KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian authorities on Saturday defended plans to ease coronavirus lockdown measures next week even as the number of new infections jumped to a two-week high.
Most businesses will reopen on Monday after a six-week shutdown ordered to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, though schools, cinemas and nightclubs will remain closed, along with the country’s borders, and mass gatherings will still be banned.
The decision to allow businesses to resume trading has sparked criticism including from members of the ruling coalition that restrictions were being eased too soon.
The number of new infections with the novel coronavirus as reported by the health ministry rose by 105 on Saturday, the highest daily increase since April 16. The number of known infections totalled 6,176 and fatalities stood at 103.
Security minister Ismail Sabri said Malaysia was not being hasty in relaxing the curbs, stressing that businesses reopening will have to implement hygiene and social distancing measures.
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose UMNO party is part of the ruling coalition, said the easing was “huge and sudden” and there was no rush to reopen the economy, local media reported.
A Change.org petition to stop the measures from being partially lifted had garnered over 250,000 signatures on Saturday.
Announcing the easing of curbs on Friday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the government had lost 63 billion ringgit ($14.7 billion) from the restrictions imposed since March 18.
The economy could shrink more than initially forecast due to the curbs, the finance minister said on Saturday. Malaysia’s central bank had in April forecast a change in gross domestic product (GDP) of between -2% and 0.5% this year.
“But that forecast was made after just two weeks of movement curbs. We’re now more than five weeks in ... so our GDP could shrink even more,” Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz said in an interview with a local television channel.
Malaysia, which has announced a stimulus package worth 250 billion ringgit to help cushion the economic blow from the outbreak, will also announce an economic recovery plan later this month, the minister said.
($1 = 4.2930 ringgit)
Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by A. Ananthlakshmi; Editing by Helen Popper and David Holmes