Poland curbs public gatherings, shuts bars as coronavirus cases climb

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland will close restaurants and bars for two weeks and limit public gatherings to five people, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday, after new coronavirus infections hit a daily record of more than 13,600.

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Officials said the aim of the new restrictions was to limit the growth of infections, and that without them daily cases could jump to as many as 25,000.

“Our actions must be much more decisive,” Morawiecki said, announcing the new curbs that come into force on Saturday. “What worries us a lot is the speed of the increase.”

It was not immediately clear whether Morawiecki’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government would allow protests planned for Friday evening over Thursday’s decision by the Constitutional Court to severely limit abortion rights.

Hundreds took to the streets late on Thursday, already in contravention of curbs limiting public gatherings to 10 people in major cities, after the court said pregnancy terminations on the grounds of foetal defects were unconstitutional.

The decision meant banning the most common of the few legal grounds for ending a pregnancy in the largely Catholic country.

Isolated scuffles with the police broke out near the house of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski on Thursday, with government critics saying the court had acted on the party’s behalf, a charge it denies.

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Morawiecki appealed to those over 70 to stay home, although did not announce a mandatory lockdown for them.

The government will launch a hotline for the elderly to get help shopping for food and medication, and plans to involve its volunteer military corps to run deliveries.

Schools will remain open, but only children up to third grade will attend, with older students moving to distance learning.

Poland’s healthcare system has begun to buckle under the weight of mounting coronavirus infections, forcing the government to set up field hospitals.

The Health Ministry reported 153 deaths on Friday, down from a record high of 168 a day earlier, taking the total toll to 4,172.

Officials also said no decisions have been taken yet regarding potential restrictions for All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, when millions of Poles traditionally visit cemeteries to commemorate their deceased loved ones.

Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko and Marcin Goclowski, Writing by Joanna Plucinska and Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Tomasz Janowski