By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia shortened its nightly curfew on Wednesday after three consecutive days without recording any new coronavirus cases and as the government relaxes a general lockdown.
The North African democracy imposed the curfew in March, aiming to slow the spread of the virus by keeping people at home, combined with a lockdown that shuttered all but key shops and services.
President Kais Saied has cut the curfew hours to 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. instead of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., state news agency TAP reported, 10 days after the start of a gradual reopening of the bureaucracy and economy.
It follows the government's announcement that no new coronavirus cases have been recorded for three days in a row, with 1,032 confirmed cases in total and 45 deaths.
However, Jalila Ben Kelil, a member of the government's advisory committee on the coronavirus crisis, said that though the restrictions had been eased, they could be brought back if necessary.
"We are afraid of a new wave if there is slackness, and people continue to disregard and disrespect social distancing by crowding public places," she said by phone.
Only five patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, are still in hospital in Tunisia, Ben Kelil said, attributing the country's success in controlling the outbreak to fast, aggressive public health measures.
The government has so far kept in place many restrictions on movement including the closure of schools, mosques, cafes and restaurants.
Tunisia entered the crisis with only 500 intensive care beds equipped with ventilators and the government said at the start of the outbreak that the health system would struggle to cope with more than 5,000 cases.
It has added another 100 intensive care beds, including with the construction of a temporary facility at a sports centre in Tunis, and has improved readiness at public hospitals around the country, Ben Kelil said.
City and town centres have become far busier since the lockdown was relaxed to allow a wider range of shops to open, with crowded markets and even busy public beaches.
Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh said in a television interview on Tuesday that the government would require about 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion) in external funding this year, double the amount previously expected.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara, Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alison Williams)