Germany to ease virus curbs for vaccinated people

COVID-19

People who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer have to abide by curfews and contact restrictions in Germany under a draft law agreed by the cabinet on Tuesday.

The law, which would also apply to people who have recovered from COVID-19, must still be signed off by parliament but could come into force as early as this week, Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said.

There must be a “good reason” for any restrictions on public life, Lambrecht said. “As soon as this reason ceases to exist… these restrictions should then no longer be in place,” she said.

Under national measures introduced in April, areas of Germany with an incidence rate of more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over the last seven days must introduce overnight curfews and people may only meet with one other person from another household during the day.

But people who have been vaccinated, or who have recovered from COVID and therefore have natural immunity, should in future be exempt from these rules, Lambrecht said.

The draft law seen by AFP would also exempt vaccinated and recovered people from quarantine rules for people returning from abroad, even from areas deemed high risk.

No more tests

Areas of Germany with incidence rates under 100 are currently allowed to open shops, restaurants, cinemas and other facilities, but only to people who can provide a negative test.

Under the new regulations, vaccinated and recovered people would also be exempt from this requirement.

Some German states, including Berlin and Bavaria, have already announced plans to scrap the negative test requirement for vaccinated people when they go shopping or visit the hairdresser.

The Bavarian cabinet on Tuesday also signed off a plan to allow hotels, holiday homes and campsites to open in regions with low incidence rates from May 21.

However, Bavaria’s iconic Oktoberfest beer festival, which usually attracts millions annually in September and October, will be cancelled this year for the second year running.

Germany has been in some form of virus shutdown since November, with numbers of new infections remaining consistently high amid an initially sluggish vaccination campaign.

But the campaign has since picked up pace, with more than a million jabs issued in one day last week, and new infection numbers have started to come down.

The Robert Koch Institute health agency recorded 7,534 new infections in the past 24 hours on Tuesday and 315 deaths, with a national incidence rate of 141.4.

But despite these successes, critics say it is too soon to be lifting restrictions.

Ute Teichert, the head of the Federal Association of German Public Health Officers, said it was “imperative that vaccinated people continue to be tested”.

“Without comprehensive testing, we will lose sight of the incidence of infections—especially with regard to virus variants,” she told the Funke media group on Tuesday.

MP and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach said it was reasonable to lift some restrictions for vaccinated people, but restaurants, bars and other facilities should not be reopened just for them.

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Serbia to impose weekend curbs after virus surge

Virus

Serbia will shut down all but essential businesses over the weekend to combat a spike in new coronavirus cases, the government-appointed crisis team said Friday.

Under the new measures only food stores, pharmacies and gas stations will be open from noon on Saturday until Monday morning.

While the Balkan state has become one of the world’s fastest vaccinators in recent weeks, it has nevertheless recorded a steep surge in infections, logging around 4,000 new cases daily this week.

Doctors on the government’s pandemic task force have been urging a lockdown, warning that the new cases are overstretching the health system to a “catastrophic” level.

The group’s leading epidemiologist Predrag Kon said that while he believes the weekend measures are “clearly insufficient”, it was a compromise with officials on the task force led by Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.

Serbia’s government has long resisted tougher restrictions that would inflict further damage on the economy or trigger the type of protests that erupted against a proposed lockdown last July.

“These are the decisions. What happened behind that door, I’ll leave it there”, Kon said after the crisis group meeting.

Serbia’s restaurants and bars have been packed in recent weeks, with 8pm mandatory closures skirted by some underground party venues.

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Top US health official says not time to end COVID-19 curbs

mask

A top US health official warned Wednesday that measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 had to stay in place if the pandemic is to be beaten, after Texas dropped its mask-wearing mandate.

The United States has recorded over 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, but has recently made progress with its vaccination plan and some states are easing controls—triggering alarm from health experts and the federal government.

“Now is not the time to release all restrictions… the next month or two is really pivotal in terms of how this pandemic goes,” said Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Every individual is empowered to do the right thing here regardless of what the states decide… I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance.”

Biden has hailed recent success in distributing vaccines but stressed that Americans should continue to wear masks as his administration tries to quell the soaring death toll and the risk posed by new virus variants.

“The president is 100 percent behind Doctor Walensky and the CDC’s recommendations,” White House coronavirus advisor Andy Slavitt said, speaking after Walensky at a coronavirus briefing.

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Virus surge pushes Spain regions to tighten curbs

COVID

Just days after Spain counted a record number of daily infections following the Christmas holidays, several regions moved Friday to further tighten restrictions on social life.

In Madrid, the regional government pulled forward its nightly curfew from midnight to 11 pm with restaurants and bars to close an hour before in a move that takes effect on Monday.

It also recommended avoiding social gatherings at home, and confined 19 municipalities where no-one can enter or leave the area except in exceptional circumstances.

Aragon in the northeast also confined its three biggest cities, including Zaragoza, while the central Castile and Leon region urged residents to stay home “as much as possible” and pulled forward its curfew to 8 pm.

The northern Basque Country is also planning to start its curfew at 6 pm as is the case in neighbouring France.

Under Spain’s decentralised political system, its 17 regions are responsible for handling the pandemic, although the central government could intervene to declare a national lockdown as it did in March.

So far, the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has resisted following the lead of other European nations which have reimposed lockdowns, arguing its highly-localised restrictions are enough.

Spain on Wednesday reported nearly 39,000 new infections, its highest-ever daily number, with another 35,000 on Thursday.

And over the past month, the incidence rate has more than doubled to 523 cases per 100,000 residents, Thursday’s figures showed, with the health ministry’s emergencies coordinator Fernando Simon blaming the seasonal festivities.

But he said the new more-contagious virus strain which was first detected in Britain has so far “had very little impact”.

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Fresh curbs for England and Italy as US sets new case record

England’s 56 million people joined much of western Europe in a second coronavirus lockdown Thursday, as the United States set a fresh daily record with close to 100,000 new infections.

European governments are struggling to contain a fresh wave of the pandemic, which has now infected more than 11 million across the continent.

The new stay-at-home orders from London came as Denmark said it would cull its entire population of more than 15 million minks after a mutation of the virus was found to have spread to people from the otter-like mammals.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an England-wide shutdown as daily death tolls hit their worst levels since May and with warnings that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed.

It prompted crowds across the nation to queue outside soon-to-close shops, book a last-minute haircut or head to the pub for a final pint, as business owners fretted over the impact of the lockdown on their bottom line.

“We will be paying this off for years,” said Joe Curran, landlord of The Queen’s Head pub in central London. “This lockdown will cost us thousands on top of the thousands so far.”

The new restrictions run until December 2 and mandate a return to working from home where possible, along with the closure of all non-essential shops and services. Schools will stay open.

Britain is among the world’s hardest-hit countries with just over a million virus cases and nearly 48,000 deaths.

England’s lockdown follows similar measures in the other nations of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—as well as France and Germany.

Parts of Italy will join that list from Friday, with shops selling non-essential goods to be shut in hard-hit areas and people largely confined to their homes except for work, health and emergency reasons.

Authorities have also announced a nationwide curfew between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am.

“We don’t have alternatives,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said during a televised press conference on Wednesday night.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said he had no plans for a lockdown but that resolve may be tested after the country set two new records Wednesday—for daily infections, at nearly 20,000, and daily death toll, at nearly 400.

Mass mink cull

Other drastic measures were planned for Denmark, where authorities said they would cull the country’s entire mink population “as soon as possible”.

The Scandinavian nation is the world’s largest exporter of mink fur but the creatures have been found to carry a mutated version of the virus that has spread to humans.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that discovery could threaten the effectiveness of any future COVID-19 vaccine.

Two-thirds of Frederiksen’s government is currently in isolation after the justice minister tested positive for the virus.

Several animal species have also tested positive since the COVID-19 pandemic began and there have been reported cases at mink farms in the Netherlands and Spain.

“In a few instances, the minks that were infected by humans have transmitted the virus to other people,” the World Health Organization said in a statement.



The United States recorded its worst ever daily caseload—99,660, according to Johns Hopkins University—as the winner of the country’s presidential election was still being determined.

There were 1,112 deaths Wednesday, according to the same tally.

More than 9.4 million people have been infected and 233,000 have died in the United States since the disease was first detected in China late last year.

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Haircuts and golf in Melbourne as virus curbs ease

Residents of Australia’s second-biggest city flocked to salons and golf courses Monday as some stay-at-home restrictions were eased after coronavirus infection rates fell.

Melbourne’s five million people had been barred from leaving their homes with a few exceptions—including shopping for essentials, exercising, or going to work—for three months.

They still face a litany of travel restrictions and tough-to-remember rules for even the most mundane activities, but will now be able to get a much-needed haircut and do more outdoor socially distanced activities.

“We’re already fully booked until December,” salon owner Daniel Choi told AFP.

“From yesterday, there are so many messages for me: ‘I want a haircut’. They want to change their style.”

Salon owners still have to contend with restrictions on the number of people allowed on the premises at the same time, meaning those eager to correct self-inflicted dye jobs or improvised trims could face a long wait.

But for the lucky first customers there was a sense of elation.

“It’s a sense of relief actually that finally I could get it done,” said customer Karen Ng.

“It’s nice actually to have some normality.”

Golfers can also tee it up again, although they will have to go around in groups of two and, according to Golf Australia, “masks must still be worn when playing”.

“It’s a great sight… GOLFERS ON COURSE!” Green Acres Golf Club tweeted.

But many restrictions remain in place in the city.

Masks are mandatory, restaurants are limited to takeaways and deliveries, non-essential shops have to remain closed and there is a ban on travel outside the greater Melbourne area or more than 25 kilometres (16 miles) from home.

The city’s second round of stay-at-home restrictions began in July, when the state of Victoria saw around 190 new cases a day, rising to 700 in August.

Victoria recorded just four new cases on Monday.

But not everyone was happy with the limited easing, including Australia’s conservative treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who criticised the regional authorities for not going further.

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Madrid region braces for new curbs as virus spirals out of control

At the epicentre of an explosion of new infections in Spain, the Madrid region was to unveil Friday a string of tough restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

Spain is currently battling a second wave of COVID-19 and once again, Madrid is the worst-hit region, with a third of all national cases and deaths.

On Thursday, a top Madrid official admitted the region home to 6.6 million people was overwhelmed by the number of cases, saying it was “urgent” that the Spanish government get involved “decisively to control the pandemic”.

However, a Friday morning appearance by Madrid’s regional president Isabel Diaz Ayuso to unveil the new measures was postponed several times without explanation.

She was expected to speak later in the day.

Regional authorities have already suggested there would be restrictions on movement within the worst-hit neighbourhoods.

Several districts of southern Madrid have counted more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants—far above the national average of 285, which in itself is one of the highest in Europe.

Since the central government ended its state of emergency on June 21, lifting all lockdown restrictions, responsibility for public healthcare and managing the pandemic has been left in the hands of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.

Unprepared

Late on Thursday, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez agreed to meet Diaz Ayuso for emergency talks “to define a common strategy” although the meeting is not due to take place until Monday.

But experts said Madrid’s regional government should have learned from the experiences of other regions which reacted quickly following a surge in cases in July.

“Instead of preparing and learning from what happened in places like Aragon and Catalonia, which have coped better with the epidemic, Madrid and other regions didn’t put the necessary measures in place,” said Salvador Macip, a health sciences expert at Catalonia’s Open University.

“We have found ourselves in a situation which is out of control and did not need to be.”

Regional health officials say Madrid’s healthcare system is under growing pressure with one in five hospital beds occupied by COVID patients.

Santiago Usoz, a medic working at the accident and emergency unit in Madrid’s October 12 hospital, said there was a lack of both beds and staff.

“Intensive care units are overwhelmed with COVID patients,” he told AFP, adding that his hospital had 35 patients needing intensive care but only 32 beds in the ICU.

“Since the start of September, the admissions curve has been steadily rising… In spring the biggest problem was the lack of material, now it’s the lack of human resources.”

Regional figures show there are 2,850 people with COVID in hospital of whom 392 are in intensive care.

Figures from the Spanish health ministry indicate that over the past week, 20,987 people have tested positive for the virus in the region and 138 people have died.

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