North America extends coronavirus travel restrictions: U.S. official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States, Mexico and Canada are extending restrictions on non-essential travel across their shared borders for an additional 30 days, U.S. Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a tweet.

“As President Trump stated last week, border control, travel restrictions, and other limitations remain critical to slowing the spread of coronavirus and allowing the phased opening of the country,” Wolf wrote.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. in crisis mode as coronavirus cases soar, travel restrictions loom

Reuters
By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States went into crisis mode on Thursday to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has played havoc with businesses, shuttered schools and universities and severely disrupted the sports and entertainment world.

Fears of a recession grew as U.S. cases of the virus that causes the sometimes fatal COVID-19 respiratory illness rose and the Trump administration prepared to roll out restrictions that threaten to cripple the travel industry.

U.S. stock markets cratered again after trading opened, with major indexes entering bear-market territory.

Officials in the hardest-hit parts of the country, including New York and Washington states, were trying to balance the need to protect the public while stopping short of actions that could freeze the daily lives of millions of people and stop economic activity.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN that “more and more restrictions” were likely on the way, though he said there were no plans to shut down the city’s famous theater district or its subway system, a vital transportation link.

“I don’t want to see Broadway go dark,” de Blasio said, adding that authorities will be issuing further guidance either on Thursday or Friday. He also announced the closure of two schools in the city due to a student’s “self-confirmed” positive case of COVID-19.

Hollywood has postponed the release of several movies and movie theaters around the world have been closed over the health crisis.

More than 1,300 U.S. cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 33 people have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, has accounted for a large share of the deaths.

U.S. health officials have struggled to quickly expand testing capacity to make screening for the virus widely available, and have acknowledged that it is not easy for those possibly exposed to the virus to get tested.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. official on infectious diseases, said at a congressional hearing. “The idea of anybody getting it (testing) easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.”

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and at least one player in the National Basketball Association are among those who have been infected with the highly infectious coronavirus, which can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory problems, especially in the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

The NBA has suspended its season until further notice.

Harvard and Princeton are among the universities that have announced they will move to virtual classroom instruction after the spring break later this month.

‘SELF-QUARANTINE’

U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning from abroad will be screened for the virus and asked to go into “self-quarantine” for 14 days, Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with CNN.

“Americans coming home will be funneled through 13 different airports, they’ll be screened, and then we’re going to ask every single American and legal resident returning to the United States to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Pence said.

President Donald Trump defended his decision to impose a 30-day restriction on travel from Europe, except Britain and Ireland, that goes into effect at midnight on Friday.

Speaking to reporters in the White House alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he said the ban could be lengthened or shortened, and added that he had been unable to consult with the European Union prior to announcing it on Wednesday night.

The travel restrictions will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said. Global stock markets sank again on Thursday.

The S&P 500 <.SPX> and the Nasdaq <.IXIC> indexes entered into a bear market. The S&P 500 plunged more than 8% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average <.DJI> was down 4.3%. Airline and some cruise line stocks were particularly hard hit.

The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Democrats’ sweeping coronavirus bill on Thursday, according to a Democratic aide.

Republicans have balked at the plan and called for a delay in considering the proposed legislation, and Trump said on Thursday he didn’t support the bill.

Instead, Trump has pushed for a payroll tax cut and instructed the Treasury Department to defer tax payments without interest or penalties for certain business and individuals hit by the health crisis.

The president also backs emergency action to provide financial relief for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Richard Cowan in Washington and Maria Caspani and Michael Erman in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Explainer: Fed may go into its crisis tool kit soon. What’s in it?

Reuters
By Jonnelle Marte and Howard Schneider

(Reuters) – Analysts and economists increasingly expect the Federal Reserve to roll out measures beyond interest rate cuts and bond purchases to ensure financial markets keep operating smoothly and banks have ample liquidity during the coronavirus outbreak.

The unexpected move by aircraft maker Boeing Co  to draw on nearly $14 billion in credit lines from its banks, as travel restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic hurt its customers, illustrates the stress that some corporate credit markets are already starting to feel.

The Fed, which delivered an emergency rate cut last week and is expected to lower them more when it meets next week, has already taken steps to ensure liquidity in the banking system by substantially increasing the support it provides to overnight lending markets.

But the central bank has an array of other emergency lending facilities and other tools it used during the 2007-2009 financial crisis that it could turn to if needed to keep credit markets from freezing up during times of stress.

“The playbook story in these events is that the Fed would always be a provider of liquidity as needed,” said Nellie Liang, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and former director of the Division of Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Board.

Some steps the Fed can take on its own under existing authority, while others might require partnering with the Treasury Department or expanded authority from Congress.

But here is a look at some of the tools that could be adjusted or revived to support markets if credit conditions worsen significantly:

** Discount window

The Fed’s lending tool of last resort is rarely used because banks are worried that borrowing from the window could make them appear weak. But policymakers could start by reminding banks that “the discount window is open, please use it,” said Liang. Fed officials could also make the credit more attractive by lowering the rate they charge or extending the length of the loans offered from one day to 30 days or 90 days.

** Term Auction Facility (TAF)

The Fed rolled out the TAF in 2007 as a way to offer loans to banks that were too hesitant to turn to the discount window. The TAF lacked some of the stigma associated with the discount window because of the way the loans were issued. Financial firms had to bid for the funding, which meant that the rate they paid would be viewed as being determined by the market, and not as a penalty rate.

The money also was not disbursed until three days later, suggesting that the banks who borrowed in that way were not in immediate need of cash.

“It is a signal that you are not desperate,” said Liang. The Fed closed the facility in March 2010.

** Commercial paper funding facility (CPFF)

In the financial crisis, establishing the CPFF was the closest the Fed came to making direct loans to non-financial businesses.

The commercial paper market is a key source of short-term funding for a range of businesses. When it froze up in 2008, the Fed created the CPFF to help reopen that market by purchasing high-rated, asset-backed commercial paper at three-month maturities. The facility was closed in 2010.

Some measures of potential stress have appeared in this market. The spread on borrowing rates between the highest-rated non-financial borrowers and the next tier below them has widened notably this month. It is now the widest in nearly two years.

It is too early to say if the current stress will grow to an extent that allows the Fed to reopen such a facility under the “unusual and exigent circumstances” section of the Federal Reserve Act, which allows it to lend to businesses and individuals.

** Central bank liquidity swaps

The Fed has standing agreements with five other major foreign central banks – the Bank of Canada, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank – that allows them to provide dollars to their financial institutions during times of stress. These were converted from temporary to standing arrangements in 2011.

The Fed could roll out more agreements with other central banks not currently party to the standing agreements to increase access to dollars if needed.

** What else?

The central bank could create new tools more tailored to today’s market, said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics. “Many of these were created for the specific issues that were plaguing the financial system back then,” said Bostjancic.

“What it shows is the Fed can be innovative.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte and Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci)

Trump stops Europe flights, China says coronavirus outbreak may end by June

Reuters
By Liangping Gao and Andrea Shalal

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Travelers scrambled to rebook flights and markets reeled on Thursday after U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from Europe, hitting battered airlines and heightening global alarm over the coronavirus.

But China, where the disease originated, said its epidemic had peaked and the global spread could be over by June if other nations applied similarly aggressive containment measures as Beijing’s communist government.

Trump had downplayed risks to the United States during the crisis, but with epidemics ballooning from Iran to Italy and Spain, he limited travel from continental Europe for 30 days.

“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” he said in a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday.

That sent markets into a tailspin, with European shares plunging to their lowest in almost four years and oil also slumping.

It also sent stressed travelers rushing to airports to board last flights back to the United States.

“It caused a mass panic,” said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a U.S. student at Suffolk University on her first trip to Europe who rushed to Madrid’s Barajas airport at 5 a.m. to get home.

The outbreak has disrupted industry, travel, entertainment and sports worldwide, even throwing the Tokyo Summer Olympics into question. But its progress in the epicenter of China’s Hubei province has slowed markedly amid strict curbs on movement, including the lockdown of its capital Wuhan.

Hubei logged just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time in the outbreak it has recorded a daily tally of less than 10. Beyond Hubei, mainland China had just seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.

“The peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” said Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission.

OVER BY JUNE?

The Chinese government’s senior medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old epidemiologist renowned for helping combat the SARS outbreak in 2003, said the crisis could be over by mid-year.

“If all countries could get mobilized, it could be over by June,” he said. “But if some countries do not treat the infectiousness and harmfulness seriously, and intervene strongly, it would last longer.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people across the world, the vast majority in China, and killed 4,624, according to a Reuters tally.

Already annoyed at what it considered over-draconian travel restrictions by Washington early in the crisis, Beijing smarted again at latest U.S. criticism of its handling.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien accused China on Wednesday of initially covering up the Hubei outbreak, saying that cost the world two months in response time.

In fact, retorted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, China’s efforts bought the world time and “immoral and irresponsible” remarks would not help U.S. epidemic efforts.

The World Health Organization (WHO) now officially describes the crisis as a pandemic, meaning it is spreading fast across the globe.

“Describing this as a pandemic does not mean that countries should give up,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told diplomats in Geneva. “The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous.”

Trump’s surprise travel order, which starts at midnight on Friday, does not apply to Britain or to Americans undergoing “appropriate screenings”, he said. “The restriction stops people not goods,” he tweeted after his speech.

EU DISAPPROVAL

The 27-nation European Union (EU) bloc was not impressed.

“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to improve a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Council president Charles Michel said in a statement.

The market plunge hit airline and leisure stocks particularly hard.

“This is something that markets had not factored in … it’s a huge near-term economic cost,” Khoon Goh, head of Asia Research at ANZ in Singapore, said of the U.S. move.

Although exempt from Trump’s ban and no longer a member of the EU, Britain also expressed disappointment, saying it would have an impact on its economy.

But U.S. Vice President Mike Pence defended the new restrictions, saying the epicenter of the pandemic had shifted from Asia to Europe. “We know there will be more infections in the days ahead. We’re trying to hold that number down as much as possible,” Pence told NBC’s “Today” program.

In the United States, classes were suspended for two weeks in the greater Seattle area, which accounts for the bulk of at least 38 U.S. fatalities from the disease.

Oscar-winning American actor Tom Hanks tested positive in Australia, where he is on a film shoot.

Despite fears for the Tokyo Olympics, the torch relay got started in Greece when the flame was lit by the rays of the sun in ancient Olympia – albeit in a scaled-down ceremony and without spectators.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Stella Qui, Kevin Yao and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Alexandra Alper, Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, David Lawder, and Richard Cowan in Washington, Marine Strauus in Brussels, William Schomberg in London, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Karolos Grohmann in Ancient Olympia; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne)

China to allow in U.S. experts amid spread of virus even as it slams U.S. actions

By Kevin Yao and Winni Zhou

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China has agreed to allow U.S. health experts into the country as part of a World Health Organization (WHO) effort to help fight the fast-spreading coronavirus, even as it accused the United States on Monday of whipping up panic over the disease with travel restrictions and evacuations.

“China has accepted the United States’ offer to incorporate a group of experts into a World Health Organization mission to China to learn more about and combat the virus,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.

The death toll in China from the newly identified virus, which emerged in the city of Wuhan, rose to 361 as of Sunday, up by 57 from a day earlier, the National Health Commission said. Chinese stocks plunged on Monday, the first day of trading following an extended Lunar New Year holiday.

With Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged, and some other Chinese cities in virtual lockdown, travel severely restricted and China facing increasing international isolation, fears of wider economic disruption are growing. Sources at the OPEC oil cartel said producers were considering cutting output by almost a third to support prices.

The WHO last week declared the flu-like virus a global emergency. It has spread to 23 other countries and regions. The Philippines has reported one death from the coronavirus, the first outside of China.

Airlines around the world have stopped flights to parts of China. A suspension by the United Arab Emirates on Monday will affect the Gulf airlines Etihad and Emirates.

China accused the United States of spreading fear by pulling its citizens out and restricting travel.

Washington has “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, noting that the WHO had advised against trade and travel curbs.

“It is precisely developed countries like the United States with strong epidemic prevention capabilities and facilities that have taken the lead in imposing excessive restrictions contrary to WHO recommendations,” she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defended the measures taken by the United States, including suspending the entry of foreign nationals who had visited China within the past 14 days.

“We made an aggressive decision in front of an unprecedented threat that action now had the biggest potential to slow this thing down. That’s what the theory is here,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, as she noted that there are already some 17,000 cases of a virus for which the population does not have immunity.

Vladimir Markov shows empty roads in Wuhan City, China, February 3, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. VLADIMIR MARKOV/via REUTERS

‘NO REASON’ FOR TRAVEL CURBS

The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, again said travel bans were unnecessary.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he told the WHO’s executive board in Geneva.

The outbreak is reminiscent of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a virus from the same family that emerged in China in 2002 and killed almost 800 people around the world out of the roughly 8,000 who were infected.

Chinese data suggests the new virus, while much more contagious than SARS, is significantly less lethal, although such numbers can evolve rapidly. The number of confirmed infections in China rose by 2,829, bringing the total to 17,205.

The WHO said at least 151 cases had been confirmed in 23 other countries and regions, including Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Germany, Britain and the United States, which on Monday reported its second case of person-to-person transmission within its borders.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said controlling the virus was his country’s most important task, Xinhua state news agency said.

Chinese stocks fell almost 8%, wiping $393 billion off the value of the Shanghai bourse, the yuan currency had its worst day since August, and Shanghai-traded commodities from oil to copper hit their lower limits – all despite the central bank’s injection of 1.2 trillion yuan ($174 billion) into money markets.

Fears over the effect of China’s lockdown on global growth have slashed more than 22% off the price of the Brent global crude oil benchmark since its recent peak on Jan. 8, prompting OPEC to consider an output cut of 500,000 barrels per day, about 29% of the total, sources told Reuters.

Economists are predicting world economic output will be cut by 0.2 to 0.3 percentage point.

Taiwan’s Foxconn, which makes smartphones for Apple and other brands, has halted “almost all” of its production in China after companies were told to shut until at least Feb. 10, a source said. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

HOSPITAL BUILT IN EIGHT DAYS

A 1,000-bed hospital built in eight days to treat people with the virus in Wuhan was due to receive its first patients on Monday, state media said. A second hospital with 1,600 beds is due to be ready on Feb. 5.

Wuhan also plans to renovate another three “cabin hospitals” to focus on treating infected patients there, Xinhua reported.

Countries continued to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.

The United States, which flew nearly 200 people out last week, is planning “a handful more flights.” Russia was due to start evacuating its citizens on Monday, and Canada said 304 of its citizens were seeking to be flown out.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent anti-China protests, announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China, leaving just three open.

China’s efforts to contain the virus have taken some unexpected, and some might say unnerving, forms.

A video clip posted on the microblogging website Weibo showed people playing mahjong in a village near the city of Chengdu being spotted by a camera mounted on a patrolling drone.

“Playing mahjong outside is banned during the epidemic!” an official tells the villagers through a loudspeaker. “You have been spotted.”

For a graphic comparing coronavirus outbreaks, see https://tmsnrt.rs/2GK6YVK.

For more coronavirus news click here. https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH/0100B59Y39P/index.html

(Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html)

(Reporting by Kevin Yao, Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Yilei Sun, Leng Cheng, Brenda Goh, Winni Zhou in Shanghai, Martin Pollard in Jiujiang, Roxanne Liu, Pei Li, Gabriel Crossley and Muyu Xu, Min Zhang in Beijing, Clare Jim and Noah Sin in Hong Kong, Mekhla Raina in Bengaluru, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Gayatri Suroyo in Jakarta, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago, Jeff Mason in Washington and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by; Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Bill Berkrot; editing by Kevin Liffey and Leslie Adler)

China heads into Lunar New Year on shutdown as virus toll hits 26

By Judy Hua and Cate Cadell

BEIJING, China (Reuters) – China shut part of the Great Wall and suspended public transport in 10 cities, stranding millions of people at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday on Friday as authorities rush to contain a virus that has killed 26 people and infected more than 800.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the new coronavirus an “emergency in China” but stopped short of declaring it of international concern.

People line up outside a drugstore to buy masks in Shanghai, China January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

While restrictions on travel and gatherings have already been imposed to curb the outbreak, China will take stricter and more targeted measures, state television reported citing a State Council meeting on Friday, but gave no further details.

“The spread of the virus has not been cut off … Local authorities should take more responsibility and have a stronger sense of urgency,” state broadcaster CCTV said.

The Defence Ministry said it is organizing military medical experts to take part in the fight against the virus, without giving details.

Most of the cases and all of the deaths have been in China, but the virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal and the United States.

Britain convened an emergency response meeting on Friday.

While health officials have been at pains to say it is too soon to evaluate the severity of the outbreak, the newly identified coronavirus has triggered alarm because it is too early to know how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads.

Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and coughing. Most of the fatalities have been elderly, many with pre-existing conditions, the WHO said.

As of Thursday, there were 830 confirmed cases and 26 people had died there, China’s National Health Commission said.

WUHAN ISOLATED

Most cases have been in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated in a market that traded illegally in wildlife. Preliminary research suggested it crossed to humans from snakes.

China has advised people to avoid crowds and 10 cities in the central province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, have suspended some transport, the Hubei Daily reported.

The week-long celebrations to welcome the Year of the Rat began on Friday, raising fears the infection rate could accelerate as hundreds of millions of people have already traveled to see family at home and abroad.

The city of 11 million people, and neighboring Huanggang, a city of 7 million, were in virtual lockdown. Nearly all flights at Wuhan’s airport had been canceled. Airports worldwide have stepped up the screening of passengers from China.

Checkpoints blocked the main roads leading out of town, and police checked incoming vehicles for wild animals.

About 10 people got off a high-speed train that pulled into Wuhan on Friday afternoon but nobody got on before it resumed its journey. Although it stopped there, Wuhan had been removed from the train’s schedule.

“What choice do I have? It’s Chinese New Year. We have to see our family,” said a man getting off the train who gave his family name Hu.

Some sections of the Great Wall near Beijing will be closed from Saturday, state media said.

Some temples have also closed, including Beijing’s Lama Temple where people make offerings for the new year, have also been closed as has the Forbidden City, the capital’s most famous tourist attraction.

Shanghai Disneyland will close from Saturday. The theme park has a 100,000 daily capacity and sold out during last year’s new year holiday. Film premieres have also been postponed and McDonald’s suspended business in five cities in Hubei province.

In Wuhan, where the outbreak began last month, pharmacies were running out of supplies and hospitals were flooded with nervous resident seeking medical checks.

The city was rushing to build a 1,000-bed hospital for the infected by Monday, the official Changjiang Daily reported.

“There’s so much news, so much data, every 10 minutes there’s an update, it’s frightening, especially for people like us in a severely hit area,” Lily Jin, 30, a resident of the city, told Reuters by phone.

VACCINE QUEST

The WHO said on Thursday it was a “bit too early” to designate the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, which would require countries to step up their response.

Some experts believe the virus is not as dangerous as the one that caused the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which also began in China and killed nearly 800 people, or the one that caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has killed more than 700 people since 2012.

There is no known vaccine or particular treatment yet.

“There is some work being done and there are some trials now for MERS (vaccines). And we may look at some point whether those treatments and vaccines would have some effect on this novel coronavirus,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said on Friday.

Gilead Sciences Inc said it was assessing whether its experimental Ebola treatment could be used. Meanwhile, three research teams were starting work on vaccines, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations said.

The virus is expected to dent China’s growth after months of economic worries over trade tensions with the United States, unnerving foreign companies doing business there.

Shares in luxury goods firms have suffered from the anticipated drop in demand from China, and on Friday French spirits group Remy Cointreau said it was “clearly concerned” about the potential impact.

(Reporting by Roxanne Liu, David Stanway, Martin Pollard, Tony Munroe, Muyu Xu, Engen Tham, Cate Cadell, Judy Hua and Ben Blanchard; Writing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alison Williams)

Saudi Arabia implements end to travel restrictions for Saudi women: agency

A Saudi woman walks with her luggage as she arrives at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has begun allowing adult women to travel without permission and to exercise more control over family matters, state news agency SPA reported on Tuesday, following a flurry of royal decrees approving the changes.

Riyadh has long faced international criticism over the status of Saudi women. Rights groups say women are often treated as second-class citizens under rules requiring them to get the consent of a male guardian for important decisions throughout their entire lives, regardless of age.

The authorities have steadily chipped away at those restrictions in recent years, including ending a ban on women driving cars last year. A series of royal decrees published earlier this month further eroded that system as the kingdom comes under increased scrutiny over its human rights record.

The regulatory changes stipulated that a Saudi passport should be issued to any citizen who applies for it and that any person above the age of 21 does not need permission to travel.

They also granted women for the first time the right to register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to children who are minors.

“The passports and civil status departments and their branches in all regions of the kingdom have started to implement the amendments stipulated in the royal decree,” the SPA report said, citing an interior ministry source.

A Saudi newspaper reported that more than 1,000 women in the country’s Eastern Province had left Saudi Arabia on Monday without their guardian’s permission, in what appeared to be an early implementation of the new rules.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump slaps travel restrictions on North Korea, Venezuela in sweeping new ban

International passengers wait for their rides outside the international arrivals exit at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S. September 24, 2017.

By Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Sunday slapped new travel restrictions on citizens from North Korea, Venezuela and Chad, expanding to eight the list of countries covered by his original travel bans that have been derided by critics and challenged in court.

Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia were left on the list of affected countries in a new proclamation issued by the president. Restrictions on citizens from Sudan were lifted.

The measures help fulfill a campaign promise Trump made to tighten U.S. immigration procedures and align with his “America First” foreign policy vision. Unlike the president’s original bans, which had time limits, this one is open-ended.

“Making America Safe is my number one priority. We will not admit those into our country we cannot safely vet,” the president said in a tweet shortly after the proclamation was released.

Iraqi citizens will not be subject to travel prohibitions but will face enhanced scrutiny or vetting.

The current ban, enacted in March, was set to expire on Sunday evening. The new restrictions are slated to take effect on Oct. 18 and resulted from a review after Trump’s original travel bans sparked international outrage and legal challenges.

The addition of North Korea and Venezuela broadens the restrictions from the original, mostly Muslim-majority list.

An administration official, briefing reporters on a conference call, acknowledged that the number of North Koreans now traveling to the United States was very low.

Rights group Amnesty International USA condemned the measures.

“Just because the original ban was especially outrageous does not mean we should stand for yet another version of government-sanctioned discrimination,” it said in a statement.

“It is senseless and cruel to ban whole nationalities of people who are often fleeing the very same violence that the U.S. government wishes to keep out. This must not be normalized.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement the addition of North Korea and Venezuela “doesn’t obfuscate the real fact that the administration’s order is still a Muslim ban.”

The White House portrayed the restrictions as consequences for countries that did not meet new requirements for vetting of immigrants and issuing of visas. Those requirements were shared in July with foreign governments, which had 50 days to make improvements if needed, the White House said.

A number of countries made improvements by enhancing the security of travel documents or the reporting of passports that were lost or stolen. Others did not, sparking the restrictions.

The announcement came as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments on Oct. 10 over the legality of Trump’s previous travel ban, including whether it discriminated against Muslims.

 

NORTH KOREA, VENEZUELA ADDED

Trump has threatened to “destroy” North Korea if it attacks the United States or its allies. Pyongyang earlier this month conducted its most powerful nuclear bomb test. The president has also directed harsh criticism at Venezuela, once hinting at

a potential military option to deal with Caracas.

But the officials described the addition of the two countries to Trump’s travel restrictions as the result of a purely objective review.

In the case of North Korea, where the suspension was sweeping and applied to both immigrants and non-immigrants, officials said it was hard for the United States to validate the identity of someone coming from North Korea or to find out if that person was a threat.

“North Korea, quite bluntly, does not cooperate whatsoever,” one official said.

The restrictions on Venezuela focused on Socialist government officials that the Trump administration blamed for the country’s slide into economic disarray, including officials from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service and their immediate families.

Trump received a set of policy recommendations on Friday from acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and was briefed on the matter by other administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a White House aide said.

The rollout on Sunday was decidedly more organized than Trump’s first stab at a travel ban, which was unveiled with little warning and sparked protests at airports worldwide.

Earlier on Sunday, Trump told reporters about the ban: “The tougher, the better.”

Rather than a total ban on entry to the United States, the proposed restrictions differ by nation, based on cooperation with American security mandates, the threat the United States believes each country presents and other variables, officials said.

Somalis, for example, are barred from entering the United States as immigrants and subjected to greater screening for visits.

After the Sept. 15 bombing attack on a London train, Trump wrote on Twitter that the new ban “should be far larger, tougher and more specific – but stupidly, that would not be politically correct.”

The expiring ban blocked entry into the United States by people from the six countries for 90 days and locked out most aspiring refugees for 120 days to give Trump’s administration time to conduct a worldwide review of U.S. vetting procedures for foreign visitors.

Critics have accused the Republican president of discriminating against Muslims in violation of constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and equal protection under the law, breaking existing U.S. immigration law and stoking religious hatred.

Some federal courts blocked the ban, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to take effect in June with some restrictions.

 

(Additional reporting by James Oliphant, Yeganeh Torbati, and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Peter Cooney)