• Events of more than 100 indoors and 300 outdoors banned
  • Hospital visits reduced to one hour a day and only family
  • Visits to elderly restricted and must be held behind perspex
  • Dance floors shut down
  • €50 fine for not wearing masks on transport and in shops 

Large events have been banned in Malta after a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases linked to parties, festivals and nightclubs, Health Minister Chris Fearne has announced. 

Events will only be permitted if there are fewer than 100 people inside and 300 outside, based on social distancing rules that already restrict venues to one person per four square metres. 

Dance floors have also been shut down in an attempt to control the surge of cases.

It comes as 49 new cases of coronavirus were confirmed on Friday, bringing Malta's total number of active cases to 311, which is among the top ten highest rates in the EU.

Fearne said: "We need to be responsible, for the good of those most at risk.” 

Visits to residential homes for the elderly have been restricted to one member of the family and must be held behind perspex screens.  Hospital visits will also be reduced to one hour a day and one visitor per patient. 

Fearne was speaking alongside Prime Minister Robert Abela, who has been heavily criticised for his decision to allow large-scale events to go ahead.

"This is not a time to point the finger of blame," Abela said. "We took all steps during this pandemic with the best interest of the public in mind."

Watch the news conference:

Fearne and Abela held the news conference after a meeting with social and economic stakeholders and medical unions on Thursday night where they discussed the worsening situation.

Abela said that measures presented by Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci had reached "unanimous consensus" except for the Medical Association of Malta, which had a reservation over the organisation of weddings. 

He appealed to the doctors union to continue dialogue.

Abela said that Malta had reached an "important juncture" where there must be  a balance between health and the economy. 

He said: "We have a healthcare system that is excellent. We need it to continue working without being paralysed by industrial action."

Addressing the spike in the number of cases, he said that while they had increased, the rate of serious cases remained consistently low. "I am not making light of the situation but being factual," he said.

Malta 'cannot remain shut off'

The government's priority remains to "ensure that the hospital can never be overwhelmed by this pandemic" but that at this point, facilities are "barely being used".

He said it was clear that cases were going to climb from July with 118,000 arrivals from the airport and 22,300 arrivals and departures from the Malta-Sicily sea ferry. 

Malta can not remain shut off as an island, he argued. Seven families a day are finding jobs after previously being sacked and unemployment was under 4,000.

“The lives and livelihoods of the public was the balance we wanted to strike,” he said.

He defended the government's initial decision to allow permits for four international festivals, claiming they would have boosted the economy by €25 million.

"But we listened. And we cancelled them. And went a step further and now no mass events."

'Guiding principles' overstepped

Fearne said the "guiding principles" of the government's approach to tackling the pandemic - social distancing, testing and caring for the most vulnerable - had been "overstepped" in the last few days of July. 

He said the new measures would "fix" the situation.

He said all venues must have clear signage for how many people can be inside at any given time to make it easier for enforcement officers and authorities to assess whether rules were being followed.

"This needs to be tied to strong enforcement," he said. "The Malta Tourism Authority, police, and environmental health will all ensure these rules are respected."

Two new testing hubs will be set up to address the waiting list of people booking to get swabbed for COVID-19 and to "identify cases faster". 

On the vulnerable, he said they remained the biggest concern so carers and residents of homes for the elderly will be tested regularly. Visits will be restricted to family members only and will be held behind perspex.

He said that a €50 fine for not wearing masks was introduced on the insistence of the social partners.

 

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