By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Ukraine closed schools, restaurants and gyms on Friday as a new nationwide lockdown took effect to fight the coronavirus pandemic in the nation of 41 million people.
Coronavirus infections in Ukraine began rising again in September and have remained relatively high. The country has registered more than 1 million coronavirus cases with 19,588 deaths as of Jan. 8.
The government had decided on the January lockdown in early December, when Ukraine was at the peak of the epidemic and the number of new cases stood at around 12,000-14,000 a day.
The new measures, which include the closure of entertainment centres and a ban on mass gatherings, will be in force until Jan. 24.
Despite calls to ease the lockdown or even cancel it, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Health Minister Maksym Stepanov have said the restrictions were urgently needed.
"By introducing a stricter quarantine from tomorrow, we will avoid a large increase in patients with both COVID-19 and the usual seasonal flu," Stepanov said, according to a statement on Thursday.
"Thus, we will reduce the workload at the hospitals, because the same institutions treat patients with each of these diseases."
The number of new cases dropped in early January and this, together with the decision to leave public transport and some non-critical businesses operating, prompted local authorities and businesses to criticise the new restrictions.
The government says imposing restrictions now may help avoid the need for a stricter lockdown later that could do greater damage to the economy.
Ukraine's economy is expected to contract by around 5% in 2020, dragged into recession by the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown in March.
Last year the parliament approved a law to help small businesses hit by the crisis and measures included financial assistance to around 1 million small entrepreneurs. (Editing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Kim Coghill)
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