MARSHALL ISLANDS :
The Marshall Islands has taken the radical step of banning all inbound air travellers for a two-week period in a bid to prevent the novel coronavirus reaching the Pacific island nation.
The emergency measure came into effect late Sunday and imposes "total suspension of air travellers coming into the Marshall Islands immediately" until March 22, the country's health department said.
In addition, both air and sea arrivals from 10 countries -- including China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, France and Spain -- were barred with some exceptions to allow delivery of food and supplies.
The Marshalls, a group of islands and atolls about halfway between Australia and Hawaii, has also ordered cruise ships and yachts not to dock at its ports.
Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said the air travel ban was designed to give the Marshalls time to establish isolation facilities and gear up healthcare staff for a possible local outbreak.
"We need more time to prepare," he told reporters Sunday.
The Marshalls, with a population of almost 80,000, welcomed about 6,800 international travellers in 2018, according to the most recent data from the UN World Tourism Organisation.
Small Pacific islands nations have so far had no confirmed cases of the virus, although there have been scares in the Marshalls, Fiji and Palau.
Samples from a possible case in Tonga are currently being examined by a New Zealand laboratory.
Niedenthal said last week that a lack of lab testing facilities in the islands was hampering the health response.
"If we know in a timely manner what we are dealing with here that would help us manage this situation much more effectively," he said.
The Marshalls last month barred international travel by government officials and elected leaders, with the only exception for patients referred for off-island medical treatment.
It has also "strongly advised" citizens and residents to postpone international travel until further notice.