Turkey's coronavirus death toll reaches 1,518 as prisoner releases begin - live blog

Turkey confirmed on Wednesday that another 115 people had died after contracting the coronavirus , bringing the country's total loss of lives due to the pandemic to 1,518.

Of the 34,090 tested over the past day, 4,281 had tested positive for COVID-19, Heath Minister Fahrettin Koca said in his daily update on Twitter.

 Koca said there was a silver lining to the tally of infections, which have now reached 69,392.

“The rate of increase in the number of cases, the rate of increase in the number of patients in need of intensive care and respiratory support tends to remain constant,” the minister said, adding that 875 people had recovered from the illness in the last day bringing the total number of recoveries to 5,674.

More than 1,820 patients have been admitted to intensive care, and 1,052 have been intubated, the latest figures said.

Meanwhile, prisoner releases have begun in Turkey after a law was passed that will see as many as 90,000 inmates set free to reduce the coronavirus pandemic’s threat to the country’s overcrowded prisons.

Images published by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency saw the first busloads of inmates leaving prisons after parliament approved the bill early on Tuesday.

Opposition parties had vehemently opposed the bill, which was drafted by the ruling coalition, because it excludes tens of thousands of people convicted of or pending trial for terror charges or other crimes against the state that many view as political prisoners.

Instead, some 45,000 people will be released with judicial controls and another 45,000 people will be freed permanently with sentence reductions.

The news of the prisoners’ release arrived shortly after Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül admitted that the virus had spread to prisons, infecting dozens of personnel and inmates, one of whom has died.

In the country as a whole, COVID-19 has continued to spread at a steady pace, with 4,062 new cases recorded on Tuesday. Although the death toll rose to its highest so far at 107 that day, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said it was positive that the rate of new infections had remained stable despite the increased number of tests administered this week.

(Times Turkish time GMT+3)

00:15 - Students to continue education during summer

Primary and secondary school students will continue their education during the summer period, T24 said.

Distant lectures will continue in the summer vacation period, meanwhile, the Education Ministry could shorten teachers' leave time, according to a new law aiming to compensate disrupted lectures.

However, the education minister said students will still have a break from school despite extra lessons.

"There is no question of the summer holiday suspension. Children will have a summer vacation," the minister said on Twitter.

22:50 - Ankara mayor provides financial aid to 800 scrap paper collectors

The opposition mayor of capital Ankara has formally recognised scrap paper collectors, providing financial aid to 800 families involved in the line of work.

A scrap paper collectors association announced the move on Twitter, saying the mayor, through the move, had "formally recognised the employees, who pay taxes, but whose job is not acknowledged."Mansur on March 22 had banned paper scrap collection, which effectively functions as an unofficial recycling service, as part of the city’s measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

22:36 - People working in agriculture, livestock sectors to be exempt from curfew measures

Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bekir Pakdemirli said farmers and people working in livestock sectors would be exempt from weekend curfews, T24 reported.

"Those who work in the units of the products with short shelf life, and those working in the flour and pasta sector will be able to continue their production during the weekend," Pakdemirli said.

22:05- Turkey's new parole bill 'a great disappointment' - European Parliament

The Turkish government's penal reform which calls for the release a large number of people held in Turkish prisons, while excluding those convicted for terrorism charges, deliberately expose the lives of those that it considers political opponents to the risk of the deadly COVID 19, members of the 
European Parliament said.

"The legal amendments by the Turkish Parliament allowing the release of 90.000 prisoners, but excluding those imprisoned for their political activities and citizens in pre-trial detention, is a great disappointment", Nacho Sanchez, the EP standing rapporteur on Turkey, and Sergey Lagodinsky, Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, said in a joint statement.

21:46 - Turkish soldiers take to Twitter to criticise government decision to delay military discharges

Turkish soldiers have taken to Twitter to criticise a decision by the Defence Ministry's to suspend discharges for those currently serving their mandatory service for a month during the pandemic.

Several soldiers released videos on social media saying that the decision was unfair and they had not informed until it was taken on Tuesday.

The Turkish Defence Ministry decided to postpone the conscription of 53,000 men while extending the term of those currently serving their mandatory military service by a month in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the service.

21:03 - No water in Turkey’s Silivri prison in two days, says leading activist 

There has been no running water in Istanbul's maximum-security Silivri Prison,  head of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Şebnem Korur Fincanci, said citing lawyers in contact with inmates.

"In talks with lawyers over the past two days, we have learned that no water has been running in Silivri for two days. No water means no cleanliness, and this, in turn, means that inmates are unable to protect themselves [from COVID-19], "Artı Gerçek news site quoted Korur Financi as saying. 

Turkey on Monday confirmed three inmate deaths and 17 cases of COVID-19 in five different open prisons.

20:45 - Lawyer of Turkish journalists arrested over intelligence report applies for their release 

The lawyer of six journalists arrested earlier this year over a report covering the funeral of a Turkish intelligence officer who died in Libya has filed an application for their release, Diken news site said.

Barış Terkoğlu, Hülya Kılınç, Barış Pehlivan, Aydın Keser, Ferhat Çelik and Murat Ağırel have been imprisoned for a month for exposing the identity of a MİT official.

Their lawyer’s request is based on the new Law on the Enforcement of Sentences and Security Precautions - part of the government’s measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s prisons - which has brought changes to length of probationary periods, Diken said.

17:40 - Turkish woman released from quarantine after testing negative dies of COVID-19

A Turkish woman, who was quarantined and subsequently released after testing negative for coronavirus upon returning from minor pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, has died due to COVID-19.

The 70-year-old woman had tested negative for coronavirus after remaining in quarantine for 15 days, T24 news site said, but fell sick 10 days after arriving home in the town of Silvan in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır, T24 news site said.

The woman was diagnosed with the virus after being hospitalised with a high fever and difficulty in breathing, it said.

17:50 - Turkish parliamentary commission approves coronavirus bill

Turkish parliament's Planning and Budget Commission has approved a bill calling for a series of financial measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Diken news site reported.

The bill includes financial aid to labourers who do not qualify for unemployment allowance and a three-month extension in the payment of water bills businesses, aid to elderly and those with physical impairments, it said.

17:15 - Ankara mayor urges proactive shopping before weekend lockdown

The mayor of Turkey’s capital Ankara has urged residents to complete their shopping well ahead of the second consecutive weekend lockdown in the city to avoid the choatic scenes that emerged last Friday.

"To avoid creating crowds ahead if the two-day curfew, obtain your shopping needs early… We will be on duty and by your side with all our resources," Mansur Yavaş said on Twitter.

Turkey’s first wide-scale weekend lockdown last weekend was announced two hours before being implemented, causing large groups of people to scramble to bakeries and markets, defying social distancing practices.

17:00 - Top media watchdog slaps TV station with prime time broadcast ban over pandemic commentary

Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) has handed down a broadcast ban to FOX TV over statements made by a critical news anchor on government pandemic policies. 

The TV station will be banned from broadcasting three prime time news episodes after RTÜK deemed a series of statements by anchor Fatih Portakal on March 30, 31 and April 1 as violations, Evrensel newspaper said.

Portakal, a long-time critic of the ruling party, had spoken on government blocking pandemic aid campaigns by the main opposition party, the politicisation of the Religious Affairs Directorate and the impoverishment of states during the pandemic.

16:40 -  Turkey’s Pegasus airline passengers drop by 44 pct

Turkish budget airline Pegasus has suffered a 44.1 percent decrease in passengers this March compared to last year, Diken news site reported.

While 2.4 million passengers used the airlines in March 2019, this figure dropped to 1.3 million passengers in March 2020, it said.

Turkey’s airline industry is one of the sectors that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

16:15 -  Police seize over 5,000 illegally sold COVID-19 test kits in Istanbul

Istanbul police raided a textile workshop where over 5,000 fast-track coronavirus testing kits from China were being sold on the black market, news site T24 reported.

Police seized 5, 575 of the kits and detained two people linked to the illegal operation, it said.

The kits were being sold without a permit for $18 a piece, T24 said. 

Turkey has received fast-track testing kits from China that can identify the COVID-19 disease in 15 minutes. The Health Ministry said the tests would be distributed to all 81 Turkish provinces. 

15:38 - Quarantines lifted in 41 settlements

Quarantines are in place in 227 settlements in 58 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, Anadolu news agency quoted the Interior Ministry as saying.

The ministry said it had lifted quarantines on 41 settlements across 14 provinces.

15:25 - Interior Ministry starts legal proceedings against shops that breach social distancing guidelines

Turkey’s Interior Ministry has begun legal proceedings against shops and supermarkets that have failed to abide by the government’s social distancing measures, Anadolu news agency said.

The ministry said it had identified 1,183 businesses that had failed to uphold the measures, which include limiting working hours to between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., reducing the number of customers allowed in the shop to 10 percent of normal capacity, and ensuring that customers wear masks and queue at an appropriate distance from one another.

14:45 - Turkey posts record budget deficit in March, lira slides to two-year low

Turkey posted a record budget deficit in March as the government sought to combat the impact of the COVID-19 virus by increasing spending.

The deficit grew to 43.7 billion liras ($6.4 billion) last month from 24.5 billion liras in the same month of 2019, the Treasury and Finance Ministry said on its website on Wednesday. Spending, excluding interest payments on debt, surged by 18 percent.

As investors' concerns grew about the country’s ability to withstand the pandemic, the lira weakened in early afternoon trading by 0.8 percent to 6.87 per dollar, a low last seen during a currency crisis in August 2018.

14:17 - Turkey’s Red Crescent downgrades international operation to focus relief efforts at home

Turkey’s International Red Crescent organisation will focus its efforts at home during this year’s fasting month of Ramadan, said the humanitarian organisation’s president, Kerem Kınık.

It is customary for Muslims to give to charity at the end of Ramadan, and the Red Crescent ships relief packages to dozens of countries abroad every year throughout the month.

But this year, with the coronavirus pandemic hitting people hard in Turkey, the organisation will downgrade its international operations to concentrate on providing aid to needy people at home, Kınık said.

Kerek Kınık (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

14:02 - Istanbul ICU doctors rush back to work after recovering from COVID-19

Doctors and staff at a hospital in Istanbul have rushed back to work at ICUs after recovering from coronavirus infections, Reuters reported.

Eighty-five health workers at the Medicana International Hospital, including 14 doctors, were diagnosed with the virus after the first case was recorded in Turkey on March 11.

But two thirds of them have already recovered and returned to work at the hospital, which is treating 100 coronavirus patients, Reuters said.

13:37 - Turkish supermarkets force workers to extend shifts for free after weekend lockdown

Workers at two of Turkey’s supermarket chains are being forced to make up working hours lost over last weekend after the Interior Ministry’s last-minute decision to lock Turkey’s largest cities down for 48 hours, Yeniçağ newspaper reported.

Workers from supermarket chains Migros and Şok who were unable to work their shifts over the weekend have been told to add two-and-a-half hours on to the end of their shifts this week without earning extra pay.

13:00 – Turkish prisoners forced to buy own masks

While the government has begun providing people around Turkey with protective masks free of charge, prison inmates are still being forced to pay for them out of their own pockets, Artı Gerçek reported.

The same masks distributed for free elsewhere are on sale in prisons for just over one dollar each, the news site quoted an inmate who was released from a women’s prison in Izmir as saying.

REUTERS/David Ryder

12:35 - Turkish parties unite to protect health personnel from violence

Turkey’s parliamentary parties came together on Wednesday to create a common motion to prevent violence against healthcare workers, a long-running issue in Turkey that has returned to the agenda during the coronavirus pandemic.

The draft amendment on the issue will see sentences increased by 50 percent for people found guilty of physically or verbally assaulting health workers or obstructing their duties.

12:15 - Pharmacies say bureaucratic hurdle should be skipped for mask handouts

Turkish pharmacists have called on the Health Ministry to remove a requirement for citizens to have a code from the ministry to receive the free protective masks the government is distributing to protect against the coronavirus, Cumhuriyet reported.

Nurten Saydan, the head of a pharmacists’ union, said the ministry should allow people to use their identity numbers instead of applying online for the code to receive masks, adding that the government should also lift a ban on selling the masks so that supplies would be more readily available.

11:52 - Turkey removes social media curbs from COVID-19 legislation

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party removed measures calling for tight restrictions on social media networks from an omnibus bill of measures to fight the coronavirus, Reuters reported.

The bill, which opposition parties called an attempt to censor social media networks, would have required social media networks with large numbers of users to appoint representatives in Turkey who would be bound to enforce government decisions on the content published on their networks and hand over information on account holders in the country.

Garo Paylan, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party, said the measures had been removed to streamline the omnibus bill’s passage through parliament, but added that he expected them to resurface later.

11:30 - Turkish, Iranian firms cooperate to make virus-testing kits

Turkish and Iranian firms are collaborating to produce coronavirus testing kits to international standards and are ready to produce 1 million of the kits per week, Iran’s state-run Press TV reported.

Parsian Seismograph Managing Director Ali Seifpour Abolhassani told Press TV that his company and a Turkish tech firm had secured international certification for their kits and were ready to begin production after receiving approval from the Iranian Health Ministry.

22:15 - Bus carrying COVID-19 patients in eastern Turkey stopped, patients fined

Turkish officials stopped a bus traveling from Istanbul to the eastern province of Van, after receiving information that the coach was carrying four COVID-19 patients.

The incident took place after the governor’s office of the eastern province of Erzincan –located on the bus route – was tipped off on the matter, Birgün newspaper said.

The four people were fined 3,150 lira ($461) each for threatening public health and placed in a hospital in Erzincan, Birgün said.

22:10 -Turkey makes COVID-19 treatment, medicine free of charge

Coronavirus-related treatments and medicine for public hospital patients in Turkey will be completely free of charge, according to a presidential decree published on Tuesday.

Even patients who fail to pay state insurance will be provided with free medicine, protective gear and testing in state hospitals and medical centres, Sabah newspaper reported, citing the decree.

The announcement arrives as Turkey’s COVID-19 cases have increased at a steady rate of around 4,000 per day. The country has registered 1,403 deaths due to the novel virus. 

22:05 - Turkish Airlines extends flight cancellations until May 20

Turkish Airlines has extended the cancellation of domestic and international flights to May over the coronavirus pandemic, Turkey’s national carrier said on Tuesday.

All domestic flights are suspended until May 1, 2020, and international flights until May 20, the airline said in a statement on its website.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month vowed to support the national flag carrier, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.

21:30 - Ruling AKP submits bill calling for extension on university fees

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has submitted a draft law to parliament, which includes a call for a three-month extension for outstanding fees to the country’s Higher Education Credit and Hostels Institution. 

The bill, a part of measures to ease the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, also calls for an extension to the declaration and payment of taxes of municipalities and organisations under their auspices, among others, Artı Gerçek news site reported.