Malta implemented early measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and flatten the curve. Preparedness, physical isolation and quarantine, alongside a comprehensive programme of testing and contact tracing, allowed Malta to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
In addition to these public health measures, Malta implemented a series of social security measures to deal with the economic and social impact, to keep the economy afloat, safeguard jobs and assist workers and vulnerable persons.
The outbreak significantly disrupted the Maltese economy, especially the tourist, services and manufacturing sectors, which are major streams of revenue for the country. To mitigate the impact, a series of measures were launched in March, costing nearly €2 billion (around 14 per cent of GDP) to support hardest hit businesses and workers:
Supporting families and businesses: Social measures designed in collaboration with the social partners were tailored to soften the impact on employees in the private sector and included:
- An additional unemployment benefit to persons who lost their job;
- A monthly grant to parents who had to stay at home to take care of children under 16 years and for which no remote work was possible;
- A grant for persons with a disability who could not hold their job;
- A grant for vulnerable or pregnant employees who were precluded from reporting to work and unable to telework.
These monthly grants amounted to EUR 800 for full-time workers and EUR 500 for part-timers. At the same time, beneficiaries continued to receive other social benefits to which they were entitled.
The package was developed and administered by the Ministry for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity. Over the first nine weeks of the programme, EUR 11.76 million were paid out to more than 8,100 Maltese and foreign nationals, the majority of whom were women. The amount is expected to reach EUR 17 million by the end of June 2020 with the peak number of beneficiaries reaching 8,600.
Safeguarding pension rights: To avoid gaps in the social contribution record of beneficiaries, 10 per cent from the special grants are deducted as a social contribution.
Safeguarding employment: Malta Enterprise, the country’s business development corporation, offered an aid package to support businesses and safeguard employment. The package agreed with social partners provided for the payment of a monthly salary of EUR 1,200 to each full-time employee in adversely hit enterprises, with public financing of EUR 800 and the balance paid by employers. Companies too badly hit to afford this share of the salary were given the option to request a review of their participation level.
By end of June 2020, this aid package would be providing EUR 80 million in direct assistance to employers to help safeguard around 93,000 employees.
Caring for the vulnerable: Residential homes for the elderly were closed to visitors and strict prevention and control measures were implemented to protect residents. To ease their isolation, tablets were made available to keep residents connected with their relatives. Staff were offered full-board alternative accommodation and transport facilities if they opted to self-isolate as a precaution against COVID-19.
Agenzija Sapport, the agency providing services and support to persons with a disability curtailed visits to residential centres and day centres were closed down. Professionals from the agency conducted webinars to help affected persons and their parents cope with the challenges and adapt to the change in daily routines.
Self-isolating elderly and vulnerable persons living on their own found public and non-governmental organization´s support through home deliveries of groceries, medicines and meals. For persons suffering from loneliness, anxiety and psychological disorders, dedicated helplines offered mental and emotional help.
In addition, support was provided to affected workers and self-employed living in subsidized private rented housing by extending easier terms and higher subsidies.
Operational measures and continuity of social security services
Malta never went into a strict lockdown. However, restrictive measures impinged on the provision of in-person services.
The offices initially remained open to the public but precautionary measures were taken to protect and equip staff against the spread of the virus. Towards the end of March, all offices were closed and staff were directed to telework from home, maintaining an open digital line with the public through a platform of helplines and email access. By end of May, staff dealt with a daily average of 2,900 calls and emails from the public mostly related with the COVID-19 social benefits and measures.
The onset of the pandemic coincided with a project to cluster all benefit applications through an online platform. The completion of the project was accelerated to empower the public to apply online, especially for the set of benefits purposely designed to offset the effects of COVID-19. For those who were not digitally literate a helpline was set up to guide them in filling their applications.
Concurrently, a virtual working environment was created to remotely assess and process the incoming applications. The first group of affected persons received their initial weekly payment within two and a half weeks from their application. More than 90 per cent of beneficiaries received their instalments by direct credit through a recently upgraded e-payment system.
The measures taken in Malta have made a key contribution to protecting the population against the social and economic impacts of the crisis, and were effective in keeping the infection rate low.
These measures have served as a safety net for 100,000 employees who received short-term support and whose jobs could be safeguarded. Around two-thirds of Malta’s private sector employees were financially assisted in one way or another.
The advent of the pandemic and the need to respond to its fallout highlighted the need to fast track the development of more e-services to deliver real time welfare care and services. Malta is now working on the creation of an inter-departmental repository holding all documents for the seamless and efficient running of assessments and processes.
The Maltese public service was instrumental in responding in these very testing times and rose to the challenge. The experience of the crisis will support the further strengthening of e-services and e-administration as part of a new normality, with the objective to steadily enhance the quality of social security services to the Maltese population.