Turkey mulling a return to coronavirus curbs as infections soar

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is considering reimposing some measures to stem a resurgence of coronavirus cases such as stay-home orders for younger and older people or even weekend lockdowns, but will avoid throttling the economic recovery, a senior official said.

FILE PHOTO: Members of Istanbul Police Department Mounted Unit patrol against people not wearing protective face masks at Taksim Square as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Istanbul, Turkey September 26, 2020. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The official, who requested anonymity, said the total number of infections was about five times that reported in the government’s daily tally if asymptomatic cases were included - echoing concerns by Turkey’s top medical association and opposition lawmakers.

Health ministry officials were not immediately available to comment. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has warned about the uptick in numbers and urged Turks to abide by nationwide distancing and mask rules, which are subject to fines.

Vice President Fuat Oktay said later on Wednesday that there were regional rises and falls in COVID-19 cases depending on how much citizens were adhering to personal hygiene and social distancing measures, but no restrictive measures were on tap.

“If additional measures are necessary, they can always be considered, but these are not on our agenda at the moment,” he told broadcaster CNN Turk, adding that the government took “the necessary decisions purely based on the data”.

The senior official was speaking to Reuters after Turkey’s daily new symptomatic coronavirus cases rose to 2,026 on Monday, the highest level since early May when restrictions on businesses and households were in place.

“New measures could be enforced after looking at the process over a few weeks,” the senior official said, adding that the picture would become clearer after assessing the impact of the partial reopening of schools earlier this month.

Turkey’s medical association and main opposition party have criticised a government decision to only disclose the number of symptomatic patients.

The health ministry changed the wording in its daily reports from “cases” to “patients” on July 29, and Koca said the daily number only includes symptomatic cases.

The senior official told Reuters there were many diagnosed cases without symptoms. “It appears the number of cases is around five times the number of patients. If this trend goes higher of course some measures will be taken,” he said.

Another official said that while a recent rapid rise in cases in the capital Ankara had slowed somewhat, upticks in cities such as Istanbul posed a risk for the country in this “difficult period”.

But he also said draconian measures like “a full lockdown” were not on the agenda.

The number of “patients” in Turkey since the outbreak began exceeds 350,000, with nearly 9,500 deaths, ministry data shows.

Turkish authorities imposed lockdowns, restricted intercity travel and closed restaurants and cafes earlier this year. Almost all restrictions were lifted in June.

The economy shrank 10% in the second quarter and a Reuters poll on Wednesday showed growth was expected to contract 3.4% in 2020 as a whole - a much bleaker outlook than government forecasts.

Any new restrictions would have a “narrower scope” and protect the economy, the first official said.

“We will see some steps without waiting too long.”

Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Mark Heinrich