Malta sees biggest protest yet against COVID measures

VALLETTA, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Malta saw its biggest protest yet against COVID rules on Sunday, with hundreds of people marching in the capital Valletta against new measures requiring production of a COVID certificate for entry to most venues including restaurants, gyms and bars.

Malta has seen one of the biggest take-ups of COVID vaccination jabs in the European Union, and almost three-quarters of adults would have taken the additional booster jab by Sunday, according to Health Ministry data.

But Health Minister Chris Fearne has defended the new rules, which come into force on Monday, saying they are needed to defend against the Omicron variant of the virus, now accounting for well over 90% of new cases.

Sunday's protest was organised by a group of small political parties, but the main Opposition Nationalist Party has also criticised the new rules, saying they do not strike the right balance between public health and people's freedoms especially when there has been a high take-up of the vaccine.

Since the start of the pandemic, 502 people have died with COVID-19 in Malta. The island has recorded a vaccination rate of some 95%. Daily virus cases hit a record of 1,337 on December 29 but they have since dwindled to just 301 on Sunday, when two patients also died.

Many of those at Sunday's protest shouted "freedom", and "no green pass". They carried signs saying "Is it really about health?", "the vaccine is poison" and "my body is not state-owned".

Most wore COVID face masks and police were seen approaching those who didn't.

Reporting by Christopher Scicluna Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.