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Trump's Europe ban rocks travellers and markets

European shares drop to their lowest in almost four years; EU leaders rebuke the US for its unilateral move

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US President Donald Trump has imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from Europe, sending stressed travellers rushing to airports to board last flights back to the United States.

Washington

TRAVELLERS scrambled to rebook flights and markets reeled on Thursday after US President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from Europe, hitting battered airlines and heightening global alarm over the novel coronavirus.

Mr Trump had downplayed risks to the United States during the crisis, but with epidemics ballooning from Iran to Italy and Spain, he has limited travel from continental Europe for 30 days.

"This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history," he said in a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday.

Markets went into a tailspin, with European shares plunging to their lowest in almost four years and oil slumping. US stock indexes lost another 7 per cent and triggered an automatic cutout shortly after the opening bell.

The announcement also sent stressed travellers rushing to airports to board last flights back to the United States. "It caused a mass panic," said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a US student at Suffolk University on her first trip to Europe who rushed to Madrid's Barajas airport at 5am to get home.

The outbreak has disrupted industry, travel, sports and entertainment worldwide. But its progress in the epicentre of China's Hubei province has slowed markedly.

Hubei logged just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time since the outbreak that it has recorded a daily tally of fewer than 10. Beyond Hubei, mainland China had just seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) now officially describes the crisis as a pandemic, meaning it is spreading fast across the globe.

Mr Trump's surprise travel order, which starts at midnight on Friday, does not apply to Britain or to Americans undergoing "appropriate screenings", he said. "The restriction stops people not goods", he tweeted after his speech.

European Union leaders on Thursday rebuked the United States for imposing a unilateral travel ban on arrivals from countries in the Schengen passport-free zone without consulting them. "The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action," EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel said.

"The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation," they said in a written statement. "The European Union is taking strong action to limit the spread of the virus," they insisted.

The Schengen zone includes most EU member states along with Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland - but not Britain, Ireland, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria or Cyprus.

European countries are scrambling to coordinate a response. But the 27 EU members are not all suffering to the same degree and their responses have differed, with some imposing or advising draconian lockdowns and others caution.

Every country in the EU has now recorded at least one Covid-19 case and the continent as a whole has had 22,969 cases, most notably Italy with 12,462 cases and 827 fatalities.

The market plunge hit airline and leisure stocks particularly hard.

Commenting on the US move, Khoon Goh, head of Asia research at ANZ in Singapore, said: "This is something that markets had not factored in ... It's a huge near-term economic cost."

Although exempt from Mr Trump's ban and no longer a member of the EU, Britain also expressed disappointment, saying it would have an impact on its economy.

In the United States, classes were suspended for two weeks in the greater Seattle area, which accounts for the bulk of at least 38 US fatalities from the disease.

Oscar-winning American actor Tom Hanks announced on Twitter that he and his wife had tested positive in Australia, where he is on a film shoot. REUTERS, AFP

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