Restaurants will reopen on Friday and people may gather in groups of up to six, Prime Minister Robert Abela and Health Minister Chris Fearne announced on Monday.

The government is also giving the green light to barbers and hairdressers as well as non-contact sport. Gyms, bars and childcare centres will, however, stay closed for the time being.

Abela told a press conference that he was speaking with a great sense of satisfaction.

"I am proud that we can cautiously celebrate the success of this country and its united people in the face of an unprecedented crisis," he said.

He said the country had been well prepared for the pandemic.

"From Friday the country can start to return to normality," he said.  

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He said he was especially pleased that the decisions he was announcing would not be a compromise between the economy and health. Medical evidence showed clearly that the logical step forward was to gradually ease measures. Health always came first, but one could now take more steps towards a return to normality.  

The restrictions announced on and after March 7 had been needed for the country to safely reach the current stage. The decisions being taken now were aimed to continue to improve the people's quality of life. This would be a batch of decisions to hopefully be followed by another batch within a few days. 

He said the prudent opening of establishments he was announcing would not mean a return to what there was before the outbreak.

Need to overcome fear

But he appealed to the public to overcome fear. Ultimately, he said, once the decisions were announced, it was up to the people whether or not to go to restaurants or hairdressers.

"Decisions cannot be motivated by fear, but by facts," he said.

One could say all was passed, he said, but the management of the pandemic in Malta had been 'exceptional' thanks to all the people's efforts. 

Abela stressed that protocols and guidelines needed to be followed at the establishments which would reopen.  The emphasis, he said, would be on education rather than fining people who broke the rules. This was a method which had been successful in the past weeks. 

Abela said facts showed that the first easing of restrictions, on May 4, had been successful and he wished to thank everybody for that. The country, he said, had taken correct decisions. "We did this because we consulted and discussed," he said.

He said he looked forward to coming before the people again in a few days to announce a further easing of measures.

Success achieved thanks to sacrifices

Health Minister Chris Fearne said that the risk of a tsunami overwhelming the health system had been managed and turned into a stream thanks to early action and hard work. Malta had managed to control the pandemic. This was down to the sacrifices of the people who stayed at home, the businesses community who took loses, the elderly who could not leave their homes, and the front-liners who faced the crisis. 

He announced that more non-COVID health services would now be resumed from Friday including reopening of diabetic clinics, cardio-clinics and well-baby clinics. Health offices will also reopen and there will be an increase of mental health services in the community.

At Mater Dei, there will be an increase in outpatient appointments and imaging services. There will be an increase in surgeries including ophthalmic cases, and IVF services will be resumed. 

Partners will be able to join women in deliveries.

Gatherings up to six allowed

The number of gatherings in public spaces is being raised from the current four to six but as far as possible, social distancing must be observed. 

In the cultural sector, cinemas in the open may open. 

Individual non-contact sport will be allowed from Friday, such as diving and tennis. 

Sports training of up to six people can also take place outside. Fitness classes of certain types will be allowed.

It had also been decided that funeral masses can resume from Friday although the number of people will be restricted. More details will be announced.

As of Friday, restaurants (including cafeterias and snack bars) may reopen but tables cannot have more than six people and there will need to be a certain distance between tables. Preferably, tables will be put outside rather than inside. 

Hairdressers, barbers and beauticians may also reopen, with restrictions to protect staff and clients. Open air markets will also be allowed to reopen.  

A transition phase - Charmaine Gauci

The superintendent of public health, Charmaine Gauci, said the country was now in a transition phase.

All the measures being taken were based on science and figures.

"We carried out risk assessments and identified the ideal measures to first be relaxed," she said. 

She insisted that mitigation measures and protocols must be observed, including limiting the number of people in rooms, the wearing of masks in retail shops, and social distancing.

In many cases, she said, services would have to be provided by appointment to avoid large gatherings.

Public swimming pools to reopen, but capacity halved

In all cases, people should keep a distance of two metres from others, including at beaches.

She said public (outdoor) swimming pools will be reopened, but the number of people allowed will be cut by half.  

She said hotels may reopen, under certain social distancing protocols, but the airport will stay shut. 

She said the health authorities will closely follow the evolving situation and she urged the people to follow directives by the authorities. 

When replying to questions, the prime minister said his reference earlier, to a focus on education did not mean that enforcement was on the way out. But the important thing was that people were reasonable.

Health Minister Chris Fearne said any of the measures now being lifted could be reinstated if circumstances so warranted. 

No prohibition on elderly people in shops

On whether people aged over 65 should be allowed into shops, Fearne admitted that shop owners had initially been advised not to admit elderly people, But it had since been decided that one should not be so paternalistic. This was now up to the shop owners.  

Abela insisted that the easing of measures was not a trade-off between health and the economy. The decision was based on the medical facts, not least the number of cases and the fact that COVID-19 beds had remained empty. The decision was taken because the authorities were convinced that they could be taken.

He said child care centres will remain closed, but the plan was to lift the restriction in the next batch of announcements in the near future if the situation continued to improve.  

Gyms, tattoo parlours and bars will also stay closed for now, although snack bars can open. 

Abela said there was no date so far as to when the airport may reopen but talks were being held with several countries on possible safe corridors when appropriate. "We will not be late, but we cannot act in haste," he said.

No further need for pre-fabricated hospital

Asked about the government's decision to drop its plans for a pre-fabricated hospital, Fearne said the initial decision to have a pre-fabricated hospital had been taken at a time when hospital services in several major cities were being overwhelmed.

The authorities in Malta felt the only limiting factor for hospital services in Malta should be medical personnel, not equipment. While other countries squabbled over the provision of ventilators, Malta managed to procure all the ventilators it sought.

Meanwhile, the authorities converted two halls at the university, close to Mater Dei, for COVID patients, if needed. Malta also managed to control the pandemic and therefore there was no longer a need for more beds. The order for a pre-fabricated hospital was then dropped.

In reply to other questions, Abela said politicians never did over-riding of the health authorities. 

He said that with regard to the economic measures, the government had talks with all stakeholders and would continue to do so, even with regard to the guidelines on the opening of establishments. 

In closing, the prime minister said that not so long ago he had said Malta would still have a summer, today he was in a position to say he would follow through on that promise.  

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