MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia plans to ease its restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus in three stages, officials said on Wednesday.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the outbreak had stabilised in the past two weeks, with the growth in cases in the capital explained by increased testing. But he said the public should keep observing self-isolation measures even when some restrictions are eased from May 12.
Russia’s total number of coronavirus cases rose on Wednesday by more than 10,000 for the fourth consecutive day to 165,929, while the death toll climbed to 1,537.
Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova became the latest high-ranking official and third cabinet minister to be diagnosed with the coronavirus.
In a televised video conference with government officials and regional heads, President Vladimir Putin lent his support to the three-stage plan for reducing restrictions. He said Russia should not rush, however, as any haste in removing preventative measures could undo their impact so far.
At first, people will be allowed to go for walks and exercise on the streets, said Anna Popova, head of the consumer health regulator Rospotrebnadzor, but she gave no specific time frame.
The second stage would see educational establishments and some service-sector businesses return to operation, with recreational facilities including parks and squares then reopening in the third stage, she said.
Despite Russia’s ostensible success in protecting its most vulnerable citizens from the coronavirus, the government has been criticised for failing to provide families and businesses with enough support amid the economic shutdown.
Putin’s approval rating has slipped to its lowest level in more than two decades during the coronavirus crisis, even as support for his plan to extend his rule for years ahead has risen, a Levada-Centre poll showed.
The authorities are looking for ways to cushion an economic contraction exacerbated by a global slump in the price of oil, Russia’s key export, as well as the coronavirus outbreak.
In 2020, the economy may shrink up to 6%, the central bank predicted last month, when it slashed interest its rates and pledged more cuts to the cost of lending later this year.
Loan arrears and bad loans in Russia are expected to grow this year. People and companies deemed the most vulnerable to the current crisis owe banks around 19 trillion roubles ($250 billion) - a third of the banks’ overall credit portfolio.
($1 = 74.6500 roubles)
Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh and Vladimir Soldatkin; Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Hugh Lawson