BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's government agreed a procedure on Tuesday to allow citizens abroad to come back despite a coronavirus lockdown after its expat policy drew criticism from political leaders.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, one of the country's most powerful figures, had threatened to withdraw support for the cabinet if it did not act to bring home Lebanese stranded abroad during the pandemic.
Beirut airport has been closed to flights for two weeks as part of efforts to limit transmissions of the virus, which has so far infected 463 people with 12 deaths. The government has ordered a shutdown and an overnight curfew until April 12 in a country where dollar shortages had drained the healthcare system of critical supplies months before the outbreak.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose government was already grappling with a severe financial crisis before the virus hit, pledged strict measures to ensure safe returns of expatriates, his office said on Tuesday after a cabinet session.
"We cannot bear any faltering step, and none of the political forces can bear having on its conscience the spread of the (virus) and the collapse of the health system," Diab said.
Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said returns would start on Sunday and all passengers would be screened before they board flights to Lebanon. She said cabinet may make changes to the procedure for returns in a session on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti told local broadcaster al-Jadeed earlier on Tuesday that based on an initial tally from embassies, some 20,000 Lebanese may want to return home.
With the world's big cities in lockdown, Lebanese overseas have faced complications due to curbs by Lebanon's banks which have blocked transfers abroad in recent months and severely limited cash withdrawals from ATMs.
Lebanon's banking association said on Sunday that the lenders were "committed to transferring the appropriate sums for Lebanese students living abroad."
Other leaders have also echoed Berri's call for returning expats, including the head of the Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Christian politician Samir Geagea.
Most of Lebanon's main politicians have close ties to the country's large diaspora communities from which they draw support.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)