Malaysia will impose a 14-day nationwide lockdown for all social and economic sectors starting from next Tuesday.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced the fresh restrictions on Friday as the country reported 8,290 new coronavirus cases that day, its fourth straight day of record infections, reports The Straits Times.
This brings the total cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic to 549,514.
Only essential economic sectors and services will be allowed to operate, Tan Sri Muhyiddin said. This month has seen the country continue to record new highs in Covid-19 infections and deaths, despite putting in place three weeks of moderate restrictions under the movement control order (MCO).
"This decision was made after taking into account the current situation of the Covid-19 outbreak in Malaysia, with daily cases surpassing 8,000 and over 70,000 active cases," he said in a statement.
"As of today, 2,552 have passed away from this pandemic, and the number of deaths is increasing. The presence of more aggressive variants with higher infectivity also influenced today's decision."
The Premier, who just on Sunday insisted a total lockdown would cause more damage by ruining an already ailing economy, added that "hospital capacity nationwide to treat Covid-19 patients is also becoming increasingly limited".
Malaysia reported 61 deaths from the virus on Friday. This is the first month since the pandemic began last year that more than 1,000 lives have been lost.
Mr Muhyiddin on Friday also outlined an exit strategy from the total shutdown, should it succeed in reducing the number of new Covid-19 cases.
A second phase lasting four weeks will follow, which will allow more sectors to reopen, provided these activities do not involve large gatherings.
Should the situation continue to improve, restrictions will be further eased under a third phase. This will be similar to current movement control rules, where most economic activities - subject to standard operating procedures (SOP) and health protocols - will resume, while social activities will still be barred.
"The decision to shift from one phase to the next will be subject to a risk assessment by the Health Ministry. This will be based on the development of daily cases and hospital capacity nationwide," Mr Muhyiddin said.
Both public and private sector healthcare facilities have been overrun by Covid-19 patients, with several hospitals forced to use refrigerated containers as makeshift morgues, and carparks turned into temporary quarantine centres for those displaying minor symptoms.
Despite hospitals steadily increasing the number of intensive care units for coronavirus patients to close to 1,000, more than 90 per cent of these are already utilised. Some officials have admitted that healthcare workers are, in some instances, having to decide which patients to admit to ICUs based on their chances of survival.
Friday's announcement did not outline specific regulations. It is expected that the National Security Council will decide on these over the weekend and issue new SOPs ahead of their implementation on Tuesday.
The government's change of heart comes after increasing pressure to impose a lockdown from former premiers Mahathir Mohamad and Najib Razak, as well as the outspoken Johor ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar.
Given the impact of the lockdown, the Prime Minister said that the Finance Ministry will develop an aid package for the public and affected economic sectors.
Malaysia had hoped its economy would recover to pre-coronavirus levels with up to 7.5 per cent growth this year, having experienced a 5.6 decline last year, the worst since the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis.
This was largely due to the first MCO imposed in March 2020 until May, when stay-home orders were mandated, save for essential activities. "MCO 2.0", with looser restrictions, was announced in January this year, and after it ended in March, daily cases came down to three digits.
The current MCO that began on May 6 in the richest state Selangor largely mirrored MCO 2.0 until more stringent work-from-home rules and shortened retail hours were put in place on Tuesday.
But with more virulent strains being detected since March, MCO 3.0 failed to achieve the same impact as before. The Hari Raya Puasa celebrations earlier this month were also responsible for 24 clusters detected so far, with 850 linked cases.