Updated 8.30pm with Air Malta's statement
Flights to and from the UK are to be suspended as of Tuesday, except for Maltese citizens and residents returning to the island from Britain, the Health Ministry has said.
The announcement came as an apparent change of heart just hours after it had announced mandatory quarantine for passengers arriving from the country.
Maltese citizens and residents who are currently in the UK will be able to fly back to Malta but will be required to undergo a COVID-19 test on arrival and will then have to spend 14 days in quarantine regardless of the outcome.
The Health Ministry said that the decision, which is effective as of Tuesday, December 22, is a temporary one and that talks to have a common EU position on the issue remained ongoing.
Concerns about travel from the UK have mounted amid warnings of a contagious new strain of COVID-19 which the UK government has said is "out of control".
National airline Air Malta later said that its flights to and from the UK would remain operational, but that only Maltese nationals and people with a Maltese residence permit would be allowed onboard, save for exceptions granted by the Superintendence for Public Health.
Change of tack
Malta's decision to suspend flights represents a significant shift from the government's original position, announced just hours earlier in the day, to keep flight routes open but require passengers from the UK to spend 14 days in quarantine upon arrival.
The UK is Malta’s largest tourist market and Brits are the largest community of expats living on the island. Although COVID-19 has decimated flight schedules, several daily flights between the two countries continue to operate.
Five flights from the UK are scheduled to land in Malta on Monday, one day before the flight suspension come into effect.
Earlier in the day, the Nationalist Party had indicated it was in favour of suspending travel between Malta and the UK, saying it was "illogical and irresponsible" to allow passengers from the UK to land in Malta, with the exception of Maltese residents.
Many other countries have banned travel to the UK in recent days after the British government warned that a new, highly infectious strain of the COVID-19 virus was “out of control”.
France blocked people and goods crossing the Channel while Germany, Ireland, Italy, Austria, Romania, The Netherlands and Belgium all said they were moving to block air travel.
Health authorities in Britain's former colonial territory Hong Kong said UK flights would be banned from Tuesday.
The travel restrictions come as importers scramble to shift goods and merchandise from the UK, with days to go until Britain finally quits European Union trade structures in the wake of Brexit.
Despite mounting concerns about the strain’s infectiousness, experts say COVID-19 vaccines should be effective against it.
Europe’s medicines watchdog, the European Medicines Agency, is expected to grant a first vaccine authorisation on Monday, paving the way for it to be administered to patients across the EU.
Prime Minister Robert Abela said on Sunday that a first batch of the vaccine, which is manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech, should reach Malta by Boxing Day. Hospital staff would then start receiving inoculations the following day.
Air Malta flights remain 'operational'
Late on Monday Air Malta said its flights to and from the UK will remain operational.
However, customers should note the following:
Travelling to the UK
Passengers travelling to the UK are required to self-isolate for 10 days upon entry into the country. They may be released from quarantine if a test taken in line with the test-to-release scheme after five days is negative.
Travelling to Malta
Maltese nationals and people holding a valid residence permit in Malta are allowed to travel. Non-Maltese nationals and non-residence permit holders who are travelling for essential reasons need to obtain authorisation from the Superintendent for Public Health by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
All people will be requested to present a negative PCR test taken no longer than 72 hours prior to arrival in Malta. They will also be subject to testing on arrival and 14 days of mandatory quarantine, with a repeat PCR test required on days five to seven of quarantine.
More information on 2166 2211.