Donald Trump declares national emergency over coronavirus pandemic | World news

Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday to combat the coronavirus pandemic, freeing up $50bn in federal funding and promising a screening website and drive-by tests.

The president was seeking to restore confidence after angering and worrying many with confusing and dismissive public remarks about the outbreak, which in the US has spread to 46 states with at least 1,920 cases and 41 deaths.

At a press conference in the White House rose garden, Trump announced: “To unleash the full power of the federal government for this effort today I am officially declaring a national emergency – two very big words.”

The action will open access to more than $50bn, he said, urging states to set up emergency operation centers and hospitals to initiate emergency plans.

Trump has faced particular criticism over a nationwide shortage of testing kits which has been compared unfavourably with South Korea and other countries. On Friday he paraded a series of major US companies entering into a public-private partnership in order to fix the shortfall.

Trump said his team expected “half a million additional tests will be available early next week which will bring probably 1.4m tests next week and 5m in a month. Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus.”

He could not resist adding: “Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus and to help all Americans who have been impacted by this. Again, we don’t want everybody taking this test. It’s totally unnecessary. This will pass.”

Trump chose not to adopt a German-made test approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but when questioned by reporters he refused to take the blame for the US now having to play catch-up.

“I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said, “because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.”

He added: “What we’ve done is redesign it very quickly with the help of the people around me … We’ll have the ability to do millions over a quick period of time.”

The US military said later on Friday that it will halt all domestic travel, with some exceptions, for service members, defense department civilians and their families amid the fast-spreading coronavirus.

The memo, signed by defense deputy secretary David Norquist, said the policy would go into effect on Monday through 11 May.

It added that exceptions could be granted for mission essential travel, travel necessary for humanitarian reasons, and travel warranted due to extreme hardship.

Trump also announced that he would waive interest on all student loans held by government agencies until further notice and was buying big quantities of crude oil for storage in the US strategic reserve.

“It’s a good time to fill it up,” he said.

The vice-president, Mike Pence; Dr Anthony Fauci; the health secretary, Alex Azar; and other members of the coronavirus taskforce stood behind Trump. He introduced corporate leaders who will be working with them.

Dr Deborah Birx, one of the leaders of response efforts, held up a chart showing a website that will allow people to fill out a screening questionnaire to work out of they need a test. There will be “drive-through” testing centres in car parks at CVS, Target, Walmart and Walgreens stores.

Democrats welcomed the declaration. Chuck Schumer, minority leader in the Senate, said: “I’m pleased the president heeded our calls to invoke the Stafford Act to extend vital financial assistance to help keep communities safe from the coronavirus outbreak.”

But he added: “As other steps are considered, the president must not overstep his authority or indulge his autocratic tendencies for purposes not truly related to this public health crisis.”

As coronavirus legislation negotiations continued on Capitol Hill, Trump said: “We don’t think the Democrats are giving enough.”

Late on Friday the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, announced a deal with the Trump administration for an aid package from Congress that would provide free tests, sick pay for workers and bolster food programs. The House was poised to vote on the deal.

Trump said he was invoking the law known as the 1988 Stafford Act, which gives the White House and the federal government special powers to assist state and local governments during “natural catastrophes”. Only the president can declare a major disaster, under the law.

Trump has invoked the Stafford Act many times during his presidency, approving major disaster declarations to address flooding in the midwest and wildfires in California, among other events. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or Fema, is commonly associated with natural disaster response but it can also address pandemics.

Trump was asked if he would take a coronavirus test after being photographed with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s press secretary, who has tested positive for the virus, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida last weekend.

“No,” he said at first. “We have no symptoms whatsoever.”

But pressed on whether he was thereby putting other people at risk, the president reversed position and said he might take a test after all.

“Most likely, yes.”

Associated Press contributed reporting

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