Turkey could tighten coronavirus controls as strains, criticism grow
By Mert Ozkan and Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey will step up measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak if it keeps spreading and people ignore "voluntary" quarantine rules, President Tayyip Erdogan said, as the death toll rose and doctors demanded action to ease the strain on hospitals.
Turkey's death toll from the pandemic rose by 63 to 277 on Wednesday, its sharpest daily increase yet, while the total number of cases from the disease rose by 2,148 to 15,679, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.
The government has urged people to stay at home, halted all international flights, limited domestic travel, closed schools, cafes, bars and suspended mass prayers and sports fixtures.
But, it has so far stopped short of imposing a full lockdown on public life in an effort to cushion the economic impact.
"We are determined to continue production and exports," Erdogan told a meeting of provincial leaders of his AK Party in a televised video conference on Wednesday.
"We won't need further measures if all our citizens keep themselves in a voluntary quarantine. However, we may have to take much more advanced measures if the pandemic spreads and our citizens don't stay at home."
Later on Wednesday, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu warned that intercity travel would be further restricted in the coming days, after Ankara limited domestic transport at the weekend.
"Our message to citizens is very clear: Do not travel from one city to the other, stay at home. We will make it harder for you," he told broadcaster CNN Turk, adding that one step could be curbing the use of personal vehicles in intercity travel.
He said some 100,000 people had applied to local governors to receive permission for intercity travel, and the government will take steps based on the pace of the pandemic and directives from the health ministry.
In the last 24 hours, 14,396 tests had been conducted in the country, bringing the total number to 106,799 since the outbreak began, Koca said. He added that Turkey would conduct 20,000 to 25,000 tests per day next week and then rapidly reach 30,000.
In Istanbul, Turkey's largest city which has the highest number of infections, the mayor has pushed for a lockdown to slow the spread of the virus because millions of people were still going to work each day.
On Wednesday, Koca said the virus had spread across all 81 provinces in Turkey, but that 60% of cases were in Istanbul. He said there were 8,852 cases and 117 deaths in Istanbul, with the western coastal province of Izmir and the capital Ankara as the next most afflicted regions with 853 and 712 cases respectively.
The Turkish Medical Association (TTB) has criticised what it says is a lack of government readiness and transparency as cases surged over the last three weeks, and has been among those pressing Ankara to adopt and enforce a stay-at-home order.
The TTB, citing its own data, said there are more than 200 patients in intensive care, with over 100 medical staff infected so far in Istanbul through March 30. It added that hospitals in the city of 16 million were short of masks, gloves, goggles and other protective equipment and could face a severe lack of beds.
Koca said 601 medical staff had been infected nationwide.
"This is surely the tip of the iceberg," TTB Chairman Sinan Adiyaman told Reuters. "Every person in the public and private sector must stay at home unless it is essential they go out," he said, adding that this would mean granting them "certain social rights (including) paid leave".
"Layoffs must be absolutely banned. Every worker's social rights must be protected this way to ensure they stay at home apart from mandatory cases."
The government has announced a 100-billion-lira ($15 billion) package to support the economy that includes some wage protection for workers, though many, including in the vast tourism sector, are not covered.
The TTB's office in Izmir said doctors were struggling to access patient data and that not enough was being done to ensure the separation of diagnosed and suspected cases.
($1 = 6.6909 liras)
(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones and Mark Heinrich)