A crack down on travel and an imposition of social distancing measures are to be introduced in Iran in the next 24 hours, Patrick Wintour, the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, reports.

The country’s President Hassan Rouhani made the announcement at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday following recommendations from the health ministry about the course of the pandemic.

Initial details of the new laws, and their enforcement, were vague, but is likely to include a ban on inter-city travel, including journeys out of Tehran.

A requirement for people to cut short their new year holidays and greater controls on cars as holiday makers return to their homes in cities such as Tehran is also likely, the president said, in what amounts to a major change of policy.

The closure of parks, the abandonment of Iran’s nature day and tighter social distancing laws are also to be introduced. Nature day, or Sizdah Bedhar, is celebrated on the 13th of the first month of the Persian new year, marking the end of the Nowruz celebrations before a return to work. It normally sees Iranian families spending the day out of doors having meals in the fields, parks and gardens, preferably by a river or stream.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani makes his statement at the cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani makes his statement at the cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rouhani said the harsh measures were needed to save people’s lives, and the new bill “may advise people to cut their holidays short and get back to their homes”. The government has been widely criticised within Iran for not taking more stringent measures earlier, but Rouhani repeatedly claiming the crisis was under control pointed to statistics on declining numbers of rail journeys and cancelled hotel bookings to claim the guidance was largely being followed.

The President also said only a third of government employees should be in work, with a large proportion of those permitted to work being health workers. He said more than 1.2m of the 2.5m government employees would continue to be kept away from work.

Claiming the coronavirus pandemic was about to enter a second phase in Iran, he praised those Iranians that had abided by advice and not travelled to holiday resorts during Iran’s new year break, but there is clearly a concern that the pandemic will spread again when millions return from their holidays. The ability of Iran to track those with the infection is limited, and promises by the army to clear the streets have been made before, only for little to happen.

Rouhani also claimed the issue of US economic sanctions on Iran was set to be raised at the UN Security Council. The head of the Central Bank of Iran claimed Iran had made progress in being allowed to repatriate its assets in overseas banks to purchase medicines following fresh guidance to banks.

The US has claimed it has allowed Iran to purchase medicines, but banks have been wary of financing the deals.

Rouhani has already announced that prisoners released on furlough will now not be required to return to jail at the beginning of April, as originally planned, but instead the end of the April, an implicit admission that the pandemic is going to take longer to control than originally hoped.

There is widespread distrust within Iran of official daily government figures on the numbers killed or infected by the disease.

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