Vladimir Putin declared next week a holiday with full pay but declined to impose a nationwide lockdown as he gave his first address over the coronavirus crisis.
The Russian president surprised observers in his address on Wednesday by stopping short of announcing a nationwide emergency and avoiding the use of strong language in describing the pandemic.
With words like “quarantine” and “self-isolation” conspicuously absent from his speech, Mr Putin said that Russians will get a week off work with full pay next week and urged people to stay home: “The safest thing right now is to stay home.”
“The safest thing right now is to stay home.”
Mr Putin reiterated his claim that Russia has so far “succeeded in stemming the rapid spread of the disease” but asked the nation not to be complacent.
“Don’t think: ‘This can’t happen to me’,” the president said. “This can happen to anyone.”
His speech was broadcast just hours after Russia recorded its biggest one-day increase in coronavirus cases, bringing the total number to 658. Just a day earlier, the mayor of Moscow became the first senior official to suggest that poor testing for Covid-19 could be hiding the real scale of the epidemic. This global map still shows Russia with a relatively low infection rate compared to other countries:
Mr Putin did not say, however, how the private sector, battered by business closures and a low demand, is supposed to pay its employees next week but unveiled a raft of government measures to support families and businesses which have taken a beating from the crisis.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has coincided with a busy political season in Russia after President Putin in January floated constitutional changes aimed to overhaul the country’s political system.
A few weeks later, Mr Putin shocked the nation by taking up on a lawmaker’s offer to let him run for president again in 2024. An amendment for the Constitution potentially allowing him to stay in power until 2036 breezed through parliament earlier this month and was expected to come up for a public vote next month.
Although he officially set the vote for April 22, Mr Putin on Wednesday postponed it to a later day, citing concerns about coronavirus.
“People’s health, lives and security are an absolute priority for us,” he said.
In a bid to reassure the nation Mr Putin said on Wednesday that the measures that the government has taken will work, but “only if we pull together and recognise the complexity of the situation.”
Mr Putin in his speech, which did not appear any more dramatic than his recent appearances, came across as more laid-back than some other Russian officials including the mayor of Moscow.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who has ordered a citywide lockdown for people over 65, warned that the epidemic is getting worse and urged for more social distancing in the Russian capital.
Opposition figures have criticised the president for failing to call a nationwide emergency or to be assertive about spelling out the danger of the disease.
“A large number of people are not aware yet of how serious the situation is, and a surprise holiday can, unfortunately, lead to an increase, not a drop, in social interaction,” opposition activist Leonid Volkov said in his blog.