The Malta Independent 24 October 2020, Saturday

New Covid-19 restrictions: Masks must be worn outdoors and while at work; bars to close at 11pm

Friday, 16 October 2020, 18:47 Last update: about 4 days ago

Kevin Schembri Orland and Karl Azzopardi

The government announced a number of new Covid-19 restrictive measures today, including that masks need to effectively be worn everywhere and that bars and clubs must close at 11pm.

The press conference announcing the new measures was held by Prime Minister Robert Abela, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, The Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Galea and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri.

It was announced that as from Saturday, the use of masks will be required everywhere, this includes at all outdoor public places. Children up to the age of three will be exempt from wearing masks, as will people with certain medical conditions.

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People can remove their mask in certain situations: while in their homes; when in their private cars; when doing strenuous physical activity like jogging and cycling outdoors (however masks must be carried and worn when stopping such activity); when alone in their office; when people are speaking with a person who needs to read lips to communicate; when public speaking at an activity but social distancing must be observed; in situations when identification is required but masks must be worn right before and after; when a person undergoes a treatment on their face; when sitting down and eating at a restaurant.

Fines for not wearing a mask in areas where it was not required previously will start being issued in one week's time, allowing for the public to get used to this measure.

It was also announced that entertainment and catering establishments, including bars and clubs, must from Monday shut their doors by 11pm each night. Restaurants will be able to remain open later.

Prime Minister Robert Abela said that Malta is at a critical moment in terms of controlling Covid-19. Referring to the budget, he said: "On Monday, the government will announce economic measures to help Maltese and Gozitans to safeguard their jobs and to keep businesses strong."

Abela said that while health will remain a priority, life must also continue. "Parents must continue working, children must continue with their education and businesses must continue operating." He said that for this to happen we must be responsible for each other.

He urged everyone to, wherever possible, work from home. The Prime Minister said that the number of cases increased, but the situation is under control.

Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne said that regulations are not being observed as much as they were at the beginning of the pandemic as the fear in March and April reduced in certain sections of the population. He said that this needs to be addressed and the government will do this through educating the public and through enforcement. Fearne said that 150,000 inspections in establishments took place over summer. He said that, in agreement with the Malta tourism Authority, where a breach of regulations is found in an establishment, fines will no longer be the only option, explaining that if there are repeat offenders licences could be withdrawn.

Fearne added that from 28 October the government will introduce rapid testing systems. Over the past weeks antigen rapid tests were developed, he said, and have a 90% success rate. They will be used initially at the airport, to help the education department when there is suspicion of teachers or students contracting Covid-19, in medical settings like at the ITU and in primary healthcare, and in elderly homes.

Turning to the flu vaccine, he said that last year 89,000 vaccines were used. In the first 6 days of this year's campaign, 75,000 vaccines were already used.

Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said that "if we do not do our part, all that we announced today will mean nothing. I appeal to each and everyone of you to observe the regulations."

He said that the enforcement authorities were and will continue conducting the relevant inspections and will increase them through Covid-dedicated teams, that will deal with these regulations.

LESA will continue focusing on Covid-related measures, including the wearing of masks, inspections on public transport. The Inspectorate of Public Health will continue checking on those in quarantine. The police will help in regards to public gatherings and dealing with Covid measures. The Tourism Authority will continue inspecting restaurants etc.

Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci said that wearing a mask protects others. She said that the law will read that everyone must carry a mask on them and wear it when leaving home.

In schools it will be obligatory for primary classes upwards for masks to be worn at all times. 

The Malta Independent asked the PM why the government is not being proactive seeing that it seems to implement measures when the situation worsens, a recent example being the situation in elderly homes a few weeks back.

Abela said that when it comes to the implementation of measures, one has to keep three factors in mind; be vigilant, calibrated and precise. He did not agree that the government was not proactive since it reacted immediately when needed, as it did today, while keeping public health as a priority and the government does not exclude changing measures or enforcing them where needed. "Mistakes can happen and a pandemic can guarantee that mistakes will happen, but you cannot be scared to make immediate decisions."

He was also asked how much the contravention for not wearing a mask will cost and the procedure that will be taken in this regard. The amount will remain the same and follow the same procedure as it always has, Abela said, "but we will not exclude increasing the amount and enforcement on this very important measure if we see that people are still not abiding by the law."

The PM was also asked if the time has come to stop trips or vacations abroad considering reports of two EU leaders present at the EU summit who had to quarantine because they came in contact with positive cases.

Abela said that his trip to Brussels was not a vacation as it involved two days of deep discussions on pressing issues. However, there was a debate on whether meetings should be held online or not which received mixed feedback from those present. He said that a meeting concerning sanctions in relation to Turkey which was supposed to be held in November has been postponed. Having said that, he explained that these meetings are a symbol of the unity that the EU is showing during these difficult times. 

With regards to vacations, he said that civil society is mature and responsible enough to not need the government to hold its hand on the subject. 

"My message is to be prudent and cautious, everyone is responsible for their own actions. It is not a case of telling people not to travel, it is about having the right protocols in place to prevent the virus from spreading. Tourism is important for this country and other islands and we have the right measures implemented as we have seen with passengers on the MSC Grandiosa not being allowed to disembark due to a suspected COVID-19 case."

Furthermore, he was asked if he regrets saying that "waves are at sea" when the first wave was dying down back in June. He said that he will stick by what he has always replied to this question, saying that circumstances are different now then it was back in May and requires a different approach. There always needs to be a balance between the economy and health which is not easy to achieve, however, the authorities are now more prepared then they were back then.

Similarly, this newsroom asked Fearne if he thinks that his comment "we have won the war" when Malta was registering less than 5 new cases per day at the start of the summer.

He said that at the time, multiple countries were experiencing a reduction in new cases, which come as a result of the implemented measures and, speculatively, from the summer heat or because the pandemic was being exhausted. 

What remains certain is that the measures are what work to control the virus, he said, but the efficiency of these measures depends on whether or not people abide by them. "People all over the world are getting tired of the pandemic but we have faith that in the coming months the vaccine will be made available."

Asked if Malta has enough medical personnel and resources to control the situation right now seeing that even retired doctors are being called in to help, Fearne said that with this spike, the authorities started looking into strengthening resources. 

 

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