March 24, 2020 / 6:29 PM / 16 days ago

Moscow's coronavirus outbreak much worse than it looks, Putin ally says

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The mayor of Moscow told President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the number of coronavirus cases in the Russian capital far exceeded the official figures, as Putin donned a protective suit and respirator to visit a hospital.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing protective gear walks at a hospital for patients infected with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia March 24, 2020. Sputnik/Alexey Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

The comments by Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Putin, were authorities’ strongest indcation yet that they do not have a full grasp of how widely the virus has spread throughout Russia’s vast expanse.

Russia has so far reported 495 cases of the virus and one death, far fewer than major western European countries.

Putin has previously said the situation is under control, but some doctors have questioned how far official data reflect reality, and the government on Tuesday closed nightclubs, cinemas and children’s entertainment centres to slow the spread of the virus.

“A serious situation is unfolding,” Sobyanin told Putin at a meeting, saying the real number of cases was unclear but that they were increasing quickly.

Testing for the virus was scarce, he said, and many Muscovites returning from abroad were self-isolating at home or in holiday cottages in the countryside, and not being tested.

“In reality, there are significantly more sick people,” Sobyanin said.

The government also said it would organise a return of its citizens from countries hit by the coronavirus if they wanted to come.

Meanwhile Putin donned a bright yellow full-body hazmat suit and respirator as he visited a hospital on the outskirts of Moscow that is treating coronavirus patients, and praised the doctors for their work.

Separately, two senior lawmakers including Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, proposed legislation to make flouting anti-virus quarantine measures punishable with jail time.

The bill would provide for up to seven years’ jail for actions that led to the death of two or more people, or up to three years for causing mass infection, the RIA news agency reported.

Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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