That’s not very sporting of you, Minister Fearne

Josanne Cassar | The fact that throughout these two years, sports has not been taken seriously enough when the various measures were announced, is a reflection on how little importance our leaders actually give to physical activity

Football like all sporting activities was banned as part of COVID-19 restrictions to curb the virus spread
Football like all sporting activities was banned as part of COVID-19 restrictions to curb the virus spread

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that the news that restrictions will start being lifted on 7 February have coincided very neatly and conveniently with the prospect of an election campaign. Let us also just say that the PM, on seeing the growing number of people joining the protests and others complaining very loud-ly on social media against the Green Pass perhaps felt the first twinges of real alarm.

Forget corruption, the environment, the destruction of Malta’s landscape as we know it: it seems not one of these issues has been enough to rally the troops along the political spectrum as much as the prospect of not being allowed to dine at one’s restaurant of choice for failing to get the booster.

It is always interesting to see what topics get people riled up the most. Even more interesting (and galling) is how the government has back-pedalled so swiftly and removed measures which will have lasted for the grand total of three weeks, when on issues which are more permanently damaging to the country, it just sits there, folds its arms and rides out the criticism until something else comes along.

It could not be more obvious that the catering and hospitality sector has the most muscle and clout behind them and that as a lobby it is probably only rivalled by the construction industry. This was evidenced by the fact a group of business owners took Prof Gauci the Minister of Health, Police Commissioner and the State Attorney to court, demanding an injunction against the Green Pass measures.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, traditionally a booming day of business for restaurants, the thought of having to turn people away who do not have their booster was probably deemed the last straw. By the time evidence started being heard on Friday, the announcement that measures would be dropped had been made so the request for an injunction was withdrawn.

So once again, business seems to have trumped public health, although Prof Gauci’s argument in Court was that the cases had gone down enough to warrant the lifting of measures.

With that reasoning however, why stop at only certain, almost hand-selected, sectors which (purely by coincidence of course) happen to be the ones which overlap with the catering/hospitality industry which tends to generate the most money?

The list where proof of vaccine will no longer be required is significant:

  • From 7 February – restaurants, snack bars and band clubs
  • From 14 February – gyms, spas, pools, cinemas and theatres

The question on everyone’s mind is, if public health is now no longer under threat, why stop there? The irony of ironies is that sporting events, the epitome of healthy living, have been left out in the cold. I often wonder who has been making these Covid-related decisions about sports because it seems that whoever it is, is simply a bureaucratic pencil pusher who has never donned a pair of trainers in his/her life.

The statement that the Green Pass will still be needed for mass events, sporting events, night clubs, casinos and travelling just shows how clueless this reasoning is. What sporting events is the Minister of Health envisaging which represent such a huge turnout of people that they can be lumped together with ‘mass events’.

The only event I can think of in this category is the Malta Marathon, which also includes people travelling to the island, so in this specific case, asking for a Green Pass would be justified.

However, other sporting events here are on such a small scale that demanding a Green Pass for them when it is being lifted for other venues verges on the absurd. Even for football, which is Malta’s most popular sport, attendance at our local stadiums is often so abysmal that it can hardly be put it in the mass event category.

The most sensible and logical decision would have been to put a capping on the number of participants and spectators, for example, anything which draws over 100 people would require a Green Pass. After all, any number less than that just about equals the number who will be dining at some of Malta’s largest restaurants.

Logic would also have dictated that there should have been a distinction made between various types of outdoor sports which are spread over large areas. Knowledge of the different types of sporting disciplines and sports clubs and how each sport is practiced would I think, have proved helpful to decide where measures should be relaxed.

Each sporting venue should have been individually assessed for its risk factor rather than issuing a blanket directive (I’m sure they could have found enough spare Government employees for this exercise). And if the Minister is indeed being given proper advice by someone who is knowledgeable about Malta’s sports scene, then he definitely did not heed said advice. If he had, he would not have taken the ridiculous decision to lump all sporting events under one umbrella.

On their part, sports associations and sports clubs should have done what the MHRA and other powerful lobby groups did from the start. Over the last two years they have stood firm and fought back against measures which they deemed unfair. Even the Performing Arts industry took their cue from the maxim ‘there is strength in numbers’ and wisely joined forces.

Through constant lobbying and talks, they have made some headway, although it is still not clear if they have also been left out of the latest lifting of measures. Sports, on the other hand, continues to be a very fragmented sector, with everyone having to fight their own little patch while some who were more equal than others were getting their own way and flouting the rules, because they could.

The individual small voices of objection however, have been persistently lost in the wilderness. The funny thing is that by, my calculation, in reality, three-fourths of the country is involved in sports in one way or the other, whether it is adults who practice some kind of physical activity themselves or parents ferrying their children around to football, basketball, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, athletics, martial arts, dance and a whole host of other disciplines.

If you have ever wondered why Saturday mornings are jam-packed with traffic, it is mostly due to mummies and daddies driving their children to some form of training. There are 45 different types of sports disciplines which fall under the aegis of SportMalta alone, and that is not counting all the dance schools, aerobics and yoga which are all forms of exercise.

I bet that if everyone had banded together in one lobby their united voices would certainly have been as loud as that of festa enthusiasts (who by the way are busy clamouring for village feasts to be held this summer).

I understand if individuals might not have been able to do this, but each sport has a federation or an association and surely they could have come together to speak out on behalf of all those who are involved in sports, just as the MEIA (Malta Entertainment and Arts Association) has rightly done for its members.

No one knows the problems, setbacks and loss of income of any one particular discipline more than those who are in it, both as practitioners as well as administration and management. This is not to mention the psychological impact which the hinderance of sports has caused to many people during this pandemic.

It is far too easy to be a pencil pusher and lump all sports as ‘sporting events’ – when the reality of the size of such events is so different that it is almost laughable. But, unfortunately, no one was ready to take the bull by the horns and fight for sports so that it would not be left by the way-side – meanwhile other sectors kept getting special treatment because they always dangled the ‘this is bad for the economy’ card in front of the PM, a threat which is guaranteed to strike the fear of God in every politician’s heart. Especially one who is fac-ing a general election.

The fact that throughout these two years, sports has not been taken seriously enough when the various measures were announced, is a reflection on how little importance our leaders actually give to physical activity. It is even more of a paradox to leave organised sports dangling as some kind of an afterthought, lumped in the same category as nightclubs of all things, when urging people to do more exercise (especially outdoors) to improve their wellbeing should have been a top priority.