A quarter of world's population is now living under lockdown because of the COVID-pandemic. And tens of thousands of Maltese will follow suit from Saturday.

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Highlights from Thursday:

  • Over 65s, pregnant women, people with chronic conditions ordered to stay in from Saturday;
  • Public gatherings of more than five people to be stopped at once;
  • Five new COVID-19 cases registered in Malta;
  • Health authorities warn the worse isn't over;
  • Media houses among organisations warning about disastrous consequences.

Thank you for following us and supporting Times of Malta. We'll be back on Friday. 

Those questions

7.45pm We are receiving several questions about the grey areas of the new lockdown measures. We will try to answer as many of them by tomorrow morning. 

Also, on Friday, Prof. Michael Borg, head of Infection Control at Mater Dei Hospital, will hold a 15-minute live transmission on Facebook, starting at 10am.

The untouchables

7.30pm A lot of people are wondering why the government remains reluctant to touch the construction sector, especially now that tens of thousands are being forced indoors and have to endure the daily noise and bombardment of heavy machinery next door. 

Writing on Facebook, Michael Mangion summed up the thoughts of many:

4,238 inspections... and counting

7.25pm Police said on Thursday evening that a total of 4,238 inspections in relation to quarantine and establishments regulations were to date carried out by its administrative and law enforcement unit.

A total of 33 fines were issued in relation to breach of the regulations 

As from today, the police have been granted legal enforcement to break up public gatherings of more than five people, ensuring they stand at least two metres away from each other. 

Pharmacies' opening hours

7pm All pharmacies which are listed on the Sunday and public holidays roster have been instructed to open between 9am and noon , the Chamber of Pharmacists said in a statement.

Attention all non-Maltese speakers

6.45pm Here's the part of the press conference where the minister announced the new measures in English:

Lockdown grounds politicians

6.35pm In case you were wondering that the measures spare anybody, they don't.

President George Vella, ministers Evarist Bartolo and Edward Scicluna and MP Manuel Mallia are among those over 65 who have to be in lockdown from Saturday.

Grey areas

6.30pm We know many are trying to clarify their status and that of their loved ones after the restrictive measures announced. We're trying to clarify some grey areas ourselves. But please feel free to send any questions to newsroom@timesofmalta.com.

New measures

6pm At a news conference, Health Minister Chris Fearne announced the following measures:

- There can be no public gatherings of more than five people. There should be a distance of two metres between people. This measure is with immediate effect. Police have been ordered to disperse people in public.

- Vulnerable individuals should remain indoors. This group includes those who are:

  • Over 65 years old;
  • pregnant;
  • with chronic illness;
  • insulin dependent diabetics;
  • biological medication;
  • had chemotherapy in last six months;
  • had a transplant or HIV treatment;
  • on renal dialysis;
  • respiratory problems who needed treatment in last year;
  • cardiac problems in last six months;
  • on oral steroids.

    This will impact around 118,000 individuals. This will come into effect from Saturday morning.Those who live with people in this category will have to observe the lockdown or find alternative accommodation.

The minister said the pattern of COVID-19 is shifting from imported cases to predominantly locally-transmitted cases. Even though Malta reported just five new cases of the virus on Thursday, Fearne warned that the worst isn't over. 

Read the full report of the press conference here

New COVID-19 restrictions expected

5.30pm Health Minister Chris Fearne is expected to announce more public restrictions in a bid to restrict the spread of the coronavirus. A cabinet meeting was held on Tuesday morning. 

Around the world

5.10pm Iceland, with a population of 364,000, has 802 confirmed cases and two dead.

UK deaths rise to 465, out of 9,500 confirmed cases.

The US death toll has hit 1,000, according to tracking by The Washington Post.

Some 3.3m Americans filed jobless claims last week, more than four times the previous record.

Police officers in France are threatening to stop enforcing the country's lockdown measures unless they get protective equipment.

Health Minister to give 5.30pm update

4.35pm Health Minister Chris Fearne will be addressing a news conference at 5.30pm. We are expecting possible new measures to try to contain the outspread of COVID-19.

We will be streaming the press conference here. 

'We saw atrocities you could not even dream up'

4.30pm Earlier we linked up to the video of Carmelo Pace, the 89-year-old who resorts to his mandolin to keep him company in difficult times.

Carmelo, who despite his age was until last month still entertaining hotel guests every week, urged fellow elderly to abide by the authorities’ advice.

He warned: "We would otherwise not be able to overcome the pandemic and will have to spend many more weeks indoors."

Our journalist Sarah Carabott just caught up with him. He tells her about the war atrocities he faced as a child.

Read his incredible story here. 

Listen to the teachers

4.10pm Teachers at St Clare’s college in Pembroke have compiled a video to encourage students to stay inside. This is a great initiative.

Ray of hope in Wuhan

4pm In China, the people of Wuhan, who have been at the centre of the coronavirus pandemic, are finally seeing a ray of hope more than two months after the city was put under lockdown. China’s authorities say travel restrictions on the city of 11 million will be lifted on April 8.

A staff member on duty checks the body temperature of a passenger at an expressway toll-gate in Wuhan. Photo: AFPA staff member on duty checks the body temperature of a passenger at an expressway toll-gate in Wuhan. Photo: AFP

Play responsibly, authority insists

3.30pm The Malta Gaming Authority has reminded its licensees that, all commercial communications must be socially responsible, especially in light of the current situation.

It said that at no point must any commercial communications directly or indirectly:

  • encourage anti-social behaviour;
  • suggest that gaming can be a resolution to social, educational, personal or professional problems;
  • suggest that gaming can be an alternative to employment;
  • be a solution to financial concerns or a form of financial investment;
  • portray gaming as socially attractive or
  • suggest that solitary gaming is preferable to social gaming.

Stop all non-essential construction at once, doctor appeals

3pm Well-known consultant emergency Physician Jonathan Joslin has made an appeal to stop construction which is not deemed essential. 

In a Facebook post, Joslin said he failed to understand the logic how new development and construction works are taking place within a central core area of a village during the epidemic.

"Public health authorities are trying to enforce isolation within our homes especially for the elderly. The least the community expect is to be able to do this without construction and digging next to their homes. One cannot even go out in their back yards and gardens because of the dust and noise let alone rest."

One cannot even go out in their back yards and gardens because of the dust and noise let alone rest

Speaking from experience, he said a large percentage of major trauma being dealt with within the Emergency Department over the past year resulted from construction sites and are a drain on our health resources which should be directed towards COVID-19 patient management. 

PN calls for extra restrictions

2.34 pm The Opposition has called for additional COVID-19 safeguards and restrictions in prison, buses and local councils.

On prisons Beppe Fenech Adami recommended opening temporary prisons to ease overcrowding, segregating elderly inmates and those with health problems and allowing inmates who are approaching the end of their jail term, to be held under house arrest and be monitored by a tracking device.

On the bus service, Toni Bezzina proposed a ban to prevent commuters from sitting next to each other, install sanitizers, disinfect vehicles every day, give protective equipment to drivers, and deploy extra buses at peak times to prevent crowds at termini.

And Robert Cutajar called for more involvement of local councils by empowering them to use local wardens to enforce regulations being issued by the health authorities such as people congregating in public places.

At home with Joseph Calleja

2.15pm Will you be joining us from your sofa tomorrow night? Joseph Calleja will perform a live concert from his home, streamed on our Facebook page and here. 

We've already been getting song requests in from our Facebook audience. But reader Gloria Farrugia said he should perform "anything he wants. Just listening to his voice will be a treat. Thank you Joseph Calleja for a small pleasure during these worrying times."

Two million protective pieces requested

2pm Malta has requested over two million pieces of personal protective equipment as part of the EU’s joint procurement procedures.

The European Commission said that member states would benefit from joint procurement of personal protective equipment. This covers masks, gloves, goggles, face shields, surgical masks and overalls. 

Read the story here.

Vast majority of patients recovering at home

1.45pm Of the cases, 14 are being kept at Mater Dei Hospital's Infectious Diseases Unit, and another 18 at St Thomas Hospital. The 61-year-old patient is still being treated at ITU. The rest are recovering at home.

Five new cases

1.40pm Prof. Charmaine Gauci said five new COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Malta: three were contracted following overseas travel, two were transmitted locally. This brings the total up to 134 cases.

The new cases are:

  • A 28-year-old Greek national who returned to Malta on March 19;
  • A 60-year-old traveller who returned from the UK on March 13;
  • A Maltese health worker who returned from the UK on March 20;
  • A 23-year-old Maltese man who had a family member who had tested positive for COVID-19;
  • A 26-year-old Maltese woman who experienced symptoms on March 20 when she was at work. 

Gauci said the condition of a 61-year-old patient who was being treated at ITU has improved.

COVID-19 daily briefing 

1.25pm Malta's Superintendent of Public Health is giving her daily briefing about the COVID-19 situation in Malta.

Have we got news for you?

1.10pm The government has started providing assistance to a number of sectors suffering because of the COVID-19 crisis. One sector – the independent media – has remained conspicuously absent from the government’s radar. And media houses are warning that the possibility of a country without the independent press may not be far off. 

Michel Rizzo, managing director of Allied Newspapers Ltd, publishers of Times of Malta, said:

“Our industry is one of the hardest hit at the current moment; our revenues have been decimated and our financial losses are substantial. The media needs to be supported with concrete measures that will guarantee its survival. Across Europe, media organisations have been benefiting from state aid for many years now, and not just during troubling times such as these. The government needs to understand that protecting media companies ultimately means protecting the country’s democracy.”

The next few days and weeks are crucial, Abela must respond to 'OUR' crisis now, not tomorrow

Saviour Balzan, managing editor of Malta Today added: "The media in general have been passing through a very difficult period. Major media houses have had to offer a printed and digital products to its readers and a wider audience. But Facebook and Google have decimated our revenues and made monetisation a challenge.

"This pandemic could be our death knell. What Prime Minister Robert Abela needs to appreciate is that we have zero revenues but we are still operating and productive and offering a constant flow of information and analysis. The media is an essential component in a living democracy, if we are not supported financially now and in the future we will not be able to function and operate. The next few days and weeks are crucial, Abela must respond to 'OUR' crisis now, not tomorrow."

Health briefing at 1.30pm

12.45pm The daily COVID-19 health briefing will be given at 1.30pm. We will be streaming the press conference live. 

MEPs join appeal

12.20pm Speaking before an extraordinary European Parliament plenary session, MEP Roberta Metsola said the response cannot be half-hearted.

"We cannot be afraid to spend and we cannot hesitate to do whatever it takes to shore up our economies and people’s jobs”. Urging member states to react quickly, Metsola said “the cost of inaction or hesitation will be too high a price to pay.”

MEP Alfred Sant is supporting an appeal from the European Trade Union Confederation on extraordinary macroeconomic measures to tackle the COVID-19 emergency.

The appeal, also signed by economists and personalities around Europe, calls on European institutions and governments to consider with a sense of urgency the extent to which the population is suffocating physically and economically.

Urgent cabinet meeting called

12.10pm We're informed that an urgent cabinet meeting has been called at Auberge de Castille. We are told it will be discussing potential new public health measures amid the crisis sparked by COVID-19. One source says the government is contemplating a "gradual lockdown".

We are not sure if there will be any announcements as yet.

Where's the health briefing?

12pm Usually around now, we hear from the health authorities about the latest number of coronavirus cases. We're being told that will happen a little later today, probably around 2pm. We will keep you posted. 

Walled up Europe

11.40am Frontex, the EU's border patrol agency, has just produced a graphic to track the temporary restrictions put in place throughout the EU, Schengen Area and the UK. Who'd ever have thought of seeing a graphic like this in peace time?

More updates from overseas

11.35am Russia will suspend flights to and from the country from Friday and close non-essential shops. The country has reported 840 coronavirus cases.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Poland has passed 1,000.

MPs in Spain on Wednesday night backed the prime minister's request for a 15-day extension to the state of alarm, which means the lockdown will stay in place until April 12.

EU leaders are holding a video summit today.

The writing's on the bench

11.25am Our photographer Matthew Mirabelli snapped these pictures in Żebbuġ and Paola this morning. The Żebbuġ council has even affixed signs to public benches urging people to stop gathering in its popular piazza.

Meanwhile, Melita clients appear to be heeding the warnings to steer away from others in public places. 

Carmelo's mandolin - a companion since World War 2

11am A video is circulating on social media showing an elderly Maltese man playing a tune on his mandolin.

Carmelo Camilleri writes on his Facebook wall: "I’m coming up to my 90th birthday. Along the years, my mandolin has kept me company in difficult situations. It was my companion in the shelters of WWII and has been my source of solace throughout the years – particularly this month. I’m working hard to remain positively active indoors and strictly follow the health authority’s advice. It’s important to take it, One Day at a Time! Enjoy and stay safe!"

Some useful phone numbers

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

Pandemic won't delay democracy

10.10am MEPs will vote online during a one-day extraordinary session of the European Parliament today.

It is the first time ever MEPs will vote by email - to avoid having to gather in one place. 

Can history teach us something?

10am The so-called Spanish flu, 100 years ago was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people, then about a quarter of the world's population at the time. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.

Learning how the world coped medically during the Spanish flu could help us today if an outbreak occurred with such force, an expert has told our journalist Sarah Carabott.

The The Walter Reed Hospital flu ward during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19 in Washington DC. Photo: ShutterstockThe The Walter Reed Hospital flu ward during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19 in Washington DC. Photo: Shutterstock

Vets, pets feeling the pinch

9.40am Veterinary clinics across Malta are facing shortages because of the coronavirus.

“I now spend two hours a day trying to track down face masks and sanitiser online,” says Kevin Camilleri, who owns Pets Veterinary Clinic in Żabbar.

He’s seen the price of face masks go up from 0.60c to €3.80 each. The cost of disinfectants has risen by 300%.

Another clinic has cancelled many non-essential surgeries because of a shortage of anaesthesia.

Read Vanessa Conneely's story here. 

Help the vulnerable, church appeals

9.15am Several church entities said on Thursday it is becoming increasingly clear that the assistance measures given by the government so far will not be sufficient to ensure that all are able to live with dignity during the coming months.

"For this to happen, it is essential that steps are taken to provide financial and material support to all who cannot afford to pay for shelter, food or medicine. Entitlement to this support and to basic services, such as medical care, should be based on need and not on other criteria, such as immigration status."

A potential €3 billion loss

8.45am Today's Times of Malta reports that Malta stands to lose out on an estimated €3 billion in tourist expenditure due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which would send shockwaves through the entire economy. 

You can read Ivan Martin's story here. 

Republic Street in Valletta on Wednesday. Photo: Chris Sant FournierRepublic Street in Valletta on Wednesday. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

What happened on Wednesday?

  • Nineteen new cases of COVID-19 were identified, 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.
  • Finance Minister Edward Scicluna said that Malta’s GDP is likely to fall by 10 per cent this year.

You can read our online editor Bertrand Borg's live blog from Wednesday here. 

Around the world

8.10am There are an estimated 420,000 COVID-19 cases around the world. A total of 21,297 have fallen victim to it.

Spain recorded more than 700 deaths between Tuesday and Wednesday surpassing China in the global death toll - making the country now second to only Italy.

The US has almost 70,000 confirmed cases and at least 1,050 deaths.

The number of deaths in the UK has risen to 465, out of 9,500 confirmed cases.

Two new testing hubs from today

8.05am Two new novel coronavirus swab testing hubs will open in Malta from Thursday.

The former VIP lounge at the Gozo heliport has been converted into the first coronavirus testing hub in Gozo. Another testing hub will operate from the Luxol Grounds in Pembroke. The testing hub in Ħal Farruġ, which was inaugurated
on March 10, will stay in operation.

The hubs will be open on all days. The Gozo hub will operate from 8am to 2pm while the Pembroke point will operate between 8am and 8pm. 

It is important that all those who have symptoms call 111 and not go directly to a hub, the health ministry said.

Good morning

8am The calendar says it's spring time and we should be enjoying the great outdoors. Instead, we saw a deluge of rainfall in the last 24 hours and most of us are cooped up indoors as a result of the coronavirus.

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