March 10, 2020 / 6:53 AM / 24 days ago

Malta halts all passenger travel with locked-down Italy

VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta has stopped all travel links with Italy, its nearest neighbor and main source of food and other essentials, after confirming its fourth coronavirus case since Saturday, Prime Minister Robert Abela said on Tuesday.

He told a news conference that all flights between the island and Italy had been suspended immediately and that a daily ferry service between Malta and the Italian island of Sicily, 93 km (58 miles) away, would now carry only medicine and cargo.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has put all of Italy on lockdown from Tuesday until next month in an unprecedented move to try to beat Europe’s worst outbreak of coronavirus.

Malta’s half a million people are heavily reliant on imports of food and other goods, with most supplies coming from Italy.

On Monday, Air Malta and Ryanair suspended flights between the Mediterranean island and northern Italy, where the majority of Italy’s 9,172 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 463 deaths have been reported.

The chief executive of Malta Airport Alan Borg said seven airlines had already canceled a total of 278 flights from Italy and other countries because of the virus outbreak, without giving the names of the other carriers.

“The last week of February gave us but a small taste of what lies ahead. We are now bracing ourselves for two challenging months,” Borg said.

Premier Abela has been criticized for not having listened to earlier calls by the doctors’ union to stop flights from Northern Italy when the virus first started spreading.

The first three of four coronavirus cases recorded in Malta occurred in a family who had traveled to Italy and returned through Rome.

The epidemic has alarmed Malta’s tourism sector, which accounts for nearly a quarter of economic activity. The island is a favorite destination for many Italian holidaymakers and for cruise ship passengers.

“The tourism industry is a resilient industry and shall undoubtedly remain strong. Malta must be ready with an even more competitive and attractive product to keep the edge on our competition,” Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli told a meeting with hoteliers on Monday.

Pope Francis is due to visit Malta at the end of May. Church sources said that for the moment preparations are continuing as planned.

Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Catherine Evans

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