Six whole months into Malta’s battle with COVID-19, my 2020 has been as uneventful as most people’s, with barely any partying or holidaying to speak of. But when a unique and abrupt opportunity to perform abroad presented itself in Prague last week, I just had to take it. The only problem was that the Czech Republic is currently on Malta’s Amber Travel List.
So what is the Amber List? Well, as the name implies, it’s a step down from the Red List, which would make it currently impossible to travel to a country due to COVID-19 fears. As we speak, over a dozen countries have Malta on their Red List, but local authorities have preferred to keep our own list, which deems countries as “potentially high-risk for travel” a bit more toned down.
Updated on a weekly basis, Malta’s Amber List currently includes Romania, Tunisia, the three Spanish cities of Barcelona, Girona and Madrid, the two French major cities of Paris and Marseille… and the Czech Republic. And it was here that I would be travelling, from Wednesday 2nd September to Sunday 6th, right in the middle of an updated list which saw Bulgaria being removed.
The official position on Amber List countries is that arrivals from these destinations must present a negative COVID-19 test taken up to 72 hours before their flight to Malta. Passengers who do not present this certificate may be asked to swab at the airport there and then. If this is refused, enforced mandatory quarantine will follow.
To confirm the whole procedure and make sure I wasn’t missing anything, though, I called 111.
Sure enough, the very helpful person manning the phone confirmed the whole procedure, telling me I would need to get tested in Prague before landing in Malta, unless I wanted to get a random swab at the airport, or, even “worse”, be forced to quarantine.
The next step was to check how I would go about getting tested in Prague… and how much it would set me back.
The main swabbing service for countries like Malta was being offered right at Prague’s airport, with two kinds of test; the classic next-day-result one, and another that only took about two hours. The prices reflected the efficiency, with the first option costing €65 and the second jumping up to €280.
Now because this was going to be a very short holiday and I would be staying far from the airport, I only really had the more expensive option to consider, but even this had one big flaw. While travelling to and from the airport for three out of the five days was both expensive and unfeasible, with a viral load time of three to four days, my test result would end up giving me more information about whether I had gotten infected in Malta rather than Prague.
With plans to self isolate upon arrival already set anyway, I decided to not get tested and see what happens when I land back in Malta.
Moments later, when asked about this exact subject at a press conference, Superintendent for Public Health Charmaine Gauci confirmed that arrivals from amber list countries without a document certifying that they have tested negative for COVID-19 are only being tested at random.
That was all the confirmation I needed; I was going to travel to an Amber List country, take all the necessary precautions myself, and test Malta’s measures in the process.
Travelling to the Czech Republic was a normal – albeit slightly lengthy – process with an enlightening observation or two.
Flying with Lufthansa, I had to stop at Frankfurt before catching another, shorter flight further east.
At first, I was a bit anxious; I was, after all, travelling from Malta, the country that had seemingly messed up its second wave response and ended up on everyone’s Red List.
Beyond the mandatory masks inside the airports and throughout the flights, though (which honestly sounds way worse than it actually is), the whole process was quite smooth and efficient.
Of course, signs of COVID-19 were everywhere; once bustling with life, Frankfurt was eerily quiet and downright empty in some parts, with taped-over seats and social distancing stickers dotting its whole gigantic airport.
Once I landed at my final destination, I came to understand why the Czech Republic is on Malta’s Amber List… and it had to do with a bunch of familiar sights.
On my first day in Prague, the country’s new cases of COVID-19 had jumped from the previous week’s average of about 200 right up to 646. The following day, it was 677. The next? 797. Hours after I had landed back in Malta, that number shot up to 1,164 new cases, breaking a new national record.
In fact, barely 24 hours after I had landed, Prague announced new restrictive measures, including mandatory mask wearing in stores and shopping malls and the closure of the city’s bars and restaurants between midnight and 6am. To prove just how short my stay was, though, these measures only came into effect on Wednesday 9th September… a full four days after I had already arrived back in Malta.
To top it all off, the attitude among most locals seemed to reflect one I had seen far too often back at home, with many seeing the whole mask-wearing business as an inconvenience in the late summer heat.
In other words, I was caught in the middle of a rising spike in cases and as-of-yet unimplemented measures, and it was yet again up to me to take the necessary precautions.
My short stay included playing at two clubs in and around the city, and while rumblings of the incoming measures were omnipresent, many of them were mostly ignored.
Inside the bustling clubs, not a lot of people wore masks, and the few who did quickly rendered them useless, having to take them off every single time they ordered a drink or weren’t being understood by their friends amidst the loud music.
Soon enough, I realised how important it was for Malta to have put a temporary ban on clubbing, or at least have stricter measures all round, with my mask-wearing self quickly ending up trying to avoid the very crowd I was meant to be playing for. It didn’t take long to understand how much the general atttitude within a population can change the outcome of something like an infectious virus, with some of the locals at times making me feel weird, awkward and even overly paranoid for wearing a mask. You know, in Month Six of a global pandemic.
I had seen what a couple of pool parties and a festa or two had done to Malta, and while the whole experience was fun and definitely well-needed considering the year it’s been, I shuddered to think what the coming weeks for Czech Republic’s new cases would be like. Now I know; they tripled in a matter of days.
Hours after the second party, though, it was time for the rather long voyage back home, which would start just after midnight and end at around noon.
The very first sign I got that Malta might actually be taking this whole COVID-19 thing more seriously than others came a couple of hours before landing back home, in the form of a piece of paper distributed to everyone onboard the Lufthansa flight.
Instead of water or the scaled-down and much more hygenic cereal bar, I was initially met with a form bearing the recognisable Maltese coat of arms and a letterhead that read “Office Of The Deputy Prime Minister, Ministry For Health”. Ah, I thought myself, now that’s more like it.
What the paper turned out to be, however, was a Travel Declaration Form, one which had apparently been put in place all the way back on 1st July and only really made reference to those initial set of guidelines.
In fact, what I was required to do was, along with write down all my personal information, state that I “reside and/or have spent the last 14 days in one of the countries included in the list above in accordance with Maltese legislation”. A list of countries deemed safer than all the others. A list, funnily enough, that casually included the Czech Republic and the rest of Malta’s Amber List countries.
And while the concluding line stating that “a false declaration on arrival is considered a criminal offence” made me think Malta’s health authorities meant business compared to other countries, the zero mention of Amber List countries had me a bit confused.
I filled in the paper (which took a while seeing as I don’t really carry pens around when I fly and the air hostesses only had one to go around) and awaited the moment I would land in Malta, not knowing what to expect.
Once we landed in Malta, all the passengers were given another form to fill in, this time seemingly for contact tracing purposes.
This form required even more detailed information, including numerous contact numbers and addresses and even an Emergency Contact section. Very good and quite professional, I thought to myself. Still nothing about me having been in a country authorities deemed “a potential high-risk”, though.
Up to this point, nearly every stage of travelling had taken longer than usual. Security was tight in all aspects, and the added health precautions slowed down pretty much every step, including something as simple as disembarking from the plane.
When it came to Malta, though, the whole thing was scarily efficient. We landed, went through the now-standard temperature scanning cameras, and were asked to fill in and hand in the second form we had been given on the plane.
And that was it. No one asked me to produce a negative test taken within the last 72 hours. No one told me I would have to be randomly swabbed. And definitely no one told me to go into any sort of quarantine.
I could’ve walked right out of the airport, hopped on a bus and gone to visit all my loved ones, my vulnerable family members, and my best friends. And while I definitely wasn’t going to do that, the fact that anyone else could’ve had me worried.
The whole process from exiting the plane to leaving the airport was so quick, I even managed to get to my booked taxi without making my driver wait too long… which was surprising considering I mistakenly inputted a pick-up-time which was just five minutes after the plane touched the ground.
To make matters worse, a friend of mine who was flying down from Prague just 24 hours after me confirmed that his experience was identical to mine.
Because I have a number of friends and family members who could be considered vulnerable (and because I want to make sure I don’t end up being an unknowing super carrier for the virus), the plan was always to self-isolate. In fact, out of habit and precaution, I realised I only ended up taking off my face mask once I had unpacked and was in bed, well over 12 hours after I had left that last party in Prague.
I’m currently not meeting anyone, working from home, and am awaiting a swab test result that I personally booked once I landed. This way, I would have gotten tested after the required number of days pass for the viral load to have manifested itself. If – and only if – I test negative, I’ll finally be able to meet my friends and family, and go back to work.
But the fact that I travelled to one of the handful of countries that Malta considers to be potentially high-risk – so much so that it was added to the national Amber List and has stayed there throughout all the weekly updates – and had to take all those precautions myself is confusing at best, and highly worrying at worst.