Hotels chief brands COVID-19 cautiousness as ‘Project Fear’

MHRA chief Tony Zahra pours scorn on the fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, while doctors’ union head calls for greater caution on the lifting of restrictions

MHRA President Tony Zahra
MHRA President Tony Zahra

Caution and concern accompanying COVID-19 is all about “Project Fear”, according to Tony Zahra, president of the hoteliers’ association.

Zahra also cast doubt on the severity of the coronavirus, insisting that certain sources claimed the common flu had more of an impact than COVID-19.

He asked: “What has become of the thousands of coronavirus-related deaths which had been forecast?”

Zahra made his outlandish comments on TVM’s Xtra on Thursday night.

The president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association argued that countries, like Greece and Italy, are already planning on lifting restrictions completely, insisting Malta can do the same.

He added: “How long are you going to keep on staying inside? Life should not be spent travelling from home to work and back.”

The MHRA president also warned of the consequences of keeping the coronavirus measures in place, noting that while the entire country benefits from the tourism sector, so too will everyone suffer, if the airport remains closed and tourism does not restart.

“If you leave this tap [of tourism] closed, there will be consequences,” Zahra warned. The MHRA has been clamouring for a reopening of the airport.

'You can't have the cake and eat it'

However, the healthcare union chiefs disagreed with Zahra’s comments, with Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses President Paul Pace retorting angrily: “You can’t have the cake and eat it. The way things are going, we will be fortunate if we open the restaurants and bars without consequences.”

Pace said that Malta’s success has not come about by accident, but as result of rigorous contact tracing and quarantine enforcement, and that if these are removed in the interest of tourism, it may leave a negative impact on the country as a whole. 

Medical Association of Malta President Martin Balzan expressed similar remarks, noting that the decrease in public discipline in recent weeks, and the rise in COVID-19 cases has shown this is not the time to consider relaxing more measures.

Balzan said that the initial loosening of measures was justified, but bemoaned the fact that the public was given the impression that discipline can start to be relaxed as well, which, he argued is what has led to the recent spike in the infection rate.

“The relaxing of measures took place at the right time, but because the wrong impression was given - that disciple can start to be relaxed - the numbers have increased, so now we need to go in reverse and go back to where we were. What we definitely shouldn’t do is relax more measures,” Balzan insisted.

The head of the doctors’ association argued that as restrictive measures are removed, public discipline and enforcement should increase to reduce the risk of infection, but claimed that this has not happened in Malta’s case. 

“What we did was tell people to do what they want, and to stay in groups of six, so that instead of infecting one, the virus now infects six,” Balzan exclaimed.

He also bemoaned the conflicting messages “especially from politicians” on the way forward.

Conversely, employer chiefs, David Xuereb and Paul Abela, agreed with the importance of discipline, but insisted the economy cannot remain closed.

Xuereb, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, said that “discipline is all”, but also argued that “we need to find ways to live with the virus among us” since it will not go away until a vaccine is found.

Chamber of SMEs President Paul Abela he was not presumptuous to dictate to the government as regards health measures, but questioned where the money to fund the health services will come if the economy remains shut.  

He noted that, despite having opened, business is slow for many retailers, and argued that, in the absence of tourism, this trend will not change. 

“Without tourism, shops will not get a relief. Slowly, slowly, we need to open,” Abela said.

Airport boss laments lack of visibility on government's next steps

Alan Borg, CEO of Malta International Airport indicated that things will not be the same once the airport reopens, stating that infrastructural changes are being implemented to ensure more social distancing.

Hygiene systems and methods for screening passengers will also change, he added.

“Obviously one can expect less contact between the passengers and the crew, and less contact between the passengers themselves,” Borg said.

However, he did not give any indication of when the airport might reopen, insisting that is a decision for the government to make. He promised the company will be ready for whenever that decision is taken.

The CEO also lamented the lack of visibility as to what the government’s next steps are going to be with regard to the relaxation of measures, arguing that the interested parties should have some indication of what is going to happen.

‘We didn’t just turn that tsunami into a stream, but into a trickle’ - Fearne

Health Minister Chris Fearne said that after having managed to control the potential tsunami, the government is now giving attention to other essential areas as well.

“First we controlled the wave which could have led to a tragedy, and which did lead to a tragedy in many other countries, and now we are looking to address things like social issues, and also look after the economy, so that we don’t come to a situation where the economy is so bad that we cannot provide health services,” Fearne said.

The Health Minister insisted that the government always knew that the restrictive measures would be temporary, and said that the important thing is that they are loosened at the appropriate time and in a manner which can be monitored and altered if necessary.

Fearne clarified that any measures that have been removed can be reinstated if need be.

The minister also noted that the loosening of measures does not mean that people can start ignoring precautions. 

“It is true that we are relaxing some measures, but we cannot relax our attitude, we cannot relax our responsibilities, and we cannot relax the discipline we had as a country,” Fearne said.

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