Let’s not err too much on the side of caution

Instead of reacting to each new development in fits and starts, government needs to sit down with its medical advisers… and come up with a plan, fas

After the fiasco of last summer, it is altogether understandable that government would prefer to ‘err on the side of caution’, when it comes to easing restrictions after lockdown.

But an error still remains an error, even if for understandable reasons. And government appears to have made a few mistakes, in its reactions to the latest upsurge in COVID-19 cases.

For instance: its decision to immediately shut down the English language school sector, after a spike of cases involving unvaccinated students. FELTOM, the sector’s representative association, surely had a point when it complained about “the lack of direction from government, with regard to the thousands of clients already on the island who have been left with no guidance.”

It was, after all, the government which had decided to open up the country even to unvaccinated arrivals. So by accepting bookings, under those circumstances, language schools were only following the guidelines established for them by the Maltese health authorities.

Even if we argue if that it was a mistake not to insist on vaccination, as a pre-requisite for travelling to Malta – and not everyone would agree with that: including the European Commission – it still remains grossly unfair for an entire sector to be shut down, purely on the basis of a mistake made by others.

But the reaction was excessive for another reason. As FELTOM put it in its press release: “This sudden unilateral decision by the Government sends out a message that a cluster that did not emerge from any breach of protocols […], can lead to such disproportionate and extreme measures. Inevitably this will have significant economic consequences to the entire tourism industry, its employees and its stakeholders.”

One could argue that the consequences could go well beyond the tourism industry. Ultimately, all sectors of the economy rely on government to give them clear, precise guidelines on what they can, or cannot do.

So if businesses are now to be ‘punished’, even when they comply with existing guidelines… they would be perfectly justified in asking themselves whether it is even worth trying to comply in the first place.

Nor is this the only question raised. Businesses are also asking what was the point of getting vaccinated in the first place: if not precisely to withstand the effects of possible infections from COVID, without having to resort to such draconian restrictions.

Another question worth asking is: should not the real measure of the gravity of COVID now be the scale of hospitalisation, rather than infectious cases? That is to say: since the Maltese now have a coverage of 80% vaccination with both doses, the real measure of the COVID threat should not be the cases which merely require self-isolation; but the ones that would place a burden on our health system.

Viewed from this angle, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any justification for government’s excessive reaction. Unlike last March, Mater Dei’s emergency services are understood to be coping with the current case-load without any discernible problems. Why, then, is government reacting as if to a crisis… when the situation, in itself, appears to be under control?

This points towards another mistake the government seems to be making: where, last year, it was totally oblivious to the public’s justified anxiety… today, it seems to be almost pandering to public panic.  For it is ultimately the general public – and not the experts in the field – which has reacted with panic at the latest COVID-19 statistics.

Surely, any government would be wise to base its decisions on what the experts (as opposed to the vast, inexpert multitudes) have to say in the matter. And – unlike March this year – Malta’s medical community does not, at the moment, seem to be of the opinion that we are dealing with a comparable crisis today.

To be fair, however, it is not an easy balance to strike. Government still needs to balance out reassuring an alarmed public (and therefore voters), with the need for businesses to keep welcoming tourists (and provide an income for thousands of Maltese).

It is also clear, as usual, that there is a difference of opinion within Maltese government: Prime Minister Robert Abela is known to be more partial to opening the doors that allow Maltese workers a chance to earn their livelihood; Health Minister Chris Fearne prefers prevention, rather than cure.

These differences in opinion are to be expected; but we still need to hear out the business side of things. It is not just language schools that require guidance from government, on precisely how to organise their businesses to cope with today’s reality. Nor is it even just tourism, or any other particular sector.

Everyone – from those involved in the arts, to the organisers of mass-events, all the way down to a family planning a wedding – needs a carefully planned strategy on how to re-open their activities, without falling fouling of ever-changing restrictions.

So instead of reacting to each new development in fits and starts, government needs to sit down with its medical advisers… and come up with a plan, fast.