Putin takes coronavirus precautions as Moscow unveils tracking app

By Alexander Marrow and Vladimir Soldatkin
A person walks past cars covered with snow in the parking lot in Saint Petersburg

By Alexander Marrow and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin is taking precautions to protect himself against coronavirus, the Kremlin said on Wednesday, as Moscow authorities launched a smartphone app to track people who have been ordered to stay home because of the outbreak.

Putin held a government meeting on Wednesday by video conference a day after a doctor who met him last week said he had been diagnosed with the infectious virus.

Denis Protsenko last week gave Putin a tour of Moscow's main coronavirus hospital and shook hands with the Russian leader. Protsenko is now self-isolating in his office.

The Kremlin, which has said Putin was fine, said the president was keeping his distance from others, preferring to work remotely. It also said Putin was keeping a bottle of antiseptic on his desk.

Asked if Putin had changed the way he greeted people and was keeping a distance, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "Of course, now everyone is maintaining a social distance. Everyone is doing this."


'DIGITAL CONCENTRATION CAMP'

Russia expanded its coronavirus lockdown on Wednesday to cover more of its sprawling territory as the official tally of infections rose to 2,777, after increasing by 440 on one day. Twenty-four people have died in Russia, the authorities say.

Moscow, a bustling metropolis of more than 12.5 million that has become the epicentre of Russia's outbreak, has come to an eerie standstill since a partial lockdown was imposed on Sunday.

Residents can leave their homes only to buy food or medicine nearby, get urgent medical treatment, walk the dog or take out trash. Red Square remains largely empty except for police who stopped occasional passersby to check their papers.

At a government meeting on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova asked Putin to extend a non-working week he had declared last week to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Her request suggests the lockdown measures could be extended into next week.

Putin also signed legislation on Wednesday allowing the government to declare a state of emergency to fight the virus.

Only the president can declare a state of emergency after he has formally received the support of the upper house of parliament, but lawmakers on Tuesday passed legislation granting the cabinet of ministers the same emergency powers.

A Moscow city official said on Wednesday authorities had developed a smartphone app for residents who have contracted the virus to allow officials to monitor their movements. The app will be available from Thursday, the official, Eduard Lysenko, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

The Russian capital is also preparing to roll out a QR-code system where each resident that registers online will be assigned a unique code that they can show to police officers if stopped when going to the shop or the chemist, he said.

Both measures appeared in an unconfirmed draft blueprint for a city-wide surveillance system that was circulated online this week. Kremlin critics said it risked turning Moscow into a "digital concentration camp".

Lysenko said anyone without a device that is able to download the tracking app would be lent one by city authorities that they would later return.

Eight southern Russian regions rolled out lockdown measures similar to Moscow's on Wednesday, meaning more than two thirds of Russia's more than 80 regions are now in a state of partial lockdown.



(Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Nadezhda Tsydenova and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Edmund Blair)