The government has ordered all non-essential shops and services as well as schools to close for at least a month amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Prime Minister Robert Abela in a press conference also announced that:
- All restaurants and ancillary services in hotels will close and only room service will be provided;
- Closure of non-essential shops and services including hairdressers, barbers, beauty shops, clothes shops, furniture and jewellery shops, toyshops and florists;
- Crossings to Gozo will be limited to essential travel and those who own property on the island;
- Groups gathering in public are being limited to four from the current six;
- All organised sports activities are banned;
- Pools, cinemas, museums, theatres, wedding receptions and religious activities banned except funerals;
- Non-urgent surgery to be postponed;
- Religious activities including Masses stopped except funerals;
- The measures apply until April 11.
Business establishments that are being ordered to close will benefit from the wage supplement.
The schools closure starts on Monday and teaching will revert online. All other measures come into force on Thursday.
In his remarks, the prime minister said this was an unprecedented situation in Malta and all over the world and measures had been changed on the basis of needs and results.
The past days presented new challenges because of the new virus variant. More than 60 per cent of the new cases were a result of the new, more contagious UK variant.
However, it was heartening to note that the vaccines which were being administered were working, he said.
The purpose of the new measures is to ensure that medical facilities can cope with the situation, help curb the spread of infections and improve current vaccination capacity, he added.
Health Minister Chris Fearne confirmed the surge in COVID-19 cases was due to the so-called UK variant of the virus, but there had been no new cases of other variants.
He said three COVID ITUs are open at Mater Dei Hospital and another has been prepared. If needed, a fifth ITU is on stand-by. This excludes the normal ITU, the Gozo ITU and the children's ITU. There are currently 28 patients receiving treatment for COVID-19 in intensive care.
The minister thanked all medical staff and said from Saturday non-urgent surgeries will be suspended so that staff can focus on COVID cases.
110,000 jabs so far
The minister said almost 110,000 first doses of the vaccine had been administered, covering almost 17 per cent of the population. More than 8% had received the second jab. This was by far the highest rate in the EU.
A total of 82% of those aged over 80 had received the vaccine, along with 55% of vulnerable people. Vaccination had now started on those between 60 and 79 years of age.
The target had always been to achieve herd immunity by the end of September, he said. That target had now been moved forward by five weeks.
Other restrictions still in place
Other restrictions, announced over the past months and weeks, remain in force, including:
• Closure of all restaurants, bars and other catering establishments other than for take-aways;
• Mandatory wearing of masks in all public spaces, inside and outdoors;
• Groups in houses may consist of members of not more than four households;
• A ban on boat parties;
• Hospital visits suspended.
Health authorities did not recommend lockdown
The new measures are similar to those announced in March last year, when the first cases of COVID-19 were detected. The school closure had lasted till the end of the scholastic year in June.
When replying to questions, the prime minister said the government had not opted for a lockdown because that was not what the health authorities had requested. Nonetheless, activities were restricted to what was essential.
No need was seen to change restrictions impacting the harbour and airport since few passengers were travelling.
Fearne said that while non-urgent operations were being suspended, other medical services, such as screening services, would be retained.
The minister said he looked forward to the EU approval of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine in the coming days. This is a single-jab vaccine of which Malta has ordered 250,000.
Asked if the elderly are being required to stay at home, Charmaine Gauci, the Superintendent for Public Health said the recommendation was that all vulnerable people should stay within their 'bubble' and avoid other people as far as possible.
Both Gauci and Fearne pointed out that many elderly people have now been vaccinated. The vaccine is also effective against the new variant. Nonetheless, since protection is estimated to be 90%, it was wise to continue to take precautions.
Questioned as to why schools are being closed, after the government had argued that it was better and safer to leave them open, the prime minister said the situation had changed. Furthermore, the school term would soon end anyway and closure of the schools was one of the last resorts.
Asked if he would assume political responsibility for the current situation, which is very different from what he projected, the prime minister said it was his duty to continue to work for a restoration of normality while protecting the people's lives and livelihoods.
He said measures were adjusted on the basis of scientific advice.
Asked if he would apologise for recent statements that the Maltese were living in "heaven on earth" and that the battle against the virus had been won, Abela said that instead of trying to politicise the situation, all should understand that political confrontation would hamper efforts to emerge from the pandemic as quickly as possible.
He was therefore appealing for responsibility and a collective effort.
Pressure for new measures
The government had been under pressure to take new measures, with teachers calling for a closure of schools and the Malta Employers' Association warning that unless new measures were taken immediately, there was a risk that the tourism industry would suffer another poor summer. Unions and organisations in the health sector have called for new restrictions in order to avoid the risk of health services being over-run.
Opposition leader Bernard Grech earlier on Wednesday urged the government to declare a national health emergency, handing more decision-making power to the health authorities.
Abela in his press conference said there was no need to shift the burden fully to the superintendent for public health by declaring a public health emergency.
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