A German minister refused to shake Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand on Monday, as panic set in over Europe’s expanding coronavirus outbreak.
Europeans have been warned to avoid kissing and touching hands, with more than 2,000 cases of the contagious COVID-19 virus now confirmed across the continent.
But Ms Merkel seemed to forget the advice as she went to greet Interior Minister Horst Seehofer at a migration meeting in Berlin.
When he politely waved away her hand, she quickly realised her error and laughed, telling him: “That was right to do”.
The exchange prompted awkward laughter in the room, but came as Germany confirmed 150 people had now been infected with the virus across the country – one of the biggest outbreaks in Europe.
Italy has the highest number of cases at about 1,700, but is then followed by France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) raised its threat level for the virus from moderate to “moderate to high” on Monday, warning 18 countries had now been affected.
“As of this morning, we have 2,100 confirmed cases in 18 EU member states and we have 38 citizens who have lost their lives,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said.
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also held an emergency COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms) meeting to discuss the threat.
“I think it’s important to stress that (the coronavirus) is a problem that is likely to become more significant for this country in the course of the next days and weeks, and therefore we will be making every possible preparation for that,” he told the BBC.
“We’ve also agreed a plan so that as and when it starts to spread – as I’m afraid it looks likely that it will – we are in a position to take the steps that will be necessary, will be reasonable, to contain the spread of the disease as far as we can, and also to protect the most vulnerable.”
ITALY’S HEALTH SYSTEM RAMMED
In northern Italy, the public health system has been so overwhelmed that officials are now asking doctors to come out of retirement and accelerating graduation dates for nursing students.
About 10 per cent of doctors and nurses in Lombardy, one of the country’s worst-hit regions – are already out of commission after testing positive for the virus, the region’s top health official, Giulio Gallera, said.
“This epidemic is on a scale that is larger than anyone could have thought, imagined or prevented,” Dr Massimo Galli, head of infectious disease at Milan’s Sacco Hospital, told Sky TG24.
“Effectively some of the hospitals in Lombardy are under a stress that is much heavier than what this area can support and has trained for years, to face this type of emergency,” he said.
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Meanwhile in France, the Louvre was closed for a second day running on Monday after staff again refused to work due to coronavirus fears.
The Paris museum insisted that closure was not necessary, but staff voted the virus was a threat to their health and life.
Staff are now demanding stepped up protective measures, including hand sanitising gel and glass barriers to separate cashiers from members of the public.
IRANIAN OFFICIAL DIES
In Iran, a high-profile official died in hospital as the country reported 1,501 confirmed cases of the virus and 66 deaths.
Mohammad Mirmohammadi, 71, was a member of the Expediency Council that advises Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as settles disputes between the supreme leader and parliament.
His death comes after other top officials contracted the virus, including Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar.
Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.
Iran has the highest death toll in the world after China, the epicentre of the outbreak.
– With wires