Masks

Earlier this week, the Malta Chamber of SMEs published the results of a survey it conducted among 250 small-to-medium local businesses, to gauge their performance last year and their outlook for 2022.

Among other questions, businesses were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with several statements related to COVID-19 measures.

Given that several measures have been added, revoked and amended in recent weeks, it’s worth recapping what is currently in place and what businesses and the organisations that represent them have been calling for.

Quarantine

When speaking to businesses, quarantine is by far their biggest COVID-related issue. According to the SME Chamber’s survey, 13 per cent of businesses reported having 30 per cent or more of their workforce in quarantine.

The SME Chamber has repeatedly called for the scrapping of quarantine requirements for vaccinated people who come in contact with virus cases, and for the quarantine period for those who test positive to be reduced to five days.

Currently, primary contacts must quarantine for 10 days, if fully vaccinated. Early release is a possibility if a negative swab test is obtained on the seventh day, and the person is showing no symptoms.

The suggestions by the SMEs Chamber, as well as those of other organisations such as The Malta Chamber, seem to have been taken on board by the Government. Last month, Health Minister Chris Fearne announced that, since the virus is now spreading less, the health authorities should be in a position to reduce the quarantine period for primary contacts to five days by the second half of Februrary, with the aim of eventually removing it completely.

Harmonised travel rules

The biggest point of contention regarding travel rules appears to be the validity period of vaccination certificates.

According to new rules that came into force on 17th January, certificates are valid for only three months from the second dose instead of the nine-month period set out by the European Commission.

Last month, Malta International Airport (MIA) accused the health authorities of making it harder for Maltese residents to travel and thus putting the airport at a disadvantage compared to its European counterparts.

Malta’s decision has also attracted criticism from further afield, with European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides insisting that Malta’s differing rules could lead to “fragmentation which weakens a common response to the crisis.”

Restrictions

It’s been a rollercoaster few weeks in terms of restrictions. On 17th January, new rules came into force that required bars, restaurants, kazini, gyms, casinos and others to only allow entry to fully vaccinated customers.

But just a week later, following outcry from several affected businesses, Health Minister Chris Fearne announced that the law would be scrapped, with the rule no longer applying to restaurants, snack bars, and kazini from Februrary 7th, with bars, gyms, pools, spas, cinemas, and theatres following a week later.

However, it appears that businesses are not fully satisfied just yet, with the survey showing that 73 per cent either agree or strongly agree with removing further restrictions. And while The Malta Hotels and Restaurants Associaton (MHRA) praised the decision to scrap the measures, it has called for all restrictions to be lifted.

As for what restrictions are still in place, the lifting of the vaccine certificate requirement will not yet apply to mass events, sports events, casinos and nightclubs.

Masks must still be worn in enclosed public spaces, while bars, restaurants and other such establishments must still close by 1 a.m.

Living with COVID

The idea of living with COVID has become something of a mantra when speaking to businesses, an observation that the SME Chamber’s survey bears out.

Ostensibly, living with COVID means accepting that the virus is here to stay and that it will never be fully eliminated. In turn, this would mean that all measures be dropped – quarantine, social distancing and even mandatory mask-wearing.

It is a direction that several countries are taking. Just this week, Denmark lifted all of its domestic COVID-19 restrictions, including the wearing of face masks. In the UK, face masks are also no longer be mandatory in public places, while COVID-19 passports will be dropped for large events.

The advantage of this strategy is that it allows life to carry on, bringing about economic recovery. The downside is that a spike in cases or the emergence of a new variant risks overwhelming a country’s healthcare system.

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