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Europe is once again at the “epicentre” of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), but local business groups and employee unions are more worried about the concern this can generate and how that impacts the economy, expressing full faith in the health authorities’ decisions.

As Germany and Slovakia register record rates of daily cases, deaths related to the virus across the continent rose by 10 per cent over the last week.

Europe and Central Asia, which are combined in a single classification by the WHO, is now home to almost two-thirds of the total number of global COVID-19 infections.

Vaccination rates have not reached the levels hoped for my politicians and health authorities. In Germany, only 66 per cent are fully vaccinated.

In Russia, which continues to register record levels of both new infections and deaths, the vaccination rate is at only around 32 per cent. The country has registered around 40,000 new cases and over 1,100 deaths every day since late October.

Ever since the beginning of November, there have been initial signs that the latest wave to hit Europe might also affect Malta, as the country registered increasing numbers of infections at levels not seen since mid-September.

The numbers have not come close to the peak seen between February and April of this year, with the highest figure of cases registered so far this month being 50, on Sunday 7th.

Malta’s situation is also very different to that of our northern neighbours, boasting a vaccination rate of over 90 per cent. Further boosting the country’s immunity, 98 per cent of residents in homes for the elderly have received their third jab, better known as the booster shot, as well as over half of all those aged 70 and over.

Minister for Health Chris Fearne recently announced that the booster shot will be available to everyone in a staggered age-based manner, just like the original vaccine.

The measures implemented to halt the spread of the virus have also been significantly relaxed over the last months, with a sense of normality returning to the country and most economic sectors.

BusinessNow.mt reached out to the country’s leading business and worker representation groups to see whether they are concerned about a possible return to more restrictive measures in light of the increase in cases both regionally and locally.

Marthese Portelli, CEO of The Malta Chamber, said that businesses are “of course” concerned, especially retailers, who are in the middle of the run-up to the hectic festive season, starting with Black Friday in November.

“We need to be realistic and closely monitor the situation. Past waves have taught us that when other countries are faced with spikes, Malta may follow suit, albeit to a lesser degree,” she said.

However, Dr Portelli also lauded Malta’s track record so far, and expressed her faith in the country’s health workers to once again rise to the occasion.

She also encouraged businesses to continue taking all precautions and measures to mitigate spread.

Abigail Mamo, CEO of the Chamber of SMEs, painted a broadly similar picture, stressing that although “what is happening abroad is obviously a big concern – as the saying goes – once bitten, twice shy”, she believes that health authorities have always acted with the utmost caution.

“If Dr Fearne says we can have a festive season without restrictions, I believe him – his statements are never based on whim,” she said.

She also expressed her hope that no restrictions are imposed before Christmas, noting that “two weeks from now, we can start celebrating”.

General Workers Union chief Josef Bugeja meanwhile stated that the concerns workers relay to his organisation are generally on a more micro level. “Should the employer know if the person concerned is vaccinated or not? Should the employee serve costumers who are not vaccinated or not? These are the type of questions that we receive every day.”

On the other hand, Josef Vella, secretary general of UHM Voice of the Workers, said that the worry caused by the increase in cases has far-ranging effects.

“Even if we do not see the reintroduction of highly restrictive measures, the worry alone is enough to cause deep disruption. It affects your choice of entertainment, how you meet and behave with your family, whether you go out and where you go, how you work…,” he said.

As one of the key retail periods approaches after a year and a half of unprecedented disruption, businesses will certainly be hoping that such concerns will not leave a deep impact

See their full replies here:

Marthese Portelli – CEO, Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry

Are business concerned about a possible return to restrictive measures? Of course! The most worried are retailers, who are in the middle of the run-up to the hectic festive season, starting with Black Friday in November.

Whilst remaining vigilant, one cannot but note that our country is doing well in terms of combatting this current wave impacting the rest of the continent. We therefore encourage businesses to continue taking all precautions and measures to mitigate spread.

As for the booster shot, it is crucial that the high levels of vaccination achieved so far continue to be maintained. We are confident that our medical staff will once again rise to the occasion to make sure that the whole process is concluded within the shortest timeframe possible.

However, we also need to be realistic and closely monitor the situation. Past waves have taught us that when other countries are faced with spikes, Malta may follow suit, albeit to a lesser degree.

Whilst the measures in place for travelling should prevent major increases in the number of imported cases, waning immunity levels and the slow roll-out of booster shots across Europe are a cause for concern.

The Malta Chamber therefore calls on all stakeholders and the population at large to not let their guard down.

Abigail Mamo – CEO, Chamber of SMEs

What is happening abroad is obviously a big concern, and especially with the increase in cases in Malta, one can be forgiven for being afraid of going down the same path as happened last year. As the saying goes – once bitten, twice shy.

But thankfully, we are not in the same situation as last year. Our vaccination levels are much higher.

I know the health authorities are extremely cautious, so when I hear Dr Fearne say something, I believe it. If he says we can have a festive season without restrictions, I believe him – his statements are never based on whim.

As businesses, we are all working to have a very good festive season, ideally without restrictions. Then it is up to the health authorities to take care of the health front.

Both those with natural immunity from prior infection during the large spike between January and April, and those who were among the first to receive the vaccine, are likely to see a reduction in immunity. Therefore, the rollout of the booster should be as aggressive as can be to keep Malta’s vaccination levels high.

We’ve seen local cases rise to these levels before, and it didn’t always result in serious situation. Hopefully this is something we can live through Christmas with. Two weeks from now we start celebrating.

Josef Bugeja – Secretary General, General Workers Union

As far as we are informed, there are no concerns among employees about the reintroduction of restrictions.

That does not mean that there are no concerns about COVID. We are constantly consulting on the way forward through the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD) and the Employment relations Board (ERB).

Most of the enquires we receive are either about non-vaccinated colleagues or customers. Should the employer know if the person concerned is vaccinated or not? Should the employee serve costumers who are not vaccinated or not? These are the type of questions that we receive every day.

We have always followed the advice of the health authorities and the Superintendent of Health, ever since the pandemic hit our shores. If they advise that everyone should take the booster shot, we will follow that advice and encourage our members to take it.

Josef Vella – Secretary General, UHM Voice of the Workers

Everyone is concerned about going back to a situation where we have restrictive measures on top of restrictive measures. It’s normal to worry when you see cases rising.

Even if we do not see the reintroduction of highly restrictive measures, the worry alone is enough to cause deep disruption. It affects your choice of entertainment, how you meet and behave with your family, whether you go out and where you go, how you work… The effect of an increase in the number of daily registered cases is far-ranging.

With Christmas fast approaching, many people want to take the opportunity to enjoy the holiday with their families, so they worry when they see cases rise.

Although there hasn’t been talk of reintroducing measures, this fear has started to raise its head, as everyone can see the numbers and talk about them.

The issue is made worse through our previous experience. It feels like every time we start hoping that the wave is over, it loops over and restarts.

Obviously, people are tired – and this isn’t a question that can be restricted to the confines of the workplace. It’s a deep issue.

As for the boosters, they re an essential part of the country’s defences against the virus. They’re very important.

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