Health minister: 359 known cases of coronavirus in Turkey – live blog

The number of patients with the coronavirus in Turkey has reached 359 with 168 new diagnoses recorded on Thursday, Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Thursday night. Four people have died of the virus in Turkey so far, including Aytaç Yalman, a retired general.

There are 9,800 people currently being held in quarantine in Turkey as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on Thursday evening.

The football, basketball and volleyball leagues in Turkey have been postponed, Youth and Sports Minister Muharrem Kasapoğlu said on Thursday.

Turkey said cases of the coronavirus in the country had more than doubled to 191 as it announced a 100-billion-lira ($15.4 billion) package of measures to support industry. The lira fell to its lowest level since September 2018.

“Our citizens should not leave their homes unless absolutely necessary,” state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Erdoğan as saying after a four-hour meeting of senior officials in Ankara on Wednesday.

Erdoğan said the government had doubled the size of the country’s Credit Guarantee Fund to 50 billion liras to help maintain lending to industry. He also announced a three-month delay on loan repayments for firms suffering liquidity shortages and a six-month postponement in sales tax and social security payments for key sectors.

The lira dropped by 0.6 percent to 6.52 per dollar in early afternoon trading local time in Istanbul on Thursday, taking losses this year to 9 percent. Several other emerging market currencies also fell.

The measures the government has announced do not give sufficient support to the tourism and service industries, prominent columnist Fatih Altaylı said in an op-ed for the Habertürk news website. Robin Brooks, chief economist for the Institute of International Finance, said Turkey was experiencing a so-called “sudden stop” that is perhaps more damaging than 2018. The negative effect on economic growth could be very large, he said on Twitter.

Erdoğan also said the government had slashed taxes on air travel to 1 percent and abolished them entirely on hotel accommodation. Altaylı said the latter measure would have little effect and called on the government to provide more financial assistance to hoteliers instead.

Turkey has temporarily shut down schools, called off weekly communal prayers at mosques, suspended incoming flights from more than 20 countries including Britain, Switzerland, Egypt, Ireland and the UAE, and is considering taking more action to limit activity in crowded places.

(All times Turkish time GMT +3)

00:08 - Health Minister: Diagnosed cases of coronavirus jump to 359

The number of known cases of the coronavirus jumped by 168 on Thursday to reach 359, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.

An 85-year-old woman became the fourth person in the country to die from the virus on Thursday, Koca said.

23:48 - JPMorgan predicts recession for emerging economies

The U.S. investment bank JPMorgan has predicted that the coronavirus pandemic will send emerging economies including Turkey into a recession this year, the New York Times reported.

"We now expect a 1H20 recession in emerging markets ex-China as containment is stepped up and as developed markets contract," the bank said.

Earlier on Thursday, Treasury and Economy Minister Berat Albayrak said he was confident Turkey could meet its 5 percent growth target for 2020 despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

22:38 - People around Turkey applaud health workers

People across Turkey applauded healthcare workers from their balconies at 9 p.m. in a show of support for those on the front line of the fight against the coronavirus, local media reported with footage of the applause.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted his thanks to those who took part in the applause and called for another demonstration at the same time on Friday.

22:30 - Turkish state broadcaster calls off serial production for two-week break

Turkey's state broadcaster TRT has called a two-week halt to the production of televised drama and comedy serials, Gazete Duvar news site reported.

The broadcaster said it was halting production to ensure staff and actors' safety during the coronavirus pandemic and would work to sterilise sets during the break. 

19:30 - Interior Ministry: 9,800 people quarantined

Nearly 10,000 people have been placed under quarantine in Turkey, including people returning from the Umrah religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said.

The minister went on to rebut claims that the government was planning to impose curfews to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, blaming these on "manipulative" social media posts by members of the banned Gülen religious movement, which the government blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016.

Members of the Gülen movement had "seen how well Turkey was being managed, how calm and sensible the (Turkish) people were and how they obeyed the rules, how much better our situation was than in the United States and Germany," Soylu said.

"Our citizens should not tolerate those who try to manipulate the situation from social media and provoke indignation," he said.

Ahmet Bolat/Pool via REUTERS

19:06 - Sports leagues postponed

The football, basketball, handball and volleyball leagues in Turkey have been postponed as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Youth and Sports Minister Muharrem Kasapoğlu said on Thursday.

The minister said the decision was taken after consultation with representatives from the leagues following Erdoğan's meeting on the coronavirus on Wednesday.

Turkey's football league had faced criticism for continuing with matches despite the arrival of the virus in Turkey, with Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel ending his contract with Trabzonspor over being asked to continue playing.

Galatasaray's Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera also criticised the lack of action with a viral post on social media asking how footballers could follow experts' advice to socially distance while playing matches.

19:00 – White Helmets brace for arrival of coronavirus in Idlib

Civil defence teams in Idlib, the last opposition-held area in Syria, are working tirelessly to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic to spread to the province, the Guardian quoted the White Helmets aid agency as saying.

The White Helmets have prepared 60 beds to deal with COVID-19 infections and are disinfecting public spaces in Idlib, where the makeshift and overcrowded homes and tents of some 900,000 displaced people make social distancing near impossible, the Guardian said in Thursday's live blog on the pandemic.

“After all the death brought by warplanes and bombs, a new disaster – coronavirus – is chasing Syrians here. Of course people are scared, but they have nowhere to escape to. It’s very overcrowded everywhere and people can’t just stay home or inside their tent,” said Ibrahim al-Haj, a White Helmets volunteer.

18:05 – Northern Cyprus bars non-citizens from entry, postpones election

Non-citizens will not be able to enter the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus according to new measures the breakaway state is taking to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Turkish media reported.

All northern Cypriots returning from abroad will be held in 14 days quarantine according to the new measures.  

Northern Cyprus has also postponed the presidential election scheduled for Apr. 26 until Oct. 11.

16:40 - Turkey will provide extra liquidity to markets for three months

Turkish Economy and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak said markets would have 50 billion to 60 billion liras of extra liquidity in a three-month period as fear over the coronavirus outbreak grows.

Albayrak said in a statement that repayments of loans and interest by owners of small and medium-sized businesses would be postponed.

They will benefit from liquidity opportunities, especially from public banks, the minister said.

16:25 -Turkish retail sales drop 70 percent on coronavirus, association says

Sales at retail outlets in Turkey have slumped by 70 percent due to the spread of the coronavirus, a leading industry association said, according to Diken news website.

Several shopping centres have also shut temporarily and stores are focused on paying staff wages, said the United Brands Association of Turkey, which represents firms with 50,000 selling points across the country, Diken reported.

15:25 - Mosques will be closed before Friday prayers to prevent spread of coronavirus

Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) said mosques would be closed on Fridays for congregational prayers, saying that its advice to Muslims to avoid crowds has not been followed properly.

Diyanet said on Monday that the mosques would remain open for prayers, urging Muslims who are immunocompromised or otherwise in high-risk groups to practice Friday prayers, which were most likely to be crowded, at home instead.

14:40 - Turkey will carry out 10,000 coronavirus tests a day, health minister says

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said the government planned to carry out 10,000 coronavirus tests per day.

The number of centres to handle all testing for the COVID-19 will be increased from 25 to 36, Koca said.

14:35 - Banks Association of Turkey: Banking sector will continue to support economic activity

The Banks Association of Turkey (TBB) pledged to help the banking sector keep credit channels open, to provide flexibility in terms of payments, and to quickly evaluate and meet the demands of corporate firms to support economic activity, state-run Anadolu news agency said on Thursday.

The TBB urged members to report adverse effects from the epidemic in order to build a healthier risk assessment in the sector.

13:04 - Turkey’s 8,000 coronavirus tests not enough – medical association

The number of coronavirus tests carried out in Turkey is too low compared to the number of suspected cases, the Cumhuriyet newspaper said, citing the chairman of Turkey’s leading medical association.

The expected return of some 21,000 Turkish nationals from pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia within a few weeks has sparked fears that the virus will spread further throughout the country.

The Health Ministry said some 8,000 people had undergone tests since the first COVID-19 diagnosis. But the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) criticised the government for what it said were inadequate measures to stem the spread of the virus, and said the Health Ministry’s approach lacked transparency, according to Cumhuriyet.

12:36 - Istanbul municipality says street markets should only sell food

Istanbul municipality has recommended that neighbourhood street markets only sell food as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, news site Diken said.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu said the recommendation came after negotiations with district municipalities that oversee the markets. Measures such as market disinfection, stall sellers wearing gloves and masks, and the placement of disinfectant liquids at the entrances to markets were also agreed.

İmamoğlu said there were 462 neighbourhood markets in the city of 16 million people and that they could meet 80 percent of the city’s food needs.

12:22 - Ford Otosan of Turkey suspends production for two weeks

Ford Otosan, the Turkish unit of Ford Motor Co., is to close its factories in Turkey for two weeks due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus, news site Diken said.

A company statement on the Istanbul Stock Exchange’s Public Disclosure Platform said all production lines at the Gölcük, Yeniköy, and Eskişehir factories would be closed for two weeks from March 23.

Ford Motor Company announced this week that it would temporarily close its factories in Europe.

11:31 - Turkey may have reached critical virus levels - science council member

Scientists warned that the coronavirus may have reached a critical spreading point days ago in Turkey, said news site Sol International, citing an official expert.

“We should make all our efforts to not being Italy, where the virus has spread so fast due to the insufficient measures to prevent it,” said Alpay Azap, a member of Turkey's Coronavirus Science Counci.

“Considering that we are able to run COVID-19 tests for a very few patients and only 20 percent of them come to hospitals for diagnosis, it is possible that we reached the critical level of spreading fast of the virus many days ago,’’ Azap said, according to the website.