Saturday 31 July 2021

So let me get this straight…UK teens, no, but EU teens, yes

Pictured above: The voucher scheme was widely advertised to attract language students to Malta

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It feels like it has become an exercise in futility to keep pointing this out, but once again it seems the Government is excelling in making decisions which contain zero logic.

So, let me get this straight: many families from the UK had to cancel their holidays because their teenagers (12-17) were not vaccinated, yet we have allowed hordes of unvaccinated language students from other EU countries. They are not only lumped together in hotels (where you can be sure adhering to rules is the last thing on their mind), but from what many have told me, they were allowed to roam around freely in groups without masks or adhering to the rule of 6, (because the law, yet again, is only for the law-abiding).

Considering the rigid strictness imposed on British teenagers (including those who have family here) ), I assumed, like many others, that language students had to be vaccinated to enter Malta. But no, that would be too logical. On 28 May 2021, the vaccine was approved for use in children aged 12 to 15 in the EU, but as it turns out the roll out for this age group in several other countries is slower than ours. The recommendation by the ECDC is that, “As the course of COVID-19 disease is typically milder in healthy adolescents, vaccine uptake in older age groups should continue to be given priority before targeting adolescents as a whole.”

It seems that, unlike Malta, which rolled out the vaccine for those over 16 in May, followed by 12 – 15 year olds in June, in other countries this cohort has not yet been vaccinated. Just to take one example, according to www.ourworldindata.com, Portugal, which has seen a severe spike in the Delta variant (which accounts for nearly 90% of cases) has a very low uptake of vaccinations among the 18 -24 age group, and there are no stats available for those under 18.

In Malta, the language students have been allowed entry based on negative PCR tests. The never-ending queues at the airport, we were told, were because documents were being carefully checked, so one wonders how there was still an outbreak. Fake tests? False negatives? Or was it just one or two cases with no symptoms which caused the rapid spread of the Delta variant among the groups of students in nine language schools who socialised freely after school hours? We know that this variant is more transmissible than any other, but the large number of cases overnight, when all these students had (ostensibly) tested negative, does not add up. It also begs the question, are the PCR tests on their own reliable or not?

As I was writing this, a much-needed press conference was called by Health Minister Fearne and Prof Gauci who announced that as from Wednesday 14 July, English language schools will be closed and only those who are fully vaccinated may enter the country.

It was a pleasant surprise to see such swift action although, granted, it should never have come to this. It is clear that English language schools simply cannot operate in these circumstances when the demographic they cater for is unvaccinated. It is another blow to this industry, but those are the harsh facts. Solutions have to be found to save this sector from going under completely, but that solution was not by giving incoming students vouchers as an incentive, but by ensuring that the students who do come here are not putting us at risk. Why, for example, did the MTA not target vaccinated adults who want to learn English? Apart from avoiding risk of infection, smaller groups of adults would have been easier to handle than hundreds of rowdy teenagers getting a taste of unsupervised freedom for the first time in their lives.

Finally, I find it quite ironic that we were so afraid of teenagers coming from the UK with their family that they were refused entry even with a PCR test, yet the outbreak came from those who came here to study English, for whom a PCR test was deemed enough.

So, tell me, where does YOUR paycheque come from?

Throughout this pandemic I have often noticed that it is very easy for those who work with the civil service or a sector which falls under the Government, to be cavalier about not opening up the private sector. Whether it is language schools, bars/restaurants or the events/entertainment industry, the cry of “keep them closed” is uttered much too quickly. While I have worked in the private sector most of my life, the few years I spent in the public sector opened my eyes to just how different the culture is at the respective workplaces.

In the latter, no matter how poorly you perform, you will always be guaranteed a paycheque. It is basically a job for life, which explains why so many want to be put on the public payroll and why so many Ministers slyly oblige their constituents in this respect.

In the former, one’s employment often depends on market forces and, as many have realised over these last 18 months, the money can go as easily as it comes.

The self-employed, especially those who have staff depending on them for their livelihood, have a double whammy of a responsibility as they scramble for survival: they have been trying not to lose all they have built, while not plunging their employees into the despair of unemployment. Yes, there is the wage supplement, but 800 Euros does not go very far if you have a family to support.

I just have a small suggestion for those whose paycheque has plopped with comforting regularity into their bank account at the end of the month without having to worry about how they are going to make ends meet: put yourself in the shoes of those who don’t have this luxury. They too have children to feed, a mortgage, a car loan and other bills to pay. Have a bit of empathy before being quick to say things like, “keep the airport closed’. We talk a lot about the stress and anxiety which Covid-19 has caused, but don’t underestimate that, apart from the obvious health issues, the toll on people’s mental health is also due to lack of job security and the fear at the pit of one’s stomach of not being able to provide for one’s family.

Only those who have ever ended up without a job, can truly understand how that feels.

Football is best watched home, alone

If you’re reading this on Sunday, you still have tonight’s Italy vs. England match to look forward to, something few thought would ever actually happen. No matter whom you support, it was nice to see people in both countries so ecstatic about their team making it to the Euro 2020. We needed to have some joy and optimism again in our lives, and this provided a much needed tonic. Of course, that doesn’t mean tensions are not running high. A straw poll I carried out on the FB group The Salott revealed that the majority prefer to watch it in the comfort (and the privacy) of their home alone, or with just their immediate family. This is understandable on an island where football rivalry between the fans of these two teams is only matched by our political rivalry.

Diehard supporters are known for not wanting to hear remarks about “their” team, even (or perhaps especially) something said in jest. There’s no such thing as good-natured ribbing among staunch fans; they take it much too seriously. So the decision to stay at home in cases like this is probably for the best. As for those who have just moved here, who have never seen Malta go mad over football, just sit back and watch the spectacle when the supporters of the winning team spend Sunday evening and most of Monday tearing up and down the island in carcades, replete with the flag of which ever country has won. The losing side will stay at home, turn off their phones and stay off FB, while licking their wounds and trying not to show how sore they are about losing.

There are historic reasons for what may seem like a weird rivalry, which you can google. However, I suggest you don’t even try and understand it – it’s just our thing, just one of those quirks which make Malta what it is.

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