Malaysia declared a state of emergency on Tuesday morning, hours before millions of Malaysians were due to go back into lockdown following a surge in coronavirus cases that threatened to overwhelm the country’s public health system.
A statement from the royal palace said the king had agreed to a declaration of emergency following a Monday meeting with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in view of the escalating pandemic and its pressure on the public health system. The emergency will remain in force until August 1, or earlier if COVID-19 cases fall, the statement said.
It did not elaborate on what the emergency would entail although previous emergencies have involved the suspension of parliament.
On Monday evening, Muhyiddin announced a lockdown from midnight (13:00 GMT) in eight states and federal territories. These include Kuala Lumpur and the states of Sabah, Selangor, Penang and Johor where the lockdown will remain in force for two weeks until January 26.
“Our hospitals are at breaking point,” Muhyiddin said in a televised address without mentioning he had earlier requested a state of emergency to be declared. He will give an address on the emergency at 11am (03:00 GMT).
Malaysia brought an earlier wave of COVID-19 under control with a strict three-month lockdown under which people were mostly prevented from leaving their homes and gradually eased curbs as cases dwindled. In July last year, authorities announced zero new cases of local transmission.
But the situation began to change in September after an election in the Borneo state of Sabah at a time when cases had already started to increase.
The election took place with coronavirus protocols in force but the large number of campaign events and frequent travel between Sabah and the peninsular – without quarantine – helped seed outbreaks elsewhere.
Restrictions on movement were imposed again in October, when Muhyiddin’s previous request for an emergency was denied, but cases continued to rise as restaurants, shops and other businesses continued to operate and rules were gradually relaxed to allow travel and larger gatherings.
Daily cases have been above 2,000 since the start of the year and breached 3,000 last week. Malaysia now has more active cases of the coronavirus than the Philippines, and some 187 people are in intensive care with 87 people needing ventilation. The 15 government hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients have already filled 70 percent of available beds, with some intensive care units already full.
Muhyiddin formed a government in early March after a power grab led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He has faced continued pressure to prove his support in parliament amid criticism of his administration’s handling of the pandemic and calls for new elections from some within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the biggest party in his ruling alliance.
Muhyiddin is currently thought to have the support of 110 members of the 222 seat house.
Opposition politician Liew Chin Tong described the new lockdown as a “kneejerk reaction” calling instead for the government to get private health providers involved in tackling the pandemic, expand testing, enhance contact tracing and improve data transparency.
“There is no livelihood nor economic recovery if we can’t deal with COVID-19 decisively,” Liew said in a statement. “The lives versus livelihood dichotomy is false.”
Under the new lockdown social gatherings will be banned, while restaurants and cafes will only be allowed to offer takeaway meals. People in lockdown areas will not be able to travel more than 10 kilometres (6.21 miles) from their home.
Five “essential” sectors of the economy, including manufacturing and construction, will be able to continue operations under strict conditions. The prime minister did not announce any new initiatives to support people and businesses affected by the lockdown.
Shortly after the announcement, the health ministry revealed that the country had identified its first case of the highly-transmissible UK variant B.1.1.7.
The 22-year-old Malaysian man had arrived back from Britain last month and was diagnosed with the variant on December 28, Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director general of the Ministry of Health wrote on his Facebook page. Malaysia’s borders have been closed to non-Malaysians for nearly a year and any citizens who return are required to complete two weeks in hotel quarantine at their own expense.
Malaysia is due to receive its first shipment of vaccines – from Pfizer-BioNTech – next month and plans to vaccinate about 70 percent of the population.
Earlier on Monday it announced a deal to buy an additional 12.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to add to an initial order of 12.8 million doses. The country is also buying AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to handle, and is in negotiations for vaccines produced by Russia and China. It is also part of the World Health Organization’s COVAX vaccine initiative.
As of Monday, Malaysia had reported a total of 138,224 cases of coronavirus and 555 deaths.