German Chancellor Angela Merkel has issued a stark warning to Europe, calling for solidarity and common sense as the coronavirus continues its march across the continent.
Merkel, who has a background in science, used her first news conference addressing the crisis to note epidemiologists’ predictions that the virus will infect 60 to 70 per cent of the population.
“Our solidarity, our common sense and our hearts for one another are being put to the test and I hope that we pass this test,’’ Merkel told reporters in Berlin.
In these times, a friendly smile was a safer greeting than any kind of physical contact, the chancellor added.
Germany is moving to ban public gatherings of more than 1,000 people and is advising citizens to reduce their movements wherever possible.
However, Europe’s largest economy has stopped short of closing borders.
“We in Germany are of the opinion that border closures are not an adequate response to these challenges,’’ said Merkel, a trained physicist, adding that the situation was fluid and unpredictable.
Health Minister, Jens Spahn struck a similar note, warning that “closing borders across the board will not stop what is happening.’’
The latest update from the World Health Organisation confirmed 113, 702 cases of the virus worldwide and 4,012 deaths.
Coronavirus has now reached all 27 European Union member states, with Sweden recording its first coronavirus related death on Wednesday.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis accused Merkel of spreading panic, with her claim backed up by experts that up to 70 per cent of the population would catch the virus.
“I do not wish to comment on the situation in Germany, although I think that such statements tend to cause panic,’’ Babis told the CTK news agency.
The Czech Republic has banned events with more than 100 participants a far lower threshold than Germany’s restrictions.
Prague has also closed all schools, whereas schools in Germany remain open.
Germany is one of the worst affected countries in Europe so far, with 1,850 cases of infection and three deaths.
Yet the crisis has been eclipsed by that in Italy, which is battling with the world’s worst outbreak outside China, where the virus originated.
As of Tuesday evening, Italy had recorded 10,149 positive cases and 631 deaths. Lombardy, the Italian region worst hit by the outbreak, is calling on the central government to tighten the current lockdown.
All shops, bars, restaurants, shopping malls, hotels and offices should close and public transport be suspended, Lombardy President Attilio Fontana said in a request to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Only essential services such as pharmacies and food stores should be kept open, he said, insisting that the measures are vital to contain the outbreak.
Lombardy includes Milan, Italy’s business and fashion capital. The region has registered nearly 6,000 coronavirus cases alone.
The rising rate of infection across Europe has prompted several countries to announce further travel restrictions and closures.
Austria’s state railway OeBB said on Wednesday it was suspending passenger train connections to neighbouring Italy, though cargo trains will continue to run along the key transport artery.
Austrian border police will begin vehicle checks on Wednesday evening to enforce an entry ban for travellers from Italy.
Nine smaller border crossings between Switzerland and Italy were shut down to better control traffic between the two virus-hit countries.
Traffic will be channelled through larger crossings where officers are conducting spot checks, the Swiss Federal Customs Administration said.
A number of museums and cultural institutions across Europe have been shut or imposed limits on visitor numbers.
In Poland, which had recorded 27 cases by Wednesday afternoon, all schools and universities will be closed for two weeks from Thursday.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki urged parents to keep their children at home and refrain from shaking hands.
“Effectively it is a time of quarantine for our society,’’ Polish Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski said.
Travel restrictions are hitting the tourism industry hard and several airlines have reduced their services as demand falls.
Malta will ban all travel to and from Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland as of this midnight and fine 1,000 euros (1,130 dollars) anyone breaching quarantine rules, Prime Minister Robert Abela said.
Germany’s Lufthansa Group said it was cancelling 23,000 short, medium and long-haul flights as part of a reduced timetable from March 29 until April 24.(dpa/NAN)