18 March 2020 16:38
More than 250 million Europeans are in full or partial lockdown as Belgium and Germany joined Italy, Spain and France in closing schools and all non-essential shops, and urging – or requiring – people not to leave their homes. As the US promised a $1tn (£850bn) fightback against the economic havoc caused by the coronavirus, with cases now confirmed in all 50 states, and the EU shut its borders to travellers from outside for 30 days, draconian measures never before seen in peacetime have upended daily life. Belgium, which has reported 1,085 cases of Covid-19 and 10 deaths, became the latest EU state to confine its citizens on Wednesday, with all shops except supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and bookstores closing at midday and employees expected to work from home unless social distancing is guaranteed at work. Coronavirus: travellers race home amid worldwide border closures and flight warnings Read more In Germany, which has reported 9,367 infections and 27 deaths, Angela Merkel was due to speak to the nation on Wednesday evening – the first time in her 15 years as chancellor, apart from her annual new year's address, that she has addressed citizens directly via a televised statement. Merkel is expected to urge Germans to heed the government's recommendation to stay home as far as possible.
Non-essential businesses and shops have shut in Germany, religious gatherings are banned and holiday travel has been halted. In France, where the daily update of coronavirus cases has risen to 7,730, with 175 deaths, residents who leave home must now carry with them a form declaring that they are outside for one of five permitted reasons, including to shop, work or visit the doctor. The health minister, Olivier Véran, said on Wednesday the country could hope to start seeing a slowdown of infections in eight to 12 days. "We will intervene where necessary to make sure that people respect the confinement decree," Véran told French television. "When I look outside my window, I see that people are gradually getting the message." The Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, told an audience of 28 MPs and five ministers in the near-empty 350-seat parliament on Wednesday that the nation needed to rally in what he called a "war" against the virus. Spain, which has reported nearly 12,000 cases and nearly 500 deaths, is – like Italy and France – in near-total lockdown, and the consequences for the economy would be grave unless "major and irreparable damage" could be averted, Sánchez said. "We have never lived through anything like this and our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself in a war to defend all we have taken for granted," he said. The coronavirus has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and killed more than 8,000, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Outside China, where the virus originated, two-thirds of all cases and three-quarters of all deaths are in Europe. Europe has now recorded more than 3,800 deaths, about 600 more than China. The pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course and the virus will eventually infect 60-70% of the global population, according to Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany's public health agency. The US and Canada are temporarily closing the world's longest border to non-essential traffic. Russian media have deployed a "significant disinformation campaign" against the west to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, according to an EU document seen by Reuters. Iran reported 147 more deaths from the coronavirus, its single biggest one-day jump, bringing the death toll to 1,135 people nationwide. Imported coronavirus cases in China outnumbered cases of domestic transmission for the fifth straight day, with 12 of the country's 13 new confirmed cases involving travellers from abroad. Japan's deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, said holding the Tokyo Olympics "would not make sense" if countries could not send their athletes. The EU has so far struggled to find a coherent response to the outbreak, with countries imposing their own border checks in what is normally a zone of control-free travel, and restricting exports of vital medical equipment. But on Tuesday evening EU leaders agreed in a video conference to close the external borders of most European countries to non-EU nationals for 30 days and establish fast-track lanes at the bloc's internal frontiers to keep medicines and food moving. Nonetheless, tensions over borders flared across the bloc, with three Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – criticising Poland for blocking their citizens in transit from returning home, and Portugal and Spain following at least 12 other members states in imposing controls on their joint border. In the US, where the number of infections is nearing 6,500, causing more than 100 deaths, the Trump administration pressed for enactment of a $1tn stimulus package to combat the devastating economic impact of the epidemic – possibly including $1,000 direct payments to individual Americans. New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio, said he was considering whether to order the city's 8.5 million residents to "shelter in place" at home, as state and local officials escalated social distancing policies by closing schools, restaurants and theatres. Meanwhile travellers across the world scrambled to find flights home as governments, including those of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Indonesia, urged their citizens to return home as soon as possible and several countries announced the imminent closure of airports.