[WATCH] Robert Arrigo accuses Abela of being ‘slow and weak’ in coronavirus response

Nationalist MP Robert Arrigo criticises the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, insisting that action should have been taken earlier

PN MP Robert Arrigo was a guest on tonight's Xtra
PN MP Robert Arrigo was a guest on tonight's Xtra

Schools should have closed two weeks ago, Nationalist MP Robert Arrigo said, accusing the Prime Minister of a “slow and weak” response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Arrigo also berated the government for not stopping all flights from Europe, rather than just those from Italy, in its initial response to the outbreak.

He insisted the healthcare system was not prepared for the outbreak.

“The government had two months forewarning and it was still unprepared… Prime Minister Robert Abela was slow and weak in his decision-making,” Arrigo said on TVM’s Xtra on Thursday night.

Economy Minister Silvio Schembri took umbrage at these comments, insisting the tough measures imposed over recent days showed that people’s health is the first priority.

He said a lot of hard work and thought went into each decision taken.

The government has closed all schools for a week, banned mass gatherings and curbed travel to Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland, among other measures.

Schembri said it was thanks to the government’s hard work in recent years that the country is in a strong position to handle the economic impact of the coronavirus.

“We may have been criticised for giving a lot of importance to the economy, but it is in situations like these that we realise how important it is to be prepared,” Schembri said.

Economy Minister Silvio Schembri
Economy Minister Silvio Schembri

“We were careful, and saved up money, and as a result, we have built a large enough cushion to be able to use those saved resources to assist businesses and help neutralise the oncoming economic blow as much as possible,” he added.

Paul Abela, president of the Chamber of SMEs, and David Xuereb, president of the Chamber of Commerce, also took part in the discussion.

Abela and Xuereb both stressed the importance of the government providing aid and support to those businesses that have been impacted by the coronavirus.

“We need to work with the government to look at each individual sector and implement measures,” Abela argued, noting that one cannot look the business sector as one entity.

He said tourism and retail were among the worst hit.

“It is essential that the measures are implemented immediately. We cannot wait till next week because people are already suffering,” Abela said.

Xuereb agreed, stating that the primary concern at the moment is that of cash flow and the ability of businesses to survive until the worst of the crisis is over.

He said that after having helped contribute to Malta’s surpluses for the last few years, the government should now use some of those funds to support businesses in this time of need.

Arrigo also lent his voice to their arguments, declaring that for the third week running, the tourism industry had already experienced losses of more than €10 million in cancellations.

Schembri, on his end, reassured them that the government is already working to address the industry’s cash flow problems.

The minister refused to elaborate on the funds government will put aside for the handling of this pandemic, insisting that it is still too early to give an exact figure.

“It is premature to declare the exact figure that we will need,” Schembri said. “What I can reassure everyone with is that the country is in a good position, because we were diligent in the years before. We are in a situation where we will be able to provide all the support that is needed.”

Arrigo, however, insisted that the final sum will be around €750 million, with the Nationalist MP observing that, from a commercial standpoint, it will take at least six months for the impact of this crisis to abate.

The representatives from the business community concluded on a note of hope, with Xuereb stating that this is the ideal time for the country to stop and think about the road ahead once the virus is behind us.

Abela meanwhile, called for balance, noting that, while everyone should take all medical precautions and follow official advice, life should still go on.