One week ago, Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne delivered some much-needed good news, especially for the business community which has faced a quasi-lockdown since March.
Pushed forward three months from the original end-September timeline, Minister Fearne said should several factors hold, Malta is on track to reach herd immunity by end-June and that the entire adult population will be offered at least one dose of the COVID vaccine by mid-August.
While a combination of factors has helped Malta’s economy through the pandemic, such as a resilient labour force and wide-reaching state aid programmes, a lack of tourism for the better part of a year, and a second round of closed businesses in March and April of this year have pushed many businesses to the brink.
As Malta’s plans to reopen to international tourism from 1st June, by which time presumably all businesses will be allowed to open their doors, and as the vaccination programme charges full steam ahead, BusinessNow.mt turned to Malta’s biggest names in business for their reaction to the latest developments.
Angelo Xuereb – Chairman of AX Group
The AX Group of companies is a conglomerate operating in four key business sectors: AX Construction, AX Development, AX Healthcare and AX Hospitality.
When asked to react to the latest announcements, Mr Xuereb told this newsroom:
“We are keen for the island to achieve herd immunity at the earliest possible date, since the impact on tourism can be significant. This is an important business segment for the AX Group and we want to see the tourism industry returning to normal.
“Moreover, we understand that this is also important from a public health perspective and the impact this has had on the lives of so many in the islands.
Additionally, Mr Xuereb remarked that: “The recovery in the tourism industry is not limited to Malta’s own success in this area, as much depends on developments and measures in our source markets. Naturally, if Malta is one of the countries that achieves herd immunity earlier this will help re-establish our tourism industry.
“The economic wellbeing of our economy is undoubtedly a concern and a priority. Most sectors of the economy have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and given the interdependence of various business sectors on each other, the overall impact has been significant.
“This is also reflected in the way that the national debt has increased during this period. In addition, although some sectors have shown resilience, others have suffered significantly.
“Surprisingly, job mobility has been active during this period, reflecting the underlying fundamental strengths and flexibility in the employment sector.”
Simon De Cesare – CEO of Eden Leisure Group
The Eden Leisure Group has been at the forefront of hospitality and entertainment in Malta since the early days of tourism fifty years ago. Eden Cinemas, Casino Malta, Cynergi health & fitness club, Holiday Inn Express, Eden SuperBowl, Intercontinental Malta, Eden Sports and 89.7 Bay all form part of the group.
When asked for comment on the latest developments, Mr De Cesare said:
“I was very heartened to hear of the new projection as well as the possibility that it could be improved further should things go well. Clearly, there have been several vaccine supply issues that we have been successful in overcoming and I hope with the introduction of Johnson and Johnson we can improve on this target date.
“Hopefully, this benchmark will have a material effect on our being placed on the UK Green List which would make Malta one of a handful of European countries UK residents can visit, which would be a unique advantage.
“Given the importance of tourism for this summer to bounce back I firmly believe that the authorities should consider a strategy of vaccinating all tourist facing employees to provide those wishing to travel to Malta peace of mind and safety. Vaccinating all restaurant, hotel and transport workers by the beginning of June would be the very best marketing that could be provided. Possibly the one-shot J&J vaccine would be the best option.”
Furthermore, Mr De Cesare said: “The earlier we can open up and provide a safe experience to our customers the better. If projections would expect herd immunity by early June rather than end, it would be even better, but supply logistics must be very difficult.”
Asked to list his major concerns currently, he put forward several points:
“How long will it take till business comes back to previous level, if ever?
“Tourism will bounce back but we have yet to address the supply of hotel bed issues. There are far too many coming on stream and we need to attract significantly more tourists to fill them up. The country is limited in size and has limited resources, and, urgent discussions and decisions are needed on the supply and demand issue.
“Will conference and incentive business come back as it was previously, or will businesses travel less now the online means are available? Will other variants scupper our progress?
“Our business is one of bringing people together and this has been effectively stopped with this pandemic. There will be casualties but fortunately, we have been cautious with our finances in the past which has served us well to weather this disaster period.”
Maria Micallef – CEO of The General Soft Drinks Company Ltd
The General Soft Drinks Co Ltd is responsible for manufacturing a wide range of soft drinks across Malta for brands owned by The Coca‑Cola Company (TCCC), including Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Fanta, Dr Pepper, Sprite, Schweppes and Kristal.
Ms Micallef, bringing a manufacturing perspective to the conversation said:
“This projection is definitely positive because it signifies that we are truly on the path of return to ‘normality’ and also that all of us will be living in a safer environment.
“It is important on various levels, first of all it will mean that our employees, mostly those who work on the market, will be working in a much safer environment. Secondly, achieving herd immunity will allow the full reopening of the HoReCa sector (hotels, restaurants and cafes) and will also attract tourists to our country which is very important to our business and local economy.
Indeed, she adds that the updated timeline for herd immunity “will absolutely help since businesses and people will feel safer and are more inclined to invest and spend”.
“We must always be cautious because this pandemic is still evolving and there is no room for complacency. I believe that there must be better international co-operation so that we can truly build a prosperous and lasting recovery for all.
On major challenges, she said that “coming out of this situation our business will have to continuously monitor its economic growth and scalability. It will be essential to continue to listen on a daily basis to what the markets, our customers, and our consumers are telling us. If there is a positive in this horrible situation that we went through, it is that we now know the importance of incidence management, agility, and flexibility.”
Nazzareno Vassallo – Chairman of Vassallo Group
With a legacy spanning over 70 years, Vassallo Group stands at the forefront of several different sectors in the local market that include property and construction, furniture and interiors, elderly and disability, catering, hospitality, architecture and education.
In his take on the current situation and the updated herd immunity timeline, Mr Vassallo told BusinessNow.mt:
“In such challenging times hearing some good news indicating a possible way out of this difficult situation undoubtedly goes down well. However, if there is one thing this pandemic has taught us is how unpredictable this pandemic could be.
“So, one needs to remain highly vigilant and with both feet firmly on the ground. On the positive side, I am obviously pleased to see that we rank high in the vaccination rate when compared to the rest of the EU and indeed the rest of the world.
“Reaching herd immunity by summer would at least augur that the country could return to some normality by autumn. This is indeed needed after a very though year.
“Therefore, in this regard I would like to encourage the authorities to keep focusing on and engaging the necessary resources to the vaccination campaign ensuring that at least 70 per cent of the population is reached as early as possible.
“The authorities should also keep encouraging vaccination particularly in the face of certain issues that crop from time to time which may affect the number of those who will ultimately get vaccinated.”
On the importance of the new timelines for recovery to his business, Mr Vassallo said:
“Like all other companies in Malta and throughout the world COVID-19 has presented us with a number of challenges at various levels. Therefore, obviously any improvement would be welcome news.
“Initially our biggest challenge was to provide the maximum protection to the more than 1,600 vulnerable residents, elderly, persons with disability and individuals with other conditions.
“The threat started easing once the vaccination process in our homes was completed in a short time thanks to the hard and professional work of our vaccination team. We now look forward to achieving herd immunity in the country and hopefully in the whole world so that this black cloud that has been hovering for over a year would hopefully dissipate.”
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