Turkey set to loosen restrictions even as coronavirus cases increase

The government plans to sample test 150,000 people to determine how far Covid-19 has spread in the country

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - APRIL 30: Paramedic Alperen Gazi Ozturk from Turkeys 112 Emergency Healthcare services (EHS) talks with a family member before transferring a patient with COVID-19 symptoms to a hospital in the red zone district of Bahcelievler on April 30, 2020.  Since the first reported Covid-19 case in Turkey on March 11, the 112 EHS has seen a rise in calls from 20,000 per day to between 35,000 and 40,000. The majority of Covid-19 cases in Turkey have been recorded in Istanbul. The city's 112 emergency healthcare services have been working around the clock, with more than 5000 EMTs, paramedics and doctors based in 181 stations citywide. The EHS teams work in 24-hour shifts and wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) for every call. These teams are the first to respond when a Covid-19 case comes in and are responsible for entering a patients house and assessing the severity of the symptoms before treating them and transporting them to the nearest hospital. In the first months of the pandemic, EHS teams working in red zone neighborhoods with the highest number of positive cases were responding to twenty or more Covid-19 cases per day, sometimes as many as thirty. The number of cases has dropped in recent weeks, giving the crews some respite after months of intense shifts, but the risk of infection for frontline workers is still high. Turkeys Health Minister Fahrettin Koc announced in an April 29 press conference that 7,428 health care workers have become infected since the start of the pandemic. As of May 5, Turkey has recorded 3,520 Coronavirus related deaths, 129,491 confirmed cases and 73,285 recovered patients. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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Turkey is preparing to test 150,000 citizens to determine how widely the novel coronavirus has spread among the population, the country’s health minister said Wednesday even as the government announced that the outbreak was under control.

It is two months since Turkey recorded cases and the government plans to set out new social policies and business practices to prevent a resurgence but aims to do the large sample test to ascertain the exact remaining spread of Covid-19.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said the sample would be done with both PCR tests that are used to detect antigens from viral infections and with antibody tests. He did not say when the testing would begin.

“We want to see the extent of the spread, the carriers and the condition of the patients,” Mr Koca said after a meeting with the country’s scientific advisory council.

The Turkish government plans to gradually ease restrictions it imposed during the pandemic.

Mr Koca said that during the next phase of the outbreak, people in Turkey should expect a “controlled social life.”

“We are not returning to normal. We are introducing a new normal into our lives,” he said. “The controlled social life will have rules of its own, and we will have get used to these rules and lead a new kind of life.”

He added: “The risk continues; losing control will invite a second wave of infections.”

The health minister also reported Wednesday that Turkey had 64 virus-related deaths in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total in the country to 3,584.

The number of cases rose by 2,253 to 131,744, less than half the daily increase at the peak of the outbreak in mid-April. But it was the second day showing a slight increase in confirmed cases, highlighting a continued threat of further spread.

A total of 78,202 people have so far recovered from the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease Covid-19.

Turkey ranks eighth in the world for the number of confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data, although experts believe the tally around the world is higher than reported.

But while Turkey has one of the highest numbers of recorded cases it has kept the death toll well below levels in Western Europe and the United States.

Mr Koca said Turkey will increase its testing capacity, currently running between 30,000 and 40,000 most days, and continue contact tracing efforts which officials credit in part with getting control over the outbreak.

On Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was starting to reduce coronavirus containment measures, lifting inter-city travel restrictions in seven provinces and easing a curfew imposed on the elderly and people less than 20 years old.

Shopping malls, barbershops and some stores will be allowed to open on May 11 provided they abide by so-called normalisation rules, and universities would return to their academic calendar on June 15, he said.

All main Turkish automotive factories will resume operations as of May 11, Industry Minister Mustafa Varank said on Tuesday.

The Interior Ministry issued guidelines ahead of the expected opening of barbershops and beauty salons. The shops would need to operate on only a by-appointment basis, customers would have to sit apart from each other, and both clients and stylists would be required to wear masks.

Barbers would be able to cut hair but not shave facial hair, the ministry guidelines state.