March 17, 2020 / 12:18 PM / 16 days ago

Spain turns back cars from land borders as coronavirus death toll rises to 491

MADRID/VILAR FORMOSO, Portugal, March 17 (Reuters) - Spain set up police checks at its land borders with France and Portugal on Tuesday and turned back foreigners attempting to enter, part of strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Europe's second hardest-hit country.

The government reported 182 new fatalities overnight, bringing the total dead to 491 and making Spain the country with the world's fastest-rising toll behind Italy. The number of infected topped 10,000 for the first time to 11,178.

Spain closed its land borders on Monday to all but Spaniards, permanent residents and trans-border workers. Trade in goods is not affected.

Cars queued to get into Spain at Vilar Formoso in Portugal as Spanish police wearing protective face masks and latex gloves checked identities and turned back vehicles carrying passengers without permission to enter.

One of them was Joaquim Silva, a Portuguese man who has lived in France for more than 50 years and was trying to return there by driving back through Spain.

"It's terrible because we live there, we have family there, we have health problems that are being treated there," he said. "Here in Portugal we do not even have a family doctor."

Governments across Europe have taken draconian measures to slow the pandemic, shutting borders, closing schools, shops, restaurants and ordering citizens to stay at home.

Spain's 47 million people have been under partial lockdown since Saturday night, allowed to leave their homes only to go to work, buy food or visit a pharmacy or hospital.

More than 1,000 troops have been deployed across the country, telling people without a good reason to be outside to go home, while army specialists spray disinfectant in train stations.

The Spanish government is expected to announce later on Tuesday a package to help companies affected by the outbreak, likely to involve government credit lines for small businesses.

More than half of jobs in the country are dependent on small or medium-sized companies and Spain has one of the developed world's highest unemployment rates that has persisted during an economic upturn.

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards are already dependent on social security handouts having been sent home temporarily from companies such as Volkswagen and Burger King. (Editing by Peter Graff)

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