VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta will stop all incoming passenger flights on Saturday and only allow cargo, humanitarian and repatriation flights to land to stop the spread of coronavirus, officials said on Wednesday.
The Mediterranean island, which depends heavily on tourism, has reported 38 cases so far, of which 32 were people who had caught the disease abroad.
“Saturday will be a dark day for the local aviation industry and all stakeholders who have worked tirelessly to ensure the industry’s growth and success over the past years,” Malta International Airport CEO Alan Borg said in a statement.
“Now, more than ever, it is crucial for us to work together with government and all industry players to see the local aviation industry through these trying times.”
The spread of the virus and international restrictions on travel have severely hit the island’s economy. Tourism accounts for a quarter of its gross domestic product, and its financial services and gaming sectors rely heavily on foreign workers.
The Times of Malta newspaper said on Wednesday that experts have warned the government that the economy, the best performing in the EU, could shrink by up to half over the next year.
Economy Minister Silvio Schembri prompted outrage on social media late Tuesday when he told parliament that foreign workers who lose their jobs should go back to their countries.
“Charity begins at home. Our focus is workers from Malta and Gozo. The moment foreign workers lose jobs they will have to go back to their country,” the minister said. Gozo is a small island that is part of the Maltese archipelago.
Schembri apologised on Wednesday for his comments and promised that anyone who had had a legal work contract would not be deported.
“We are committed to assisting employers, employees and the self-employed in these difficult days, which I am certain we will overcome together,” he said.
Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Crispian Balmer