[WATCH] Imprudent to remove COVID-19 restrictions all at once, Robert Abela says

On his first 100 days in office, Prime Minister Robert Abela is interviewed on TVM’s Xtra

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

Lifting of COVID-19 restrictions will be done gradually despite the temptation of a hasty return to normality, Robert Abela has warned.

The Prime Minister said government will adopt a gradual and studied exit strategy similar to the approach used when restrictions were introduced last month.

Malta has so far managed to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic with the last few days registering very few new cases as more people recover from the virus.

“The numbers are what they are because of the way we operated and managed to contain the pandemic. The temptation is to act hastily but it would be a mistake. It would be imprudent to remove restrictions all at once,” Abela said when interviewed on TVM’s Xtra on Thursday night.

Asked whether government had a plan on when to re-open the airport, Abela said that would definitely not be among the first restrictions to be lifted.

“It is difficult to commit on a date for re-opening the airport because it also depends on what is happening abroad but that decision will definitely not be among the first,” he said.

Echoing the words of Health Minister Chris Fearne, Abela said the gradual approach will enable the health authorities to assess the situation before taking further decisions.

“We will monitor the pandemic’s behaviour and the number of infections will guide us on whether to lift more restrictions, stay put, or re-introduce them if necessary,” Abela said, conceding that the thing he missed most was meeting people.

The interview coincided with Abela’s first 100 days in office since winning the Labour Party leadership last January.

Every state’s obligation is to coordinate rescue of boats in distress

On migration, Abela said it was every state’s obligation to coordinate the rescue of a boat that is in distress in its search and rescue region.

“We did a lot to save lives and we fulfilled our legal and humanitarian obligations to save people,” he said, underscoring that a country’s SAR responsibility is to coordinate rescue.

Abela did not hide his anger over the police report filed by civil society group Repubblika against soldiers, the army commander and himself, accusing them of reneging on their duty to rescue people at sea. The group has since withdrawn one of the accusations that soldiers tried to sabotage a migrant dinghy.

“The brigadier, 11 soldiers and I are facing accusations of voluntary murder when we did everything to save people... when we said our ports are closed because of the pandemic emergency we never meant that we will not satisfy our international obligation to coordinate rescues in our search and rescue region,” Abela said.

He expressed disappointment at the manner in which the EU washed its hands of the matter.

“Europe has disappointed us. I understand that these are circumstances without precedence for all European countries but it is unfair to leave countries like Malta and Italy deal with the burden on their own,” he said.

Abela condemned racist talk but insisted the majority of people were arguing that at a time when all travel to Malta was closed because of the health emergency, it made no sense to have hundreds of migrants brought here.

“I understand this sentiment,” he said, adding that listening to people did not mean that he was a populist.

Venice Commission and good governance

Having taken the country’s helm at a time of political turmoil caused by serious accusations that Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder had links to Castille, Abela maintained that governance remained an important issue despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite the current focus on the pandemic, we have continued with implementation of the Venice Commission report recommendations… we are convinced of the importance of good governance,” Abela said.

Government has so far reached an understanding with the Opposition on changes to the judicial appointments system but has kept the proposals under wraps until it receives feedback from the Venice Commission.

Republika, which was on the forefront of anti-corruption protests that rocked Joseph Muscat’s government last year, has criticised government for not consulting with civil society before passing on its reform proposals to the Venice Commission.

Abela promised that government will eventually engage in dialogue with NGOs.