Saudi Arabia closes two holiest shrines to foreigners as coronavirus fears grow

<span>Photograph: Abdulgani Basheer/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Abdulgani Basheer/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has closed the two holiest shrines of Islam to foreign travellers and banned pilgrims from entering the country as fears surrounding the coronavirus outbreak continue to grow in the Middle East.

Officials in the kingdom said the ban, announced late on Wednesday, was temporary, but gave no indication how long it might last. It comes amid a broader ban on visa holders from states deemed most likely to pose a risk to regional health.

Related: Coronavirus map: how Covid-19 is spreading across the world

“The kingdom’s government has decided to [suspend] entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the Prophet’s mosque temporarily,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

While not explicitly stating which countries that referred to, border authorities at Riyadh’s King Khalid international airport were on Thursday screening passengers from Iran, China, South Korea and Italy, from where clusters of coronavirus have spread across neighbouring borders.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded no cases of the virus, but the number infected across the region has steadily increased, with patients quarantined in Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Iraq and Lebanon.

Officials in Iran said Friday prayers in Tehran will be cancelled this week, as a crackdown on large gatherings gathered pace. Iran remains the regional hotspot for the coronavirus and is the country with the highest death toll outside China, where the Covid-19 outbreak originated.

The state-run Irna news agency reported that Iran had confirmed 245 cases and 26 deaths, although experts fear the country is underreporting the number of cases.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

A state-owned newspaper in Iran said the vice-president, Masoumeh Ebtekar, has recently been diagnosed with coronavirus. Other senior Iranians, including the country’s deputy health minister and top clerics, have been struck down.

Meanwhile Iraq announced the first confirmed case of coronavirus in its capital, Baghdad, taking nationwide infections to six and raising concerns about the capacity of the dilapidated health system to respond.

Hours earlier, the Iraqi government announced sweeping measures to try to contain the spread of the virus, ordering the closure of schools and universities, cafes, cinemas and other public spaces until 7 March.

Saudi Arabia’s borders have been partially closed to pilgrims from some countries during previous global health scares, such as Ebola in 2014, a mass suspension of foreign travellers visiting Mecca and Medina is a significant development, which may have implications for the annual hajj pilgrimage, which will this year be held in July.

“This move by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of the London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, told Agence France-Presse. “The concern for Saudi authorities would be Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and hajj afterwards, should the coronavirus become a pandemic.”

Hajj attracts close to 3 million people from around the world every year for a pilgrimage, that transforms the holy shrines into the most densely packed pocket on earth for up to one week a year. Along with the Japan Olympics, which are also set to be held in July, it is one of the two biggest events in the world in 2020 drawing masses of people from around the planet to gather in close proximity to each other.

Such conditions are considered ideal for an even quicker spread of coronavirus, which now exists on every continent, except Antarctica, and in 44 countries. With a global infection rate of more than 80,000 and growing daily, the spread of the virus is now near a pandemic, and public health officials around the globe say a tipping point in which a further breakout cannot be contained, may have already been passed.

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