the financial aid package announced yesterday comes late, is selective and disorganised. Half of the country's workers will not qualify for any aid, the PN leader has said. 

Keith Micallef has the full report.


Where are Malta's mega-rich? 

2.13pm In Italy, the Berlusconi and Agnelli families have both donated €10m each to that nation's fight against the coronavirus. We have yet to see any such largesse from Malta's mega-rich, Arnold Cassola notes in an opinion piece published today.

"Some small hotel owners have been generously offering free rooms to employees and medics. But where are the Tumases, Gasans, Captain Morgans, Portellis tal-Quaint? Nowhere to be seen." 

Read what Cassola has to say.


PN reacts to financial stimulus package

2pm Opposition leader Adrian Delia is holding a press conference in which he's explaining the Nationalist Party's views on a new stimulus package unveiled on Tuesday by the government. You can watch the press conference in the video below. We will have an article about the press conference available this afternoon. 


Plans to fly in 300 nurses from India?  

1.50pm The nurses' union says it has been told that there are plans to fly in 300 nurses from India, to help local medical efforts. 

The MUMN has also given the Health Minister a 48-hour ultimatum to agree to dishing out €50 in danger money for every shift nurses work with COVID-19 patients. 

The money would act as an incentive for scared nurses, the union told Sarah Carabott.


Stunning... and surreal 

1.34pm Malta's empty streets and squares make for eerie viewing. This video put together by a couple of local videographers shows people another side to some of the country's most iconic areas.


Sweden's 'huge experiment'

1.20pm Robert Abela is fond of saying that the government will “take no risks” with people’s health. He’s probably no fan of what’s happening in Stockholm, then. 

While most of the world has locked up its citizens and imposed strict restrictions of movement and gatherings, Swedes continue to move freely within society. 

Although gatherings larger than 500 people have been banned and universities are closed, schools are open and people are not being told to remain at home. 

The government says that it does not want to impose measures which would
cause more economic hardship than the coronavirus itself. But some public health experts in the country have called the plan crazy. 

“I do not see why Sweden would be so different from other countries. It is a huge experiment,” one said. “We have no idea — it could work out. But it could also go crazily in the wrong direction.”  

The Financial Times has the full story.


Spain's death toll surpasses China's

12.51pm International focus on the coronavirus pandemic has been overwhelmingly on China and Italy's fraught experiences. But Spain has been suffering too, and in relative silence. 

3,434 coronavirus patients have died in the country, making it the country with the second-most COVID-19 deaths in the world after Italy, where 6,820 have died.

China’s death toll is of 3,285. 


Malta adding to its testing capacity 

12.45pm 488 COVID-19 tests were carried out yesterday - the highest daily number since the virus reached Maltese shores - and Gauci said there were plans to increase testing capacity further in the coming weeks. 

Two new testing hubs have been opened as of today and Health Minister Chris Fearnesaid yesterday that the country can now process up to 700 tests every day.


Rate of recovery varies

12.38pm Recovery times depend on two factors, Gauci is saying: the viral load they are carrying, and the individual's immune system. Some categories of people - she mentions children as an example - tend to take longer to test negative. 

Of Malta's 129 cases, two are considered to have recovered so far. One patient - a 61-year-old man - is in intensive care and is doing poorly. 


How the cases are divided

12.33pm Of the 19 newly-identified cases: 

Eight have been linked to recent overseas travel.
Four are of local transmission with an identified source.
Seven are of local transmission with no known source.


Nineteen new COVID-19 cases 

12.30pm There were 19 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases identified yesterday - the highest one-day total so far. That brings Malta's total to 129.


COVID-19 daily briefing 

12.28pm Malta's Superintendent of Public Health is giving her daily briefing about the COVID-19 situation in Malta. 


Malta could get €48m in EU funding to fight COVID-19 

12.20pm The European Parliament will hold an extraordinary plenary session tomorrow, and for the first time in its history, MEPs will be able to cast their vote remotely.

Top of the agenda is a European Commission proposals to free up €37 billion in cohesion funds to use for the fight against the coronavirus. 

Initial estimates suggest Malta would have just under €50m to work with - €9m of that would come in the form of unspent pre-financing, with an additional €39m being co-financed by the EU. 

It's important to note that these are just estimates at this stage. 


Expect power cuts 

12pm Enemalta has a series of power cuts scheduled today. If you live in Marsascala, Żebbuġ, Żabbar, Żejtun, St Paul's Bay, Żurrieq, Swieqi, Pieta' or Birkirkara, you should have a look at Enemalta's planned power cuts page.


COVID-19 daily briefing at 12.30pm

11.52am Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci will give her daily briefing at 12.30pm. We will provide a live link as soon as that begins.


Prince Charles tests positive for coronavirus

11.40am Prince Charles is COVID-19 positive, Buckingham Palace has said. 

"He has been displaying mild symptoms but otherwise remains in good health and has been working from home throughout the last few days as usual," a statement read. 


Why it is important to respect quarantine rules

11.35am Here’s a visual representation of why respecting quarantine rules is so important to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It’s the work of Dylan Zammit, a University student in the final year of his degree in maths and statistics. 

Yellow dots represent healthy people, while the red ones are people infected with COVID-19. Green dots represent people who have been infected and then recover.

On the left is society with quarantine measures in place. The lack of interaction between individuals makes it much harder for the virus to rapidly spread. 

On the right you can see a simulation of the society, but without quarantine measures. Here, people can mingle freely and infection rapidly spreads as a result. The end result is an overwhelmed health system which cannot keep up with demand. 



Dylan was inspired by a Washington Post article which explains the impact of quarantine and social distancing in a beautifully simple way.


Libya confirms its first COVID-19 case

11.25am Libya has reported its first case of the novel coronavirus. The virus is a particular source of concern in the North African country, where civil war has badly degraded the public healthcare system.

The 73-year-old patient had returned from Saudi Arabia via Tunisia a week ago, authorities in the country said. 

Sporadic fighting continues in the country, despite a fragile truce negotiated in January. 

UN chief Antonio Guterres has urged both sides of the conflict to stop the fighting citing "the already dire humanitarian situation in Libya and the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic".


Greta Thunberg in self-isolation after feeling sick 

11.04am Climate change activist Greta Thunberg says she suspects she is - or was -  infected with COVID-19. The Swedish teenager says she and her father went into self-isolation after a trip to central Europe, and began feeling unwell some days later. 

She says she has "basically recovered" now but warns: "I almost didn’t feel ill. My last cold was much worse than this! Had it not been for someone else having the virus simultainously [sic] I might not even have suspected anything." 


Got milk? 

10.38am Local dairy producers Benna have reassured the public that local dairy producers, pig breeders and other farmers are in no danger of running out of local produce – and reminded people why it is so important to buy local. 

“As long as the agricultural sectors continue to exist, and local farmers tend their livestock and fields, there will be fresh local produce every single day from the farm to your table...  The local food sector is the only food sector that the Maltese population can control and rely on, particularly in times of global disruption," Benna said. 


EU secures joint procurement deal for masks and other PPE 

10.27am Great news from Brussels, where the European Commission has managed to lock in joint procurement of face masks, goggles, face shields, surgical masks and overalls for all its member states. 

The equipment should be available within two weeks of member states signing contracts with bidders, the European Commission says. 

PPE will then be distributed equitably among member states. 

Joint procurement allows the EU to combine the purchasing power of each of its individual member states together. That not only allows it to drive prices down through economies of scale, but also ensures member states do not end up bidding against each other when it comes to vital equipment. 

The EU plans to use a similar mechanism to secure stocks of a COVID-19 vaccine, once that becomes available.


WHO WhatsApp bot gets 10 million users

10.15am The World Health Organization launched a WhatsApp chatbot on Friday, allowing people to get instant information about the coronavirus through the smartphone messaging app. 

The service has proven quite popular and yesterday registered its 10 millionth user. 

To sign up, add +41794752209 to your phone contacts and send the number the message ‘hi’, or follow the instructions on this page.


Footballers and the coronavirus

9.58am Yesterday, the mayor of Bergamo said that the Champions League match between Atalanta and Valencia (which was played in Milan) was probably a big contributor to the massive spread of COVID-19 throughout the Italian region. 

More than one-third of Valencia's squad subsequently tested positive for the virus. But they're far from the only big names in football to have been infected. 

Juventus players Paulo Dybala, Blaise Matuidi and Daniele Rugani are positive. So too is Milan legend Paulo Maldini. Six Sampdoria players are positive, as are three at Fiorentina 

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has tested positive, as has former Manchester United midfielder Maroune Fellaini.

Chelsea's Callum Hudson-Odoi has recovered from the virus, while all of Everton's squad was told to self-isolate after an unnamed player showed virus symptoms. Goalkeeper Pepe Reina has said he "beat" the virus but confirmed he had only been diagnosed by a doctor over the phone.


    

Where to find information about financial aid measures

9.45am Malta Enterprise has set up a series of web pages which list the various financial stimulus measures announced by the government yesterday, as well as phone numbers and email addresses  you can access to get further help.

Visit https://covid19.maltaenterprise.com/ for more. 


In Australia, funerals are to be live streamed

9.12am The Australian government has tightened social gathering restrictions to try and limit the spread. The new rules state that no more than five people are allowed at weddings and a maximum of 10 at funerals. 

Funeral directors are now promising to live stream services onto the internet, allowing people to pay their last respects despite not being able to attend services.


Fearne cancels Gozo appearance due to bad weather

8.52pm Health Minister Chris Fearne and Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri were due to hold a press conference later this morning at Gozo General Hospital. A COVID-19 testing hub in Gozo will begin receiving test cases as of today. 

But inclement weather -east southeasterly winds might reach force 7 on the Beaufort Scale today - has forced a change of plans. The event has now been cancelled. 


'A downturn that will have to be endured' - Martin Scicluna

8.45am Trying to work out the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, writes Martin Scicluna in an opinion piece published today, "is like trying to catch a falling knife."

"Does Malta brace itself for a short sharp shock, or a long economic winter?" 

The government, he argues, has to be a calming force in these uncertain times. 

"Curbing anxiety is a significant part of the government’s role."   

Read Martin Scicluna's take on the COVID-19 situation.


Around the world

8.25am  In the USA, the senate and the White House have agreed on the terms of a $2 trillion financial aid package that is based on a system of direct payments and unemployment benefits for individuals. 
News of the agreement sent markets soaring, with Wall Street posting its best performance in nearly 90 years. 

African nations are stepping up their response to the coronavirus pandemic. South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Ivory Coasts have all ordered lockdowns or declared national emergencies, with the army roped in to enforce the orders. 

Hubei province in China has lifted travel restrictions as of today, meaning more than 50 million people can now leave the province and travel elsewhere if they are healthy. The only exception is Wuhan: travel restrictions there will end on April 8.
 
India’s 1.3 billion people have started their 21 days of “total lockdown”. Under the order, people could face up to two years in jail and an unspecified financial penalty if they flout the rules.


Ministers to give up one month's salary 

8.07am After Prime Minister Robert Abela said yesterday evening that he would be forfeiting one month's salary as a sign of solidarity, two of his ministers have said they will follow suit. 

Economy Minister Silvio Schembri and Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli have both said that they will do likewise.

Will we see other ministers make similar announcements throughout the day?

 


Welcome 

8am Good morning, and welcome to this live blog. We'll be bringing you coronavirus-related updates from Malta and the wider world throughout the day. Send us your story tips, ideas or suggestions on newsroom@timesofmalta.com.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us