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Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister has said the country has entered a “very critical zone” in the battle against the coronavirus as his government mulls tightening a nationwide lockdown announced last week.

Following a new post-holiday surge in infections, the Lebanese government imposed a nationwide lockdown and a nighttime curfew. But many were critical of the measures, calling them lax for exempting many sectors such as factories, plant nurseries and exchange bureaus.

Nurses treat a patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit at Rafic Hariri university hospital in Beirut last week

Nurses treat a patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit at Rafic Hariri university hospital in Beirut last week. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

An AP report notes that Lebanon’s handling of the virus surge amid a deepening economic crisis has been under scrutiny, with many saying hesitant policies have failed to contain it.

Doctors and experts say the extent of the spread has yet to be felt, predicting numbers will skyrocket in the coming days, overwhelming health facilities in the country of nearly 6 million. Daily infection rates have hovered above 3,000 and hit a record high of more than 5,000 last week.

On Monday, panic buyers swarmed supermarkets after reports the government planned to order them shut in the tightened lockdown. Long queues formed outside chain supermarkets, sparking fear the crowds could further spread the virus.

Before a ministerial meeting to consider new measures, the caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, blamed careless behaviour for the spread, saying many Lebanese still considered the virus a hoax and were not taking it seriously.

“We have entered a very critical zone in terms of the coronavirus spread or at a minimum, we are at the gates of that zone,” Diab said.

The World Health Organization said 81.7% of Lebanon’s hospital beds were occupied on Sunday and bed occupancy in intensive care units had reached 91.4%, with the highest in Beirut. Some 2,295 healthcare workers had been infected by 10 January, up from 2,015 last week.

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