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Coronavirus: 250,000 Europeans still awaiting repatriation, says EU top diplomat

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Female wearing a protective mask and overalls stand at the entrance of the Nomentana hospital in Fonte Nuova - Tor Lupara, near Rome, Italy
Female wearing a protective mask and overalls stand at the entrance of the Nomentana hospital in Fonte Nuova - Tor Lupara, near Rome, Italy   -   Copyright  TIZIANA FABI/AFP
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Repatriating Europeans is getting harder as airlines ground their flights, the European Union's top diplomat said on Friday, stressing that 250,000 EU nationals are still trying to get home.

In a video press conference, Joseph Borrell said that more than 350,000 Europeans have been brought home since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, "but there are still 250,000 remaining".

Borrell added that "many operations are underway" but that "things are becoming more difficult every day due to the fact that many airlines have been grounding their planes and also because the airspace has been closing every day".

The European Commission also announced on Friday that customs duties and VAT on imports of medical equipment will be waived over the next four months to "make it easier financially" for member states to combat the spread of novel coronavirus.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the measure would make the import of masks and other protective equipment around a third cheaper for Italy.

More than 30,000 deaths in Europe

Europe remains the world's most heavily-impacted region, accounting for more than 30,000 of the 55,000 deaths recorded worldwide.

Spain reported a total of 117,710 cases of coronavirus on Friday, surpassing Italy to become second most impacted country by the virus.

Spain's death count has already passed 10,000 and although Thursday night brought more grim news from Italy on the fatalities front, there is a glimmer of hope that containment measures are paying off.

The number of daily new infections now stands at 4,668, down from 6,153 a week ago.

Pressure on hospitals in hard-hit Lombardy continued to ease, with more than 800 people recovered and 165 fewer people hospitalised with COVID-19 compared to a day earlier. Intensive care units are still saturated, but overall, Lombardy added just under 1,300 new positive cases, with about half of those infected being treated at home.

More than 10,000 medical personnel have been infected nationwide and 69 doctors have died, according to the National Institutes of Health and the Italian Association of Doctors.

Elsewhere in Europe, the UK death toll was on Friday increased by 684 to reach 3,605.

Health Minister Matt Hancock confirmed during a press conference that the new fatalities included two NHS nurses and two healthcare assistants.

He also announced that two further Nightingale hospitals, in Bristol and Harrogate, would be built with a combined capacity of 1,500 beds.

The first such hospital was opened on Friday in east London, and two others, in Birmingham and Manchester, are scheduled to open shortly.

In France, authorities counted 471 new COVID-19 deaths on Thursday evening, bringing the total number of fatalities recorded in hospitals to 4,503. They also announced that a further 884 people had died in old people's homes.

Half of humanity is soon set to be under restriction measures as governments around the world scramble to contain the spread of the virus.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases passed the one million mark on Thursday evening. More than 200,000 have recovered from the disease.

Latest updates on coronavirus around the world

Economic fallout mounts

Ten million Americans have lost their jobs in just two weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, the biggest collapse the US job market has ever seen.

Economists are warning unemployment could reach levels not seen since the Great Depression, and the global economy looks set to go into recession. Around 6.6 Americans have field for unemployment - a record in the country.

Applications for welfare benefits in Britain increased nearly tenfold to almost 1 million in the past couple of weeks, while the European Union estimates at least a million people in member states lost their jobs over the same period. Spain alone added over 300,000 to its unemployment figures in March.

However the job losses there appear to be far smaller than in the US because of Europe's greater social safety nets.

Could Western countries start recommending wearing masks?

The United States' top public health body is weighing whether or not it should change its guidelines on covering one's face to prevent further spread of the virus.

Wearing a mask in public has been recommended by public health bodies in several Asian countries such as China and South Korea but in Western countries, typically members of the public have been told not to wear a mask unless they are sick.

Now, officials are increasingly worried about asymptomatic transmission.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director told public radio station WABE in Atlanta that potentially 1 in 4 people were asymptomatic.

He said others can spread the virus before they develop symptoms, details that have prompted the US public health agency to review their guidelines on masks. They currently suggest only those people in the public who are sick should wear masks.

Dr Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House's response to COVID-19, said she didn't want masks to give Americans a "false sense of security" and that they needed to continue following social distancing guidelines.

The mayor of New York City, which is currently the epicentre of the US outbreak, has already recommended that people cover their faces in public.

The World Health Organization has said it stands by its guidelines for only healthcare workers and those who are sick and showing symptoms to wear masks in public.