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European countries take radical steps to combat coronavirus | World news

Governments, central banks and EU ministers have taken further radical steps to stem the spread of the coronavirus and cushion its economic impact, as evidence grew that in China the outbreak has passed its peak and in South Korea it is easing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has infected more than 135,000 people and killed nearly 5,000 globally, according to the Johns Hopkins university tracker, disrupting travel, closing schools, shutting factories and cancelling sporting, cultural and political events.

For the second day in a row, however, Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak, reported a tally of new cases in single digits, while the surrounding Hubei province has recorded no new infections for eight days.

South Korea, once the biggest centre of coronavirus cases after China, on Friday reported more recoveries than new infections for the first time, as a downward trend in daily cases raised hopes that the outbreak may be easing in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

The Korea Centers for disease control and prevention recorded 110 new cases, compared with 114 a day earlier, taking the national tally to 7,979. The death toll rose by five to 72. By contrast, 177 patients were released from hospital, KCDC said.

Officials said new clusters of infections remained a concern and warned the epidemic was not yet over. “We’ve managed to turn the corner, but there are concerns about overseas inflows, as well as possible infections around call centres, computer cafes and karaoke rooms,” the prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, said.

In Europe, where the virus is present in all 27 EU states and infected more than 25,000 people, governments have adopted strict measures to contain the outbreak, with France, Spain, Ireland, Austria, Norway and Denmark among the list of countries to have closed all schools, universities and kindergartens.

Others have gone further, with Belgium deciding on Thursday night to shut bars and restaurants too, and allow only essential shops such as supermarkets and pharmacies to stay open on weekends. Citizens are being advised to work from home.

In other developments:

  • India and Norway announced their first deaths, while Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines confirmed the first infections.

  • Iran declared a further 85 deaths, pushing the country’s total death toll to 514 amid 11,364 confirmed cases.

  • France joined Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and others in cancelling professional football.

  • The Portuguese government put the country on a state of alert to mobilise civil protection, police and the army.

  • The Bulgarian parliament voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency until 13 April after the number of confirmed cases more than tripled to 23.

  • The entire Romanian cabinet is in quarantine after coming into contact with a senator who has tested positive.

  • The Czech government banned all foreign travellers from entering and all Czechs from leaving the country from 16 March.

  • Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said foreigners and migration were to blame for the emergence and spread of the virus in Hungary.

Italy, by far the hardest-hit European country with 15,000 infections and more than 1,000 deaths, is in nationwide lockdown, with all travel banned unless certified necessary on professional or health grounds and the 62m-strong population expected to stay mainly at home.

In France, which has reported 2,867 cases and 61 deaths, President Emmanuel Macron said the country faced its worst public health crisis in a century and unveiled a raft of social distancing measures, calling for a “sacred union” of the nation – as well as international cooperation – to defeat the epidemic.

France would do “all it takes” to preserve its economy, jobs and businesses, Macron said. The economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, pledged on Friday that workers would “not lose a centime” due to temporary lay-offs during the crisis. Local elections this Sunday will, however, go ahead, with voters advised to bring their own pen.

Germany reported more than 3,000 confirmed infections on Friday, with six deaths. Of the country’s 16 states, Berlin, Bavaria and two others have announced the blanket closure of schools and kindergartens, with more expected to follow.

The German federal government has announced a far-reaching reorganisation of the nation’s hospitals to cope with the crisis, and on Friday legislated to compensate companies so they could continue to pay workers on reduced hours their full salary. “We will not abandon anyone,” Olaf Scholz, the finance minister, said.

More than 60,000 people were confined to four towns in Spain’s first mandatory lockdown, while the situation in and around the capital, Madrid, with nearly 2,000 cases, was a source of particular concern. Officials admitted on Friday that the region was “in dire need” of medical supplies.

Spain reported a total of more than 3,800 cases on Friday and 84 deaths. The government has closed museums and sports centres, sent home nearly 10 million students and asked people to work remotely.

In Brussels, EU interior ministers said any border restrictions inside the passport-free Schengen zone must be coordinated to ensure they are not counterproductive. Individual member countries are responsible for health and public safety, which do not fall within the remit of the EU’s institutions.

Several countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria, have tightened their borders or introduced checks. The EU’s top interior official, Ylva Johansson, said any curbs must be “coordinated, operational, proportionate and effective” and must not impede transport of food and healthcare equipment.

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