Over the last two weeks there have been significant declines in the indicators of COVID-19. The positive numbers were reeled out at yesterday’s press conference given by the prime minister, the health minister and public health chief.
There have been steep falls in the numbers of daily cases, hospitalisations and ITU patients. Meanwhile, the vaccination programme is proceeding apace, with more than four in 10 of the adult population having received at least a first dose.
This is all excellent news and appears to show how effective the shutdown and stricter enforcement of measures have been in tandem with the speedy and efficient vaccination rollout.
Yesterday’s press conference also seemed to convey a full alignment of goals between the prime minister and his health experts. The message was one of a cautious, phased reopening whose progress will depend on the figures staying in positive territory, with an insistence that health will remain the top priority.
The prime minister demonstrated a marked change in tone from earlier declarations he has made throughout the months of the pandemic, which were characterised at times by dismissal of the seriousness of the disease and at others by reckless pledges about the return to normality. Lessons have been learned, if only from necessity.
The economic incentive cannot be diminished though. As both Robert Abela and Chris Fearne emphasised, the goal is to be on the green travel lists of our main tourism markets by the summer in the hope of firing up the economy again.
The government appears keen not to mess this up like it did last time with a rushed summer reopening. And it is well to remember that we have been through this whole cycle before.
When numbers go up, and more people become seriously ill and die, restrictions are tightened. When numbers go down, restrictions are loosened too early, fuelled by a sense of complacency and COVID fatigue, and further compounded by economic pressure, with a subsequent return to square one.
While the figures have improved substantially, they are nothing to be complacent about. The huge spike we saw in March started from a much lower baseline than where we stand now.
While the vaccination programme is far more advanced than it was then, only 60,000 people have received a second dose so far and full immunity is not achieved until two weeks after that. We are nowhere near herd immunity yet.
Another concern is the potential importation and spread of virus strains resistant to the currently available vaccines. That would be a disaster for the country, a possibility neglected at our peril.
So long as any virus is being freely transmitted in the population, the chances of mutations are very real and very likely to occur. They already have and new ones will almost certainly surface in the future. Whether they will cause less or more severe illness, whether they will be more resistant to the current vaccines, only time will tell.
It is, therefore, imperative that Malta continues to impose mandatory PCR tests for all incoming arrivals if they do not produce a negative test certificate. This will be no deterrent for prospective visitors. On the contrary, it will put their and their government’s minds at rest that Malta is a ‘safe’ destination.
This is no time to let our guard down, as was emphasised yesterday. Rather, it is an opportunity to bring COVID-19 under fuller control.
Only then will we save lives. Only then will we save our summer. Only then will we be able to return to a semblance of normality.
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