Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is recommending that the annual gathering of world leaders in late September, which was supposed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, be dramatically scaled back because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Guterres suggested in a letter to the president of the General Assembly that heads of state and government deliver prerecorded messages instead, with only one New York-based diplomat from each of the 193 UN member nations present in the General Assembly Hall.

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Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande has said a decision on the annual gathering will be made after consultations with UN member states.

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The meeting of world leaders usually brings thousands of government officials, diplomats and civil society representatives to New York for over a week of speeches, dinners, receptions, one-on-one meetings and hundreds of side events.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Government House in Auckland in May, 2019. Photo / Peter Meecham, file
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Government House in Auckland in May, 2019. Photo / Peter Meecham, file

This year was expected to bring an especially large number of leaders to UN headquarters to celebrate the founding of the United Nations in 1945 on the ashes of World War II.

But New York has been an epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic with over 190,000 cases and nearly 16,000 confirmed deaths.

Guterres said in the letter, first reported by the Press Trust of India and obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press, that although September is some months away "the medical community anticipates that the pandemic will continue to cycle with varying degrees of severity, depending on the ability of the affected nation to implement aggressive identification, testing, tracing and containment measures".

"It is expected, therefore, that international travel restrictions may remain in place for some destinations — meaning quarantines might affect travelers to and from New York City," he said.

While the General Assembly could consider postponing the high-level meeting to a date in 2021, he said it would be better to hold it at the start of the new General Assembly session in September.

This will allow the UN's work "to continue uninterrupted, albeit in a different format, and for world leaders to convey their views on important international issues, including on the international response to the pandemic, as well as to hear the views of other leaders", Guterres said.

General Assembly spokeswoman Reem Abaza reiterated Tuesday that "no decision has been made yet" regarding the annual gathering.

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Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website