The glowing Mediterranean sun is sadly not the only thing rising each morning in Malta at the moment; the islands’ number of cases of Covid-19 is climbing after many weeks close to zero.
Ireland removed the Maltese archipelago from its Green List on Tuesday – meaning anyone returning from Malta must now quarantine for 14 days, while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have taken similar steps.
Far more concerning for Malta, however, is the fear that tomorrow the UK might follow suit, dealing a huge blow to the EU’s smallest nation which derives nearly a third of its GDP from tourists, many of them British.
A former British colony where English is still an official language and red letter boxes stand bright and incongruous against honeyed limestone facades, Malta welcomed 650,000 British visitors last year. Come the pandemic, borders were closed, and Malta was one of Europe’s most successful nations at controlling the virus, recording just nine deaths in a population of 475,000.
Two weeks ago there were fewer than half a dozen active cases and most previous days in July had seen no new cases at all.
Then the government removed the ban on mass events, restarting public revelry and Malta’s popular traditional village festas, and the numbers began to rise. There are now 249 active cases (88 of them new migrants most of whom were not mixing with the general population), more per capita than the UK. Yesterday saw 20 new community cases, five of them part of a cluster in Paceville, the clubbing and party area. Previous clusters have centred on a festa and a hotel party.
The manager of the iconic Phoenicia Hotel, Brice Kemper, is concerned. Malta’s colonial art deco grand dame stands imperiously at the gates of the Unesco World Heritage capital Valletta and nearly half its guests are British. “If they do not come, that would have a big impact on us,” he says.
“It would be devastating,” is the blunt verdict of another leading hotel manager who did not want to be named. Arrivals in Malta are down by about 90 per cent on last July, he adds, though they were hoping for more in August. He has planned on the basis of 20 per cent occupancy until next summer and has already had to lay off tens of staff. If the British do not come, he says, more jobs will certainly be lost.
“It will be a huge wake-up call to the government. They will have to start putting the brakes on and closing some sectors”.
Over on Malta’s little sister island of Gozo, Cornil Wambergue runs Gozo Adventures, providing kayaking on the warm azure seas, and climbing, hiking and biking around green flat-topped hills and dramatic coastline. Gozo has been less affected than the main island by Covid-19, he says. “Everyone follows protocols and it feels very safe. It’s business as usual here.” Except that a family of five has just cancelled because they were coming from Ireland.
“Everything we do is outdoors. It is really Covid-safe,” Wambergue says, “If we had business until the end of August we might cover our costs and survive. If UK tourists stop coming next week, it will be a wipe-out. Our healthy ten-year-old business will be finished…And Gozo will be on its knees”.
The Maltese government has already taken some steps to slow the spread of the virus, cancelling several large summer festivals. Around 20,000 tourists were expected to fly in for these events, but Malta’s public health chief, Charmaine Gauci, was clear yesterday about the need for caution as she confirmed the nation’s R number is now above 1.
The Malta Tourism Authority is at pains to point out that Malta is doing more testing than almost all other European countries – though some people wait more than a week for a test – and track and trace is in place. “Tourism is important for us, but the safety of our people and the people who visit us is more important and we would never put people in jeopardy,” it said in a statement to Telegraph Travel.
“The small number of cases in Malta vis-à-vis the size of the population can easily give a skewed impression of the actual situation…We trust that all governments will analyse the figures intelligently and we are open to all discussions to ensure that we can mitigate any concern.”
As the hot Maltese sun goes down over the sparkling Mediterranean tonight, many Maltese will be hoping that with it will be the Covid-19 case numbers and not the nation’s crucial, crippled, tourist industry.