Russia to begin easing some lockdown measures despite surge in COVID-19 cases

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced a gradual easing of coronavirus lockdown measures despite a new surge in infections that took Russia's tally past Italy's, making it the fourth highest in the world.

Kremlin attributes large number of cases to increased testing

Russian President Vladimir Putin previously told Russians May would be a difficult month in the coronavirus battle. Government officials attribute Russia's lower death toll concurrent with a rising and large number of cases to a vast testing program. (Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via The Associated Press)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced a gradual easing of coronavirus lockdown measures despite a new surge in infections that took Russia's tally past Italy's, making it the fourth highest in the world.

Putin, in a televised nationwide address, said that on Tuesday he would start lifting restrictions that had forced many people to work from home and businesses to temporarily close.

He unveiled new support measures for businesses and for families with children who have seen their livelihoods devastated. He said unemployment had doubled to 1.4 million in a month and he wanted to try to stop it increasing further.

The Russian leader emphasized the lifting of restrictions would be gradual and that individual regions in the world's largest country would need to tailor their approach to varying local conditions. Moscow, for example, has said it will keep its own lockdown measures in place until May 31.

Mass public events would still be banned, said Putin, and Russians aged 65 or over are asked to stay home, even as certain sectors of the bruised economy such as construction and agriculture are allowed to restart work.

An interior view shows a pavilion at an exhibition centre in Moscow on Monday following a decision by local authorities to turn it into a temporary hospital to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

"All the [coronavirus-related] measures we have taken allow us to move to the next step in the fight against the epidemic and start a phased lifting of the lockdown restrictions," said Putin.

That exercise would need to be done carefully and in full compliance with new higher safety standards, he said.

"We must not allow a breakdown, a rollback, a new wave of the epidemic and an increase in serious complications. Once again, there will be no rapid lifting of the restrictions. It will take considerable time," he said.

Putin was speaking after the number of new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, rose by a record daily amount to 11,656, making the official tally 221,344. Only Britain, Spain and the United States have recorded more cases.

More than 2,000 dead

The country's coronavirus response centre also reported 94 new deaths, taking the overall death toll to 2,009. The official death toll remains far lower than in many countries, something Kremlin critics have queried.

Official data published on Sunday showed Moscow reported 18 per cent more deaths in April this year than the same month in 2019, raising the possibility that the official death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, seriously understates the impact.

Government officials attribute the lower death toll and the rising number of cases to a vast testing program, under which they say 5.6 million tests have been conducted.

A combination picture shows Tverskaya Street in central Moscow on Victory Day on May 9. The crowded street illustrates the scene in 2019, contrasted with the view two days ago. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

That, they say, has allowed doctors to quickly identify people who need medical care and make sure they receive it in a timely fashion.

Putin on Monday complained that an order he had given for front-line medical staff to get extra payments for their work had not been fulfilled by all regions and gave them four days to comply.

At the end of last month, he extended coronavirus lockdown measures until May 11 and ordered his government to begin preparations for a gradual lifting of the curbs from mid-May.

Putin told Russians at the time that the worst days of the outbreak were still ahead. Two days later, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced he had the virus and needed to temporarily step aside.

Moscow and other Russian regions are in their seventh week of a lockdown.

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