In a few days’ time, life in Malta will become extremely limited for people who aren’t adequately vaccinated against COVID-19.
From 17th January, they will all be all but ostracised from social life, unable to so much as meet a friend at a cafeteria over a cappuccino or even work out at the gym.
There is even talk of extending such rules to workplaces.
Here is why the authorities should reverse this draconian decision before it’s too late.
1. The science is still developing
The development of the COVID-19 vaccine in such a short timeframe is a success story of humanity. There is tangible evidence that the vaccine is effective in reducing severe hospitalisations and deaths, and people should want to get vaccinated.
However, it’s also true that not everything is clear-cut yet. For example, up until a few months ago, it was assumed that two shots (or one for Johnson & Johnson) could be enough but now everyone is being asked to take a booster shot.
Standards aren’t streamlined on a global level either; for example, France has recommended that people who have already recovered from COVID-19 should only receive a single dose either and Israel has started offering a fourth jab to people aged 60 and over.
Variants with different levels of severity and vaccine resistance are likely to keep popping up, and science will keep on adapting. Meanwhile, a number of people have reported severe side effects after taking the vaccine, a phenomenon we’re likely to discover more about as more research is carried out.
Science takes time to develop, and taking such life-impacting decisions before the whole picture is known is at best a calculated risk and at worst a shot in the dark.
2. No one knows what will happen once the booster validity expires
The new rules state that vaccine certificates are only valid for nine months from the date of the booster shot, which means people who got boosted last September will only be able to use their passes until June.
What will happen beyond those nine months is anybody’s guess. Will there be a fourth jab? A fifth?
What if people from other countries where the rules are different travel to or move to Malta? Will they have to adjust their vaccination status to be compliant with the Maltese rules or will their foreign certificates be deemed valid so long as the Maltese authorities recognise their vaccine certificates?
There is a huge difference between a one-time pact between the government and its citizens and a pact that has to keep being renewed every few months but the authorities have been extremely unclear on how they envisage the near future.
3. It risks setting a dangerous precedent
By attaching freedoms and rights to vaccination statuses, the government is essentially upending the very concept that people are free to make their own health decisions.
Such freedoms are essentially being reduced from an inalienable right to a temporary license that must be renewed every few months. If society starts accepting this as a new fact of life, there’s a risk this mentality will start seeping beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and into different issues.
For example, is there any guarantee that similar rules won’t one day also be applied to the flu shot? If people should be coerced into clamping down on COVID-19, why shouldn’t the same apply to other illnesses too?
In a worst-case scenario, the triumph of this mentality could even end up morphing into a nightmarish China-style social credit system, whereby people are rewarded by the state for being good citizens and blacklisted from services for displaying antisocial behaviour.
4. It goes against Chris Fearne’s own promises
In an interview last July, Health Minister Chris Fearne said such ‘domestic vaccine passports’ may not be necessary if it turns out there is no association between the number of active cases in the community and hospitalisations.
Only a month ago, when launching a national mask mandate, Fearne played down suggestions that Malta could follow Austria in making the vaccine mandatory.
“At this stage, the decision on whether the vaccine should be mandatory or not should be the competence of EU member states,” he said. “As it stands, the uptake is good enough in Malta not to take such drastic measures.”
While the number of active cases has risen to unprecedented levels as a result of the dominance of the Omicron variant, the number of hospitalisations has remained relatively stable. There are far fewer ITU patients with COVID-19 now than there were last January, when there were far fewer active cases.
In fact, the data suggests that while the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate, the outcome on average, of a COVID-19 infection is far less negative than it was last year.
That’s undoubtedly good news, so why the change of heart on ‘domestic passports’? At the very least, this risks denting trust in the health authorities.
5. It goes against EU policy
Last month, the European Commission ruled that EU member states must recognise for intra-EU travel each others’ certificates issued within nine months of the last dose of the primary vaccine cycle.
As it stands, no standard acceptance period has been set at EU level for vaccination certificates issued following the administration of booster doses on the grounds that there isn’t yet sufficient data regarding the period of protection after the administration of a booster.
A European Commission spokesperson told Lovin Malta that from the emerging data, it can “reasonably be expected” that protection from booster vaccinations may last longer than that resulting from the primary vaccination series (ie. longer than nine months).
It’s unclear how these differing rules will play out in practice and the EC has said it is in contact with the Maltese authorities to seek clarifications.
6. It’s going to harm businesses who are already struggling
The government recently extended the COVID-19 wage supplement to the end of January, an admission of its awareness that many businesses aren’t quite ready to stand on their own two feet yet, almost two years into the pandemic.
Despite this cognisance, the government is steamrolling ahead with vaccine certificate rules that will place even more burdens on businesses. Restaurants, bars and other companies will be forced to deny their services to people who aren’t adequately vaccinated, which means their markets will shrink even further at a time when tourism is still relatively low.
Moreover, they will be given more administrative responsibilities of checking their clientele’s certificates and the rules imply they might even have to sack staff who aren’t adequately vaccinated, despite staff shortage problems in several industries.
7. It will strain enforcement resources even further
Rules mean nothing if they aren’t enforced, which means entities such as the police, LESA, the Malta Tourism Authority and the health authorities are set to be given more enforcement responsibilities.
Enforcers will have to find time in their day to go around restaurants, bars and gyms, disrupting people to ask them for their vaccine certificates, and punishing establishments if someone falls through the cracks.
Yet enforcement authorities don’t have a bottomless pit of human resources, which means that unless they immediately bulk up their workforce, they will have to compensate for this new duty by reducing enforcement in other areas.
Which areas of enforcement will take the fall as a result of this new vaccine certificate checking obligation?
8. Vaccine scepticism is barely even an issue in Malta
Unlike other countries, the people of Malta have been extremely willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and at one point, the tiny island literally boasted the highest vaccination rate in the world, and this without any mandates or restrictions.
The booster takeup has been successful too; almost 250,000 people have been boosted as of the time of writing.
Imposing these new rules sends out a message to society and the world that the people of Malta cannot be trusted by default to get vaccinated and must therefore be coerced, even if the data is screaming otherwise.
Malta’s high vaccine uptake should have become a source of national pride. Instead it’s been completely dismissed as a factor by the authorities, who are implicitly admitting that their original persuasion strategy has failed, even when it hasn’t.
If the health authorities are so concerned that vaccine take-up is too low and that this will damage the national fight against the pandemic, they should try to incentivise people to get the jab, perhaps by offering free goodies as other countries have done.
Only they’ve never voiced such concerns, instead regularly heralding Malta’s high vaccine rate as a global example, which makes its decision to impose new vaccine rules even stranger.
Encouraging people to get vaccinated and informing them of the benefits of getting the shot is one thing, but threatening them with social ostracisation if they don’t take it is a whole different ball game and will move the national anti-COVID-19 strategy into particularly murky waters.
The new vaccine rules should be scrapped before it’s too late.
Do you think Malta should scrap its upcoming vaccine rules?