Let’s not repeat last year’s mistakes

Until the vaccination programme is well underway, caution must be advised against any unnecessary social interaction that could lead to a rise in COVID cases

Judging by a recent media interview, Prime Minister Robert Abela appears to have learnt a few lessons from his past mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. 

“This will not be an aggressive opening but a cautious one,” he said, in reference to government’s latest plans to ease existing restrictions. “But I am positive because the decisions being taken are based on what science is telling us.” 

Unlike the situation in June 2020 – when government rushed to re-open tourism before the onset of the summer season, against all expert advice – what we are promised today is a “cautious relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, starting with a staggered reopening of schools from next Monday [tomorrow].” 

Other activities – including hospital visits – will also resume this week. Some, such as Church services, are to resume by 18 April: all with mitigation protocols in place. Non-essential shops and services will have to wait until 26 April, while no date has yet been set for the reopening of bars and restaurants. 

Perhaps the most significant announcement, however, was that the target-date for a re-opening to large-scale tourism – set for June 1 – is itself dependent on our ability to contain the pandemic until then.  

Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci said that these, and other decisions will depend on “the positivity rate, the seven-day moving average of new infections, and hospitalisations.” As such, it is a far cry for the mad scramble to re-open, as quickly and fully as possible, that we witnessed last year. 

All this indicates just how important it is for governments to allow their decisions to be ruled by science, rather than expedience. It also attests to the sheer success of the most recent restrictive measures: introduced last March, when Malta experienced its most dramatic infection surges since the crisis began. 

Once government finally conceded that health experts (who had been advocating for a partial lock-down since Christmas) had been right all along, the number of new cases per day plummeted rapidly: from a once daily-high of 300 and over, to just under 50. 

There were, however, other instances where the government clearly failed to heed expert scientific advice. One of the more damning recent revelations was that the COVID-19 team’s calls in May 2020, to postpone travel reopening until September 2020, were apparently not taken on board.  

Undoubtedly, this led to the careless tourism strategy of summer 2020: which almost immediately led to restrictions being once again imposed in September.  

In that May 2020 plan, the Superintendence had also warned that Malta’s public health systems would be “too slow” to manage a resurgence of COVID-19 from an easing of physical distancing measures. It said it would need “resilient monitoring tools” and technology for a “certain level of digital surveillance of cases and their contact” in order to obtain rapid alerts on any re-escalating progression of COVID-19. 

Indeed, the Superintendence even used the word “months” to denote the length of the transition plan from mid-May onwards. In practice, however, the transition took place in a matter of hours… and matters were not helped by the Prime Minister’s cavalier attitude towards the concerns of the general public, either. 

Apart from the effect of all this on the second wave itself, Abela’s past mistakes may also have dented his government’s reputation as a ‘capable pair of hands’.  

The wave of record-breaking COVID cases last March was so serious, that it left the general public doubting whether Labour administration was even listening to its medical experts at all; or, conversely, if Malta's health czar was able to withstand pressure from the political class, to mandate the necessary restrictions to keep COVID cases down.  

Much therefore now hinges on the government’s ability to avoid repeating those past mistakes: for as Malta inevitably enters election mode, Abela’s political fortunes may well end up depending entirely on the success – or otherwise – of the decisions he takes today.  

And today, more than ever, the lesson is clear: until the vaccination programme is well underway, caution must be advised against any unnecessary social interaction that could lead to a rise in COVID cases. It must be made clear, that any (or all) of the relaxed restrictions may be re-imposed, in the event of an umpteenth surge. 

And above all, the public must be reassured that this time round, the government’s decisions really are “based on what science is telling us.” Anything less would almost certainly be a repeat of last year’s fiasco; and the public may be less forgiving a second time.