Russian President Vladimir Putin faces some difficult decisions. Photo: Supplied

Citing “the health, life and safety” of the Russian people as an “absolute priority,” President Vladimir Putin backed a Russian government decree to halt all international flights from midnight on Friday, alongside new measures against Covid-19. 

The decree published on Thursday orders aviation authorities to halt all regular and charter flights, with the exception of special flights evacuating Russian citizens from abroad, Agence France Presse reported. 

Russia’s civil aviation agency Rosaviatsiya will halt “regular and charter air travel from Russian airports to airports of foreign states and back,” according to the decree published on the government’s website, the report said. 

The grounding started at midnight Friday, or 2100 GMT Thursday. 

The country closed borders to foreigners on March 16, while Moscow has imposed its own stricter measures, requiring people over 65 to shelter at home, the report said. 

President Putin postponed a vote on constitutional reforms and urged Russians to stay home to contain the coronavirus, the report said. 

In a rare televised address to the nation, Putin didn’t hold back, saying Russia could not isolate itself from the spreading pandemic but focused mainly on support for the struggling economy. 

“The health, life and safety of people is our absolute priority,” Putin said. 

The vote on constitutional reforms, which had been due to take place on April 22, “must be postponed to a later date,” he said, without specifying when. 

He also took the unusual step of declaring Saturday to April 5 a nonworking week in order to slow the spread of the virus, urging Russians to stay at home, the report said. 

“It is extremely important now to prevent the threat of the disease spreading rapidly,” he said. 

“This can affect everyone. What is happening today in many Western countries — in Europe and across the ocean — can become our nearest future.” 

He unveiled a series of measures to support Russians and boost the economy, including breaks on consumer loans and mortgage payments, support for small and medium-sized businesses and early payouts of social benefits, the report said. 

To pay for it, he announced a new tax on interest from bank deposits above 1 million rubles (US$12,800). 

The coronavirus and a dizzying fall in oil prices have sparked a two-pronged crisis for the Russian economy, with the ruble falling to its lowest levels since early 2016, presenting a huge challenge to Russia’s economic growth. 

Moscow will close cafes, shops, parks and other non-essential services for one week starting Saturday, its mayor said Thursday, in an “unprecedented” move to fight the spread of coronavirus.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who heads a coronavirus task force, told Putin the actual number of cases was probably “significantly” higher than official figures. “The problem is that the volume of testing is very low and no one has a clear picture.”