Iranian health workers have reportedly admitted 210 people have died from coronavirus in the country, five times more than government figures claim.
Officials have confirmed 388 cases and 43 deaths as of Saturday, the highest death toll of any country outside China.
But a much higher unofficial tally was collected from sources in several hospitals across the country by BBC Persian this week. The government has been accused of orchestrating a cover-up of the scale of the outbreak after struggling to contain it.
The US warned on Friday that Iran may have concealed ‘vital details’, while the British government today suggested that an outbreak in a prison affecting British-Iranian nationals was being kept under wraps.
A spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry said the government was being fully transparent and accused the BBC of lying.
The Foreign Office has called on the Tehran to ‘immediately allow’ health officials into the jail where British mum Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held.
Her husband Richard Ratcliffe now believes she has contracted the virus after she told him she had had ‘very bad’ symptoms for days but her captors had refused to test her.
An FCO spokesman said: ‘We are urgently seeking information from the Iranian authorities on reports that coronavirus is spreading in Evin prison, including to British-Iranian dual nationals.’
Schools and universities have been closed in some areas of Iran, but officials have refused to impose quarantine zones like those seen in Italy.
Several high-ranking politicians have been infected with the virus, including a deputy health minister who coughed while giving a televised press conference before admitting to his condition.
Iraj Harirchi looked visibly unwell as he denied claims made by an MP for Qom that the death toll in his city alone had passed 50 several days ago.
Mr Harirchi had previously declared that ‘quarantines belong to the Stone Age’, yet announced he was in self-isolation in a self-shot video broadcast on state TV.
He said ‘I wanted to tell you that… we will definitely be victorious against this virus in the next few weeks’, before warning Iranians that ‘the virus does not discriminate’.
One MP has died of the coronavirus while another four lawmakers and the country’s vice-president are infected.
Iran’s clerical rulers have now closed parliament and imposed internal travel bans.
In a phone call to Qatar’s ruler on Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: ‘This is an international problem and all nations should work together to overcome the coronavirus crisis.’
His government has rejected American offers to help with the outbreak.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a congressional committee in Washington on Friday: ‘We have made offers to the Islamic Republic of Iran to help.’
‘Their healthcare infrastructure is not robust and, to date, their willingness to share information about what’s really going on inside… Iran has not been robust.’
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson later said: ‘The claim to help Iran confront coronavirus by a country that has imposed expansive pressures on the Iranian nation through its economic terrorism and has even blocked the way for purchase of medical equipment and medicines is ridiculous and a political-psychological game.’
Authorities have also cracked down on an apparent outbreak of fake news about the virus and the government’s response.
Police have arrested 24 individuals for spreading rumours after misleading posts and fake clips of government officials were shared on social media.
Popular media sites and celebrities with millions of Instagram followers have also shared ‘traditional medicine’ and home remedies such as ‘gargling vinegar’ or saffron and turmeric infusions to prevent infections.
The World Health Organisation’s official advice to the public on protective measures against coronavirus does not include any herbal remedies and focuses on hygiene and reducing contact with sufferers.
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