Nurseries and kindergartens have been temporarily closed and school trips banned as the UAE seeks to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Authorities moved to impose restrictions on every school in the country after the total number of confirmed cases in the Emirates rose to 21 over the weekend, when two support staff in the country for the UAE Tour, a major cycling event, tested positive for Covid-19.
The final stages of the cycle tour were cancelled and a lockdown was put in place at two popular hotels in Yas Island, while hundreds of cyclists, support staff and journalists covering the event were tested for the respiratory illness.
On Saturday, Abdulrahman Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention, moved to reassure residents about the country’s ability to deal with an escalating outbreak, with the number of cases spiralling across the world.
He said on Saturday afternoon that test results for 450 of the 612 people in the UAE for the cycle event had come back, all of which were negative.
“The UAE conducts high competency systematic tests,” Mr Al Owais said. “The two cases that were reported in cycling competition were actually from the accompanying supporting technicians and not cyclists. Their interactions with the public was very limited.”
Meanwhile, two planes were on standby to evacuate UAE citizens from Iran, where reports suggest more than 200 people have died from coronavirus. The Iranian government insists the total is much lower.
Emirati authorities also moved to advise banks to reschedule loans and reduce fees and commissions on Saturday as part of measures to mitigate the economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak.
The ITU World Triathlon Abu Dhabi, which had been due to take place on March 5-7, also fell victim to the coronovirus, and will be rescheduled.
In what ministers stressed was a precautionary move, extracurricular school activities such as field trips will be cancelled until further notice and staff have been urged to be on alert for any pupil displaying flu-like symptoms. Those who do appear unwell will be sent home as a matter of urgency.
Nurseries and kindergartens will be closed from Sunday, Hussain Al Hammadi, the Minister of Education confirmed.
The nationwide restriction followed a move by Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the regulator of private schools in the emirate, to order the cancellation of teacher events and any “internal and external” trips on Friday.
At one school in Abu Dhabi, parents were told not to attend their children’s sports day. A major teaching conference in the capital, where hundreds of teachers were due to meet on Saturday, was cancelled at short notice although organisers did not confirm the reason.
Some 131 children involved in the UAE cycle tour, some just as fans, would be tested for coronavirus, Mr Al Hammadi said. They will not attend school for a fortnight and instead be expected to study at home.
“We have been in contact with their parents so that the pupils and parents be tested and any cases will be followed up in coordination with the Ministry of Health,” he said. “There are detection mechanisms in the UAE which are highly capable of dealing with these events.
“Nurseries across the country will be suspended from March 1, and parents are informed that this is a precautionary measure for the safety of our pupils.
“The facilities are under double sanitation efforts also as another precautionary measure.”
Of the 21 coronavirus cases in the UAE, five people have recovered and there have been no fatalities. Two people who were previously in a critical condition are now stable.
At Yas Island, where many of the people in the country for the cycle tour had been staying, both the W Hotel and Crowne Plaza Hotel were quarantined at the weekend as tests were carried out. Some guests said they had been ordered to remain in their rooms until they were called for testing, which was carried out by medical staff in hazmat suits.
“The health and wellbeing of our guests and employees takes top priority,” a spokeswoman for the Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, in Yas Island, said. “We are co-operating with the relevant authorities as they take precautionary measures, but no diagnosis has been confirmed.”
At a media briefing yesterday, government officials stressed that the mortality rate among those to catch coronavirus was low, with most of the deaths occurring in elderly patients.
However, more than 50 countries have now reported a case of coronavirus, with Qatar becoming one of the latest to confirm it has been affected. It leaves Saudi Arabia as the only Gulf country not to have disclosed a coronavirus case.
South Korea, the country with the highest number of cases outside China, detected 813 new cases on Saturday alone. In the US, there were three new cases where the patient had not travelled overseas recently or come into contact with a known carrier, raising fears it may be spreading within the country.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, said that coronavirus has the potential to become a pandemic – meaning it would be considered a truly global outbreak – but that the stage has not been reached yet.
“Our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself, it's fear, rumours and stigma," he said over the weekend. He claimed there was still a chance of containing the virus if its chain of transmission were broken.