Turkey in weekend lockdown with coronavirus cases at record highs

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey has entered its first full weekend lockdown since May as deaths from coronavirus more than doubled in less than three weeks to hit record highs, with daily infections now among the highest numbers recorded globally.

The daily death toll rose to a record high of 196 on Saturday, bringing the total since the beginning of the pandemic to 14,705. Official daily deaths were in the 70s at the end of October.

Opposition politicians have expressed scepticism however about whether the official death toll reflects the true picture in the country of 83 million people. They have questioned how the numbers in Istanbul could be almost as high as those reported for the whole nation.

On Saturday Turkey recorded 31,896 new cases, including asymptomatic ones, down from Friday’s 32,736, the highest daily number reported by Ankara since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

For four months, Turkey only reported daily symptomatic cases, but it has reported all cases since Nov. 25. Historical data for all positive cases and the cumulative total are still not available.

Turkish television showed largely empty squares and streets on Saturday in the largest city Istanbul, the capital Ankara and the third largest city Izmir, with only a few people and vehicles out and about.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was quoted as saying by state-owned Anadolu news agency that most people were obeying the lockdown rules.

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(Graphic: Turkey's COVID-19 death toll hits new records Turkey's COVID-19 death toll hits new records, )

Turkey now ranks fourth globally for the number of daily new cases, behind only the United States, India and Brazil - all countries with far larger populations than Turkey.

Turkey last imposed full weekend lockdowns in large cities in May. It announced nationwide weekend curfews last month, but the measures failed to halt the rise in new cases and deaths.

President Tayyip Erdogan announced the full weekend lockdown on Monday, as well as a curfew on weekdays. He said measures against the coronavirus were being taken carefully to minimise the impact on the economy.

The lockdown and curfews exclude some sectors, including supply chains and production.

Turkey’s economy contracted 9.9% year-on-year in the second quarter due to the coronavirus restrictions. It rebounded in the third quarter, growing 6.7% after the restrictions were lifted.

Economists expect the new measures to have a lesser impact on growth in the final quarter than they did in the second.

Turkey has signed a contract to buy 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. It is expected to begin vaccinations this month, prioritising health workers.

Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Gareth Jones and Clelia Oziel