KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia will ban all inter-district and interstate travel from Monday (May 10) and has closed high-risk premises including major malls from Sunday as it battles a surge of Covid-19 cases threatening to overwhelm its healthcare system.
Initially implemented only in areas under the strict movement control order (MCO), the inter-district travel ban will apply nationwide, beginning on Monday, and be in place until June 6. The blanket ban comes just ahead of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Malaysia's biggest annual festival, which will be celebrated on Thursday with many people usually travelling to meet families and friends.
The government has banned the pre-Hari Raya balik kampung (return to hometown) exodus for the second consecutive year, but had earlier allowed people living in the same state to visit one another for the festival, as long the numbers in each house at any one time are limited to between 15 to 25 people. Banning inter-district travel even in those living in the same state would thus reduce these visits.
Senior Minister for Security Ismail Sabri Yaakob said inter-district and interstate travel will be allowed only with police permission, while social functions by the public and private sector are also banned during this period.
This is the first time inter-district travel curbs and a ban on gatherings have been imposed nationwide since March last year.
The new measures come at a time when the Health Ministry is struggling with a record number of critically ill Covid-19 patients, with some hospitals and intensive care units reaching full capacity.
As at Sunday, there were 37,060 active cases and 416 cases in ICUs, the highest so far during the pandemic. Twenty-six deaths were recorded, also the highest seen in a day. .
Datuk Seri Ismail also announced a three-day closure of premises flagged as potential Covid-19 hot spots by a new data-driven system known as the Hotspots Identification for Dynamic Engagement (Hide).
Among the places closed for sanitisation are shopping malls such as Suria KLCC, Pavilion, Mid Valley Megamall and Sunway Pyramid.
There was confusion late on Saturday when directives issued by the National Security Council kept changing.
"In the morning, we were telling our retailers, 'All OK, no need to close'. Then at 8pm, we told them they need to close immediately. At 11.30pm, we told them they will close from May 10. Then at midnight, we had to ask them to revert back to the original plan of closing immediately. Who wouldn't get angry at all these sudden changes?" a source who works in the mall industry told The Straits Times.
Retailers slammed the directive, saying it would cause "irreversible damage" to businesses and create "panic and fear".
"We believe that in view of the inaccurate information on the hot spots listing, this call to close for sanitisation is premature and will cause irreversible damage to perception, business recovery and survival," said a joint statement by the Malaysia Shopping Malls Association, the Malaysia Retailers Association, the Malaysia Retail Chain Association (MRCA) and the Bumiputra Retailers Organisation.
Democratic Action Party MP Kelvin Yii said in a statement on Sunday: "Such last-minute announcements are not only a huge inconvenience to the public, but what is more important is that without proper explanation of the science and data behind such a decision, it is oppressive and irresponsible towards business owners affected, especially when they are already struggling to stay afloat.
"To make things worse, the conflicting announcements by different ministers on the same issue on the same day itself speaks volumes of how the government has probably lost control or has no clue how to deal with this pandemic," he added.
Earlier on Saturday, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said that the list of locations released under Hide were not confirmed Covid-19 clusters, and that such premises do not need to close except when directed to by the authorities.
But in the evening, Mr Ismail ordered all those listed under Hide to be closed immediately, contradicting Mr Khairy's statement.
MP Yii also questioned why shopping malls were ordered to be closed while a large number of cases were from factories or workplace clusters - which accounted for 48.06 per cent of all cases - were allowed to remain open.
A reader called Bruclax commented on the Malaysiakini online news website: "Those in charge of fighting the pandemic are really shooting in all directions hoping for a hit."
Homemaker Lim Chee Wei, 55, said of the authorities: "They should have locked down once and for all, like in the first MCO. I think one month would have been sufficient to keep Covid-19 cases manageable. Now it just looks like they don't know what they're doing and are not in control of the situation."
This is not the first time that the authorities have been criticised for constantly changing safety rules and curbs, as they attempt to step up efforts to contain the virus.
After a public backlash on Friday, the government said non-contact outdoor sports such as jogging would be allowed, just a day after banning all sports.