Iran has no plans to quarantine any cities and towns despite the spread of the new coronavirus outbreak across the country, its president has said.
Hassan Rouhani told a cabinet meeting that health authorities would continue to “only quarantine individuals”.
Officials have asked people not to go to Qom, the centre of the outbreak, but have not shut a shrine in the city that attracts millions of Shia pilgrims.
Iran has reported 139 cases and 19 deaths in the past week.
The country has also been the source of dozens of cases in neighbouring countries, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Pakistan.
There have been 80,000 reported cases of Covid-19 worldwide and 2,700 related deaths since the disease emerged late last year. All but 2,459 cases and 34 of the deaths have been reported in China.
A spokesman for Iran’s health ministry announced on Wednesday that Covid-19 had now been detected throughout the country.
But he was optimistic about the situation in Qom province, saying: “Every 24 hours, at least 10% of those hospitalised or [who are] suspected cases are discharged.”
Mr Rouhani also told the cabinet meeting that he had received “promising” reports from the health ministry.
Covid-19 testing kits had been arriving from overseas through the World Health Organization (WHO) and there had been a decline in referrals to hospitals, he said.
The president urged Iranians to avoid non-essential travel to affected areas, but stressed that they need not worry about being locked down for a week or more.
“We have no plan to quarantine any district or any city. We only quarantine individuals. If an individual has early symptoms, that person must be quarantined.”
Among those currently in isolation is the head of Iran’s taskforce on Covid-19, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who declared that “quarantines belong to the Stone Age” a day before admitting that he had tested positive for the disease.
More on the coronavirus outbreak
The authorities in China and Italy have imposed strict quarantine restrictions on entire areas in an attempt to halt the spread of Covid-19.
Dr Bruce Aylward, head of the joint WHO-Chinese mission on Covid-19, said the extraordinary measures taken by China had “changed the course” of the outbreak in the country.
Other health experts have expressed concern about Iran’s decision not to restrict access to the shrine of Hazrat Masumeh in Qom.
Its custodian has insisted it should be kept open as a “house for cure”.
“House for cure means people would come here to get cured from mental and physical diseases,” Ayatollah Mohammed Saeedi told Jamaran news website on Wednesday. “Therefore, it should be open, and people should be encouraged to come here.”
The ayatollah nevertheless acknowledged that “caution is required” and that officials at the shrine would “follow hygienic issues”.
President Rouhani also assured Iranians that his government would be transparent about the scale of the outbreak, after the US said it was “deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details”.
He accused Iran’s arch-enemy of trying to use Covid-19 to instil “fear” in people.
“Coronavirus must not be turned into a weapon for our enemies to halt work and production in our country,” he said, adding that Americans “are also suffering”.
The Isna news agency later reported that the head of a new Iranian cyber police unit, Vahid Majid, had announced the arrest of 24 people suspected of being “rumour-mongers” regarding the outbreak.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders warned Iran: “Respect for the public’s right to full, independent, diverse and quality news reporting, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the best way to protect the population and combat rumours. Withholding information can kill.”
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