New Covid-19 measures: Schools, gyms and non-essential shops to close; travel to Gozo restricted

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 March, 2021 at 9:04 am by Andre Camilleri

  • 62% of new infections related to UK variant

Schools, gyms, and non-essential shops – amongst others – will close down while travel to Gozo is also being restricted, the government has announced.

In a press conference on the day that Malta reported a record-setting 510 cases of the virus, the Prime Minister announced a raft of new measures which heavily resemble the measures taken almost a year ago, when Malta first started to face the pandemic.

Prime Minister Robert Abela said that various measures have been introduced over the past year according to scientific advice and changing circumstances. New challenges have presented themselves over the past few days, he said, announcing that over 60% of new cases found were linked to the more transmissible UK variant of the virus. 

It is clear that the vaccine is working and the rate of vaccination is very strong. More than 100,000 doses have been administered so far. But, while we attack with the vaccine, we need to defend with measures that stop the spread.”

Abela said new measures needed to be taken to protect the hospitals and reduce the infection rate.

As from Friday, shops offering non-essential services will remain closed. These include shops that sell clothes, sportswear, jewellery, perfumes, beaty products, soft furnishings, souvenirs, discount shops, toyshops and hoppy shops, florists, vaping shops, hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, tattooists and nail technicians.

Travelling to Gozo will be limited to essential activities and residents.

People cannot gather in groups of more than 4 outdoors. The mixing of households, even at private residences, is being greatly discouraged.

All organised sports, gyms, cinemas, museums and theatres will close down.

Weddings and religious activities will stop, but funerals will continue.

From Monday, educational institutions will close down until the start of the Easter holidays. Until then, lessons will be given online.

Abela said there was no need to introduce new measures at the airport and seaports because the measures in place were deemed to be sufficient.

Abela said there are clear priorities: to protect public health and the economy.

The businesses that are affected by these new measures will receive the full wage supplement for the duration of their shut-down.

Abela said the vaccination drive is crucial. He also insisted that the government will remain behind the country’s front liners.

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne said that, at this time last year, Mater Dei Hospital had one Intensive Therapy Unit. There are currently three ITUs providing care for Covid-19 patients, apart from two other ones. Another ward is immediately available and a seventh one is on stand-by. There is also an ITU at the Gozo General Hospital.

“To be able to operate them we do not only need equipment, but also human resources. Non-elective surgery is being suspended so that the staff can help out at the ITUs,” he said. The Deputy Prime Minster said a plan is in place to make sure that waiting lists that will be created as a result of these measures will be addressed in the near future.

Fearne said the testing being used today not only gives a positive or negative result but also indicates which variant of the virus the patient is infected with.

He also said the vaccination programme is on track. “We are administering between 3,500 and 4,000 doses every day. 17% of the population has received the first dose and 8% have received both doses.”

Fearne also said that 55% of vulnerable people and 82% of the elderly have been vaccinated.

The European Medicines Agency is set to approve the fourth vaccine, made by Johnson and Johnson, of which Malta has 250,000 doses reserved.

Two more vaccination centres are set to open on Friday – one at MCAST and the other one at the Aurora in Gozo.

Fearne said the UK variant is highly transmissible and the only way to reduce the spread is to reduce social contact a much as possible. “People should be responsible and, where possible, avoid social contact.”

He also conceded that the contact tracing service is under greater strain due to the high case numbers. “We are increasing human resources in this sector so that we can reach positive persons within 24 hours and their contacts within a few days.”

Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci said the virus has always presented challenges and the variant is affecting transmission. “We always tried to control the situation while giving our patients the best quality care.”

The fact that the mortality rate is decreasing shows that the vaccine is successful in protecting the elderly and vulnerable, she said.

“It is true that these measures are harsh, but it is important that we follow them rigorously,” she said.

Asked if the elderly should stay indoors, Gauci said that they should be more careful. If they need to go out shopping, they should avoid busy hours, and prevention measures such as the wearing of masks and handwashing remain as important as ever.

Fearne added that the measures in place at care homes will remain for the time being since the vaccine is still not 100% effective (but around 95%) and in view of the high numbers in the community.

Asked why he did not declare a public health emergency, the Prime Minister said the country was in a different scenario last year. “Back then, there was a lot we did not know and we did not have the vaccine either. We discussed with the experts. The easiest thing would have been to place all responsibility on Professor Gauci, but we decided to shoulder the responsibility together.”

Asked by this newsroom why he did not declare a lockdown, Abela said “the expert advice did not take us in that direction but, nonetheless, we are stepping up measures to restrict measures to essentials only.”

Gauci added that the measures taken are “always proportionate to the situation.”

Asked if he still wants to be Prime Minister and whether he still feels he is the right man for the job, Abela said he will keep working with determination so that the country emerges from this challenge.

Yesterday, prior to the press conference, the government was under immense pressure to implement more measures. MUMN President Paul Pace, in comments which came prior to the announcement of new measures, were in favour of a lockdown and were critical of the decisions which brought the country into the current situation.

Pace had weighed in on the stresses the healthcare system is facing. “Doctors now have to choose who will live and who will die. This is all because the beds in ITU are full”.

The blame for all this, Pace said, was the message that was previously being transmitted to the population, that the hospital was coping well and that normality was a stone’s throw away.

The Medical Association of Malta (MAM) President Martin Balzan had also spoken to this newsroom prior to the announced measures and had strongly appealed to the public to be responsible and stay at home.

Balzan said that from the point of view of the health care system, “the number of admissions to hospital and the number of intensive care beds will not be able to cope with this heavy load.”  Balzan explained that on Tuesday the number of daily admissions to hospitals due to Covid—19 stood at 25 to 30 people. This amount is equivalent to filling up a whole ward within the hospital.

Apart from the limited machines, beds and space to treat Covid-19 patients, Balzan remarked that the major limiting factor is the number of doctors and nurses who are available.  “Both the number of admissions to hospitals and intensive care beds is currently at a critical level, therefore having over 500 cases a day is a situation which we cannot have as this is simply unsustainable”, he added.

The Malta Union of Teachers welcomed the decision by the government to close all education institutions from Monday. “The government has accepted the MUT’s proposal as presented yesterday afternoon during the meeting held. The MUT shall be working with educators and respective stakeholders for the transition to online learning.”

Earlier in the day, both the MUT and the Union of Professional Educators (UPE) had been piling on the pressure for government to close down the schools and switch to online teaching. In fact, both had filed industrial disputes against the government after yesterday’s record-breaking 510 positive cases were recorded.

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