After months of ignoring pleas by residents to amend their hotel quarantine rules, the health authorities sprang into action this week.
Maltese residents traveling from ‘dark red’ counties will no longer be forced to pay for a two-week stay at a hotel and will instead be allowed to quarantine at home, Health Minister Chris Fearne told a hastily-organised press conference that was originally called to announce a new CT scanner.
So what convinced the authorities to finally change their minds?
They certainly can’t say that they hadn’t been aware of this problem until now because frustrated Maltese residents have been complaining to the media about the rules ever since they were announced last July.
On 28th July, oil worker Thomas Mansfield said he felt discriminated against after finding out he’d have to spend two weeks at a quarantine hotel upon returning to Malta from Angola.
On 10th August, a Maltese man criticised the authorities for not allowing his wife to quarantine at home upon her return from Russia, where she had travelled to meet her dying grandfather.
A few weeks later, Evgenia Buyakevich warned that her 17-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, both minors, were forced to self-isolate alone at a hotel and that she herself wasn’t even notified, let alone asked for her consent.
There were several more stories in between too; over 3,000 people were sent to a quarantine hotel in July and August but Fearne and Prime Minister Robert Abela both brushed off questions about the logic of the rules when challenged at press conferences. The Opposition didn’t criticise the rules either.
And then a number of developments occurred all at once.
First, the Malta football team was exempted from quarantine entirely after traveling back from dark red-listed Russia, while Mosta’s goalkeeper wasn’t granted the same privilege after returning from Congo during the same international break.
Meanwhile, lawyer Andre Borg filed a judicial protest on behalf of three Maltese residents who were forced to quarantine in a hotel, an early warning sign that anger could escalate into a full-blown lawsuit as had happened in the UK.
Then fitness influencer Daniel Umanah appealed to the authorities to allow his sister, who has Down syndrome, to quarantine at home upon their return from Nigeria, where they had travelled to carry out charity work.
It was the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back.
All of a sudden, anger at the rules spread to the point where even major politicians started speaking out. PN MP Ryan Callus was the first to stick his neck out and PL MEP Alex Agius Saliba and MP Oliver Scicluna also called for the rules to change.
Opposition leader Bernard Grech, who has largely shied away from criticising the health authorities’ approach to the pandemic, denounced the rule as “draconian” and demanded refunds for all Maltese residents who had been forced into quarantine hotels.
All of a sudden, a huge financial injustice that had been hiding in plain sight for months was obvious for all to see and it was only going to be a matter of time before the authorities reacted.
When announcing the new rules, Chris Fearne insisted the change in fact was part of the government’s strategy to relax COVID-19 measures when it is safe to do so. It was just part of the plan all along.
He explained that the authorities had introduced the hotel quarantine measure in the first place to try and delay the arrival of the Delta variant as much as possible, but that it had now spread in Malta just as it had spread around the rest of the world.
In fact, he said the presence of Delta will no longer factor in decisions of which countries belong on the ‘dark red’; however, the newer ‘Mu’ variant will.
The problem with this logic is that the Delta variant has been the dominant strain worldwide for months now. Back in July, a few days after Malta announced its travel rules, the WHO reported that over 68% of COVID-19 infections in the majority of European countries were the Delta variant.
Yet somehow Malta’s red and dark red lists remained the same, with the health authorities refusing to publish the mechanisms and calculations that determine a country’s position in the ‘traffic light’ system.
Another variable must have therefore been responsible for this change in the rules, and that is most likely the public anger that soared shortly before Fearne’s announcement.
The truth is that pandemic-related decisions aren’t just taken by scientists who only look at rock-hard, cold numerical data but also by politicians who are conscious about what people think and feel.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
If the rapid change in the travel rules taught us one thing, it’s how strong a few voices can be. If the conditions are right, even one voice can have a snowball effect, lighting a spark that can lead to real change within a matter of days.
And that’s an empowering thought.
Do you agree with Malta’s current COVID-19 travel rules?