Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis put the response to the new coronavirus and the management of the refugee-migration issue at the top of the agenda for Thursday's cabinet meeting - which was still underway - during opening remarks that launched the meeting.
"In terms of protecting public health, a plan by the relevant ministry, which we have approved, is already in motion," he said, informing ministers that three cases have been reported in Greece so far, two in Thessaloniki and one in Athens, while other suspect cases were being tested and had so far come back negative for COVID-19.
"I want to stress how important it is for us all to follow the instructions of the experts - the doctors - in our daily lives," he said, adding that the government's information campaign on this issue will continue.
"I also want to point out the importance of the personal responsibility of each of us, on the level of personal hygiene and on the level of behaviour if someone develops symptoms. The instructions given by the ministry and the National Organisation for Public Health must be followed faithfully. The biggest enemy in these cases is always panic," he said.
Mitsotakis announced that the health ministry had accepted the recommendation of the relevant expert committee to suspend all carnival events in the country, as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19. He noted that the government had an obligation to take all measures necessary to prevent the virus spreading as much as possible and that the relevant Joint Ministerial Decision will be signed immediately.
He noted that action was also being taken by the tourism ministry, while the finance ministry had been asked for an initial assessment of the economic repercussions if the problem escalates in Europe. He underlined that there was no problem with the supply of any goods in the market, warning against cultivating fears and artificial demand from consumers, and promising to crack down on instances of profit-gouging.
Government to press ahead with its plan for migration
Mitsotakis underlined that the government's plan for managing migration - based on protection of the borders, rapid procedures for both asylum and returns and controlled migrant accommodation structures - continues to apply in full. "It is the only plan that can be implemented," he stressed.
Noting that the first phase of works for constructing the new closed migrant camps on the islands had been completed, he expressed sorrow for the incidents between protesting local residents and riot police.
"Police men are state functionaries that wear the national insignia and are the boys next-door. It is cowardly to hit them, especially when they are sleeping, and it is cowardly for them to be injured by those taking advantage of the orders for self-restraint," Mitsotakis said, adding that those involved in these incidents will be called to account. He also promised an investigation into complaints of excessive police violence.
While expressing understanding for what the islands were up against, the prime minister called on islanders to isolate the extremist elements on both the left and right, the "suspect NGOs" and locals acting in their own self-interest.
Mitsotakis also pointed to a new aspect of the migration crisis as people from Iran, where there were many cases of coronavirus, were among those arriving in Greece, many of them via Afghanistan.
"Our islands, which are already burdened in terms of public health issues, must be doubly protected...We must do whatever is in our power to avoid the appearance of the virus, especially there," the premier said.
"From today, therefore, our country cites Regulation 2016/399 of the European Commission [on border controls under Schengen rules] and particularly paragraph 6, on controls to prevent a threat to public health," Mitsotakis said.
In practice, he explained, this means upgrading controls at the Greek border to the highest level for the greatest possible slowdown.
"For this purpose, I have already given instructions to the shipping minister and the chief of the Coast Guard to significantly increase the number of boats and patrols around the islands of the Eastern Aegean," he said, adding that Greece will increase border controls both at sea and on land, in accordance with international law.
"I have already informed the European Commission of this decision, and it must see this as a measure to protect health throughout Europe. The same will be done towards Turkey. Meanwhile, an international campaign is beginning, in the languages of the nationalities that come to Greece, with the warning that the country can no longer accept any more illegal entries. These announcements will be made on the internet and in the countries of origin of migrant flows," Mitsotakis told ministers.
He also referred to his meeting on Thursday evening with local authority officials from the northeastern Aegean islands in order to convince them of the necessity of the government's plan.
"I am confident we will arrive at useful conclusions. You can be certain that initiatives will follow that will make the exacerbation of a problem an opportunity for handling it better," he said.