Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia bars travel to or from Qatif province to stop spread

All 11 cases in the kingdom have been from residents of the eastern region

Saudi Arabia locked down the province of Qatif on Sunday as it sought to halt the spread of coronavirus, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.

The kingdom said that commercial supplies would continue to flow to the urban eastern district despite the closure of all public and private businesses except vital services. Oil production in the vital eastern regions was not expected to be impacted by the measure, Reuters news agency quoting industry sources as saying.

The Interior Ministry said that the move was a precautionary health measure given that most of the now 15 recorded cases of coronavirus in the kingdom were discovered in Qatif province. The ministry highlighted that the move was an internationally established practice to prevent the spread of the virus when cases are concentrated geographically.

Italy took a similar and quarantined roughly 16 million people, nearly a quarter of the population, to stop the spread through the country's north. Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Sunday that it was only a matter of time until more European countries adopt similar steps to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The news came as the Saudi health ministry said that three of the four cases discovered on Sunday had come into contact with an existing case who had visited Iran but failed to disclose the fact to health authorities or quarantine himself. Three of the new cases were women, the ministry added.

On Monday, four more cases were discovered. One was an American who had recently travelled to Italy and the Philippines. The American was transferred to a hospital in Riyadh for treatments. Two other cases were Bahraini women who came from Iraq. The remainder were Saudi nationals who had come into contact with an infected person in Qatif.

Saudi authorities have previously said those infected had visited either Iran or Iraq or been in contact with people who visited those countries, home to Shiite holy sites.

The region of Qatif is predominantly Shiite and a centre of the kingdom’s estimated 4.5 million-strong community.

Many Saudi Shiites travel to Iran for religious tourism, pilgrimages and cultural travel.

Iran has struggled to contain the spread and on Sunday upped the death toll by 49 to 194 people with over 6,560 confirmed cases. The virus has spread quickly through the shrine city of Qom, south of Tehran.

Senior government officials have become infected and several have died from the virus, including conservative MP Fatemeh Rahbar from Tehran on Friday, as the Islamic Republic’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has been drafted in to help the decontamination of cities to contain the spread.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said that they would enable those living in the governorate but currently outside the state to reach their homes. It clarified that the vital services include pharmacies, supply stores, petrol stations, health centres, municipal offices and security branches.

Cement blocks were placed on the main road to Qatif, said one resident of the province, while others reported a rush to grocery shops after the lockdown began.

The ministry called for the cooperation of residents in implementing the measures which it said would have the greatest impact on containing the spread and eliminating it in the kingdom.

Sunday's precautions included suspending all educational and Koranic activities in mosques in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.

The entertainment authority announced on Monday the closure of leisure attractions Riyadh Boulevard and Winter Wonderland, over virus concerns.

On Sunday, the Saudi government restricted land crossings with Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE to commercial trucks with passenger arrivals limited to three airports. Then on Monday, the kingdom extended the restriction into a full travel ban for its residents and citizens as well as anyone who has been there in the past 14 days. Lebanon, Syria, South Korea, Egypt, Italy and Iraq were included on the travel ban list.

State news reported that all flights and naval trips between the kingdom and the countries would also be suspended, not including returning patience to the kingdom and trade trips.

Saudi Arabia had already banned travel to Iran.

All public and private schools and universities would also be suspended from Monday until further notice, state media said, adding that distance learning measures would be adopted.

The March 23 start of the new Saudi Games, billed as the country's largest sporting event, has been postponed, Al Arabiya TV said.