US President Donald Trump's sweeping travel ban drew an angry response from EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel who rebuked his "unilateral action" and called for cooperation to fight the pandemic.

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the news media during a meeting with bankers on COVID-19 coronavirus response, inside the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, US, March 11, 2020.
US President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the news media during a meeting with bankers on COVID-19 coronavirus response, inside the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, US, March 11, 2020. (Reuters Archive)

US President Donald Trump defended on Thursday his shock decision to impose a 30-day ban on travel from mainland Europe over the coronavirus pandemic that sent markets into a tailspin and sparked panic among stranded travellers.

As the number of cases and fatalities surged in Europe, governments rolled out even tighter restrictions on travel and public gatherings and major sports events were cancelled across the globe.

Europe's epicentre Italy confirmed a grim milestone as its death toll passed 1,000, while neighbouring France announced it would close all schools nationwide and urged people over the age of 70 to stay home.

The virus, which first emerged in China in December, has quickly spread across the continent even as cases in Asia have levelled out in recent days.

China even claimed that "the peak" of the epidemic had passed on its shores, as the number of infections and deaths jumped dramatically in Italy, Spain, and Iran.

The virus has so far infected more than 130,000 people globally and killed over 4,900.

'Unilateral action'

Trump's sweeping travel ban – which notably excluded Britain and Ireland – drew an angry response from EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel who rebuked his "unilateral action" and called for cooperation to fight the pandemic.

But Trump defended the move, saying "we had to move quickly", while conceding the measures would have "a big impact" on the economy.

His remarks came as news emerged that he met at the weekend with the Brasilian president's communications chief who has tested positive for the virus.

But the White House insisted there was no need for Trump to get tested for the virus, which has infected over 1,300 people and killed 38 in the United States.

New York City declares state of emergency

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency to fight the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday, allowing him to use new powers as the number of confirmed cases rose to 95 in the city.

"The last 24 hours have been very, very sobering," he told at a news conference. "Literally yesterday morning feels like a long time ago." 

He did not immediately issue new rules, but said he supported an announcement by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier on Thursday that banned gatherings of more than 500 people in the state. 

EU Commission orders work remotely for staff

The European Commission orders employees to work from home next week, it announced on Thursday among a series of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The Commission had already encouraged staff to choose telework solutions because of the outbreak of the virus.

There will be exceptions for officials in critical positions who are required to go into the office but work in shifts.

The so-called European schools teaching staffers’ children will also be closed beginning Monday.

Officials are asked to reschedule meetings with colleagues coming from overseas, or have conference calls.

Only absolutely necessary foreign trios will be allowed.

Turkey announces measures to curb virus spread

Turkey's president on Thursday postponed foreign visits amid the global coronavirus outbreak.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's official visits abroad will be postponed "for a while," spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters at a news conference following a five-hour meeting at the presidential complex on the virus.

Meanwhile, all Turkish public officials have been halted from traveling overseas as part of the steps to contain the spread of coronavirus, a Turkish presidential notice said.

In urgent cases, Turkish officials who will need to travel abroad must obtain permission from their superiors, the notice added.

Kalin also announced that primary, middle and high schools would be closed for a week beginning March 16.

The one-week break will be brought forward, he said, referring to the break originally scheduled for April.

“Then, as of March 23, our students will continue their education through the Internet and television with the remote education system,” Kalin said, adding that the Ministry of National Education carried out comprehensive work on the issue.

Universities will also be closed for three weeks starting March 16.

Spectators will also not be allowed in to sporting events until the end of April in efforts to avert a COVID-19 outbreak in Turkey.

“All sporting events in the country until the end of April will be without fans,” he said.

Turkey confirmed Wednesday its first case of the virus, with the health minister urging citizens to avoid international travel unless absolutely necessary.

Belgium closes schools, restaurants, clubs

Belgium's government on Thursday ordered schools, cafes and restaurants to close and tighter business hours for shops due to the coronavirus, following decisions by France and other European countries to limit all but essential activities.

The measures take effect from Friday at midnight central European time and run until April 3, although schools are set to be shut for five weeks, including the Easter holidays, Belgium's caretaker prime minister, Sophie Wilmes, told a news conference.

"There is no lockdown," Wilmes said, emphasizing that supermarkets and pharmacies would remain open and other shops would be required to close only on weekends. "We want to avoid the Italian situation and avoid lockdowns."

The number of people infected with the virus in Belgium is 399, putting the spread of the disease at an earlier stage than in other parts of Europe. Three people have died so far.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies