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VIRUS OUTBREAK

Thailand imposes state of emergency to tackle virus

Bangkok

THAILAND'S Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said a state of emergency will be declared for a month from March 26 as the government steps up efforts to fight the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The premier made the announcement on Tuesday after a Cabinet meeting in Bangkok. The decree will give him broad powers to impose further curbs on every-day life, under a strategy of using social distancing to tackle a jump in infections and deaths in March.

"The goal is to reduce the spread of the virus," Mr Prayuth said. "The government prioritises the health of its citizens. Please do not panic and listen to the government."

Confirmed cases have surged to more than 800 from the low 40s at the start of the month, and on Tuesday officials reported three more fatalities, taking the death toll to four. Much of the country, including the capital Bangkok, has been partially shut down already and people are being advised to stay at home.

Mr Prayuth said specific steps will be announced on Thursday. Under the law, he could ban gatherings, order evacuations and take vehicles off the streets. The administration said it hasn't discussed enforcing a curfew yet.

The government also announced a package of initiatives worth about 117 billion baht (S$5.16 billion) to help mitigate some of the impact of the coronavirus crisis. The measures include cash handouts worth 45 billion baht for 3 million workers outside the social security system, who will also be offered soft loans worth 60 billion baht as well as tax breaks, government officials told a news conference.

Separately, small firms will be offered 10 billion baht of loans while the government will also delay business tax payments for companies to help boost their liquidity.

"The measures announced today should be sufficient for now," said Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak. "But there will be another package of stimulus . . . to help farmers affected by drought and to spur the economy," he said.

Earlier this month, the government also approved stimulus measures estimated to inject 400 billion baht into the already flagging economy.

Thailand's benchmark SET index of equities rose after the emergency decree and stimulus steps were outlined, before paring some of the gains. The gauge was up 1.4 per cent as of 4.06 pm in Bangkok, following a 9.1 per cent plunge a day earlier.

"Most investors will probably wait to see whether the emergency will be successful in curbing a surge in infections," said Jitra Amornthum, an analyst at Finansia Syrus Securities Pcl, in Bangkok. "But a rally in Thai stocks depends more on when the global outbreak comes under control." BLOOMBERG, REUTERS