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Thursday, December 9, 2021

COVID in Europe: Czechs declare state of emergency as Portugal reinstates restrictions

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COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in various parts of Europe as the cold weather has affected the spread of the virus.

Countries on the Old Continent are attempting to curb the spike through various means – from a national lockdown in Austria, to limiting access to certain services elsewhere or pushing for an increase in vaccination rates.

Around 60% of people in Western Europe are fully immunised against COVID-19, but only about half as many are vaccinated in Eastern Europe.

Brussels has said that everyone should receive a booster shot six months after being fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, its digital COVID certificate — used for cross-border travel — will expire nine months after the last vaccine dose.

Concerns over a new variant in South Africa prompted the United Kingdom and Israel to impose new travel curbs.

The World Health Organization has warned Europe and Central Asia could face another 700,000 COVID-19 deaths by March 1. It said deaths due to COVID-19 rose to nearly 4,200 per day last week — a doubling of levels recorded at the end of September.

Here is a run-down of the latest situation in some of the European countries.

Czech Republic

The Czech government declared a 30-day state of emergency and imposed additional coronavirus restrictions on Thursday.

The state of emergency comes into effect on Friday and is a powerful legal tool that makes it possible to restrict people’s rights.

Among the other measures, all Christmas markets across the country are banned while it’s also banned to drink alcohol in public places, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said.

Furthermore, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, discotheques and casinos have to close at 10 p.m.

The number of people at culture and sports events will be limited to 1,000 who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19.

All other public gatherings can be attended by up to 100 visitors, down from 1,000.

The government’s decision came after the daily tally in new coronavirus cases hit a new record of almost 26,000 on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis also said the government has been considering mandatory vaccination for certain groups of people, including the elderly, medical and military personnel and police officers.

“I think it’s inevitable,” Babis said.

Just over 58% of the Czech population has been fully vaccinated.

Portugal

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa announced on Thursday that the country will reintroduce tighter pandemic restrictions.

It comes less than two months after the country scrapped most curbs when the goal of vaccinating 86% of the population against COVID-19 was reached.

A recent rise in coronavirus infections compelled the government to act, Costa told a press conference, though he noted that his country hasn’t seen a surge on the scale witnessed elsewhere in Europe.

From December 1, wearing a face mask will once again be mandatory in enclosed spaces; a digital certificate proving vaccination or recovery from the coronavirus must be shown to enter restaurants, cinemas and hotels; and even inoculated people must have a negative test to visit hospitals, elderly care homes, sports events and bars and discos.

Furthermore, everyone arriving on a flight from abroad must present a negative test result.

The measures are needed, Costa said, because of the surge in cases in some other EU countries, because the approaching winter commonly brings more respiratory infections, and because families will be in close contact at Christmas.

Authorities say there is currently no need for another lockdown in Portugal, as hospitals are coping.

The General Directorate for Health officially reported 3,150 new cases Thursday. The number of patients requiring hospitalisation was the highest since September.

Belgium

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Thursday his country had recorded an uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalisations far worse than feared, after reimposing tougher pandemic rules last week.

The surge exceeded “the most pessimistic curves” drawn last week by experts, he said in a statement.

“The latest data gathered show that the… situation has considerably deteriorated,” he added, ahead of an urgent meeting Friday to discuss imposing further measures.

Last week, De Croo’s government announced the reimposition of tougher COVID-19 rules, including mandatory home working for some and compulsory mask-wearing.

Violence broke out Sunday during a 35,000-strong Brussels street protest against the measures.

Netherlands

Prime Minister Mark Rutte is expected to announce tighter COVID-19 restrictions at a press conference on Friday which could include closing bars, restaurants and non-essential shops at 5pm.

New restrictions risk sparking further protests after four nights of unrest across the country.

In the port city of Rotterdam, five rioters were shot by police.

At least 173 people were arrested nationwide.

The tighter curbs will come just days after the Dutch caretaker government implemented a partial lockdown on November 13, forcing bars and restaurants to close at 8 pm.

The soaring number of cases in this nation of 17.5 million comes despite more than 84% of the Dutch adult population being fully vaccinated. Cases rose sharply among children aged 4-12, most of whom have yet to be inoculated.

The Netherlands recorded 22,274 new infections on Thursday, some 1,488 less than on Wednesday.

Germany

Official figures released on Thursday show Germany has become the latest country to pass the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Germany’s disease control agency says it recorded 351 additional deaths in connection with the coronavirus over the past 24 hours, taking the total toll to 100,119.

In Europe, Germany is the fifth country to pass that mark, after Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

It comes amid a fierce debate over whether Germany should introduce mandatory vaccination.

Already, the country’s defence ministry has said it could require German soldiers to have COVID jab.

Earlier in the week health minister Jens Spahn warned Germans will be “vaccinated, cured or dead” by the end of the winter.

Chancellor Angela Merkel already announced the government will introduce tighter COVID-19 restrictions on unvaccinated citizens.

In most regions, only the vaccinated and those who have recovered from the virus will be able to access public places such as restaurants or concert halls.

The country’s lower house of parliament the Bundestag voted on Thursday in favour of new restrictions. The plans include new restrictions for the workplace and public transport.

The measures were proposed by the three parties expected to form the next coalition: the Social Democrats (SPD), the liberals and the greens.

Slovakia

Slovakia declared a 90-day state of emergency and a two-week lockdown following a spike in COVID-19 cases that saw the country’s seven-day average of cases rise above 10,000.

The central European country is currently in the midst of the world’s fastest rise in infections, and the measures, which include closing all non-essential stores, as well as bars and restaurants, are meant to help the struggling healthcare system.

The decision came after president Zuzana Čaputová addressed the nation on Tuesday, saying that “Slovakia is losing the battle against COVID.” She also explained that the lockdown was needed as the healthcare staff became overworked, and the strain on the hospitals became almost unbearable.

During the two-week lockdown, people will be allowed to leave their homes only for specific reasons, such as buying groceries, travelling to work and school, or getting vaccinated.

Those still unvaccinated will be required to have a test or proof that they have had COVID-19 in order to get to work.

Just 45.3% of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated.

Thousands in both Czech and Slovakian capitals, Prague and Bratislava, used last week’s anniversary of the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution to rally against their government’s coronavirus restrictions.

France

The epidemic in France is “deteriorating”, the government has said as the country reported more than 30,000 new daily cases.

Health minister Olivier Véran announced on Thursday (November 25) that booster doses would be available for everyone over the age of 18 and that masks would be required in all indoor settings.

From 15 January, all adults will need a booster jab at least seven months after being fully vaccinated in order to keep their health passes.

From mid-December, people over the age of 65 will need one to have their health passes extended.

Prime Minister Jean Castex tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday (November 22) at a time when more and more people are coming down with the virus.

Some 76,8% of France’s 67.4 million people are fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures.

“There are nine times more critical care admissions and deaths among the unvaccinated than among the vaccinated,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.

Italy

The Italian government on Wednesday decided to exclude unvaccinated people from certain leisure activities in a bid to contain rising coronavirus infections and avoid financially crippling lockdowns.

Starting December 6, only people with proof of vaccination or of having recovered from COVID-19 can eat at indoor restaurants, go to the movies or attend sporting events. Having just a negative test result is no longer acceptable in what was dubbed a “reinforced” or super green pass.

A new government decree also made vaccinations mandatory for law enforcement, military, and all school employees, among others. Previously, vaccines were only required for health care workers.

Twenty towns in Italy’s South Tyrol province face harsher COVID-19 restrictions from Wednesday (November 24) with an 8 pm curfew due to high infections and low vaccinations.

On public transport, passengers must wear an FFP2 mask or equivalent.

Earlier in November, Italy tightened its green pass rules in an attempt to slow down the infection rate before the end-of-the-year holiday season.

According to the new set of restrictions, trains can now be stopped in case any of the passengers appear to have COVID symptoms, while all taxi drivers are required to have a valid green pass, with the limit of two passengers seated in the back also becoming mandatory.

Italy has already updated its international travel rules in late October. The five-grade system can effectively ban entry for anything except work and family reasons depending on the tier of the country of origin, but most European countries are still in the middle “C” tier. However, this might change by December 15, when the rules are supposed to be updated.

The country’s authorities reported 44 COVID-related deaths on Monday (November 15), an uptick from 36 the day before. The number of infections went down, from 7,569 on Sunday to 5,144. Italy still has the second-highest overall death toll on the continent, with 132,819 deaths from COVID placing it right after the UK.

Austria

Austria has gone back into a national lockdown as of Monday (November 22), becoming the first EU country to take such a measure in the face of the COVID-19 resurgence.

The lockdown will last at least 10 days but could extend to 20, officials said.

Conservative Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has also said that vaccination will become compulsory from February 1.

The announcement came a few days after the country implemented a nationwide lockdown for people who are unvaccinated, which came into force on November 15, but this did not slow the spread of the virus sufficiently.

People 12 years and older are banned from going outside except for essential activities such as work, attending classes, grocery shopping, or for a walk. The number of police patrols has been increased and those found breaking the rules can be fined up to €1,450.

“In the long term, the way out of this vicious circle we are in — and it is a vicious circle, we are stumbling from wave to lockdown, and that can’t carry on ad infinitum — is only vaccination,” Schallenberg said earlier this week.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), just over 64% of the population was fully vaccinated by November 19, slightly below the EU average (65.5%). Coronavirus cases have continued to rise, hitting a record daily total of 15,809 on Friday.

Authorities in Austria said on November 17 that travellers would need to show a negative PCR test upon entering the country. Previously, results from the cheaper lateral flow tests were allowed.

Russia

Russia’s record high coronavirus death toll persisted for a second straight day on Saturday, as the number of new infections declined.

The state coronavirus task force reported 1,254 COVID-19 deaths, matching Friday’s tally.

The task force also reported 37,120 new confirmed cases. The daily new infections in recent weeks appear to have a downward trend but still remain higher than during previous surges of the virus.

The latest surge in infections and deaths comes amid low vaccination rates and lax public attitudes toward taking precautions. About 40% of Russia’s nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though the country approved a domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine months before most of the world.

On Sunday president Vladimir Putin announced that he had received a third dose of the COVID vaccine.

In total, the coronavirus task force has reported nearly 9.3 million confirmed infections and 262,843 COVID-19 deaths, by far the highest death toll in Europe.

Some experts believe the true figure is even higher.

Greece

Greece announced a variety of new coronavirus-related restrictions on Thursday, aimed at putting additional pressure on those who have not yet been vaccinated.

They include tougher limits on access to non-essential indoor venues and a seven-month expiration date on passes for over-60 year-olds who have not yet had a booster shot.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he believed the measures would help “those who are still hesitant” to change their minds and get vaccinated.

“From next Monday, all adult unvaccinated citizens, in addition to catering, will not enter other indoor areas, not even if they carry test results: In cinemas, theatres, museums or gyms,” he said.

Greece is suffering its highest rate of confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic with deaths at their worst level in six months.

About two-thirds of all Greeks are now fully vaccinated and three-in-four adults. But the numbers vary wildly around the country: the northern regions, in particular, have a very low rate — well under 50% in some places.

Sweden

The Swedish government has announced that from December 1 a health pass will be required to attend any event of more than 100 people. The COVID pass — attesting that the holder has either been fully vaccinated, tested negative over the previous 72 hours or recovered from the disease over the preceding six months — has so far only been used in Sweden for travel purposes.

The government also reversed its November 1 decision to stop testing fully vaccinated people.

Even though Sweden is currently recording few cases — the daily average over the previous seven days is 840 cases — the country “is not isolated from the rest of the world”, health minister Lena Hallengren told reporters on Wednesday.

Restaurants and bars are exempt for the time being.

Sweden lifted almost all its anti-Covid restrictions by the end of September due to the progress of its vaccination programme and the good epidemic situation.

The country currently has an incidence rate of 85.8 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the past 14 days, according to the WHO — one of the lowest rates in Europe and far behind its neighbours Norway and Denmark, which are now experiencing a surge in cases after lifting most of their health measures.

Ireland

New COVID-19 restrictions came into force in Ireland on Thursday (November 18) due to high rates of infection that have put pressure on hospitals.

People were told to work from home unless attending the workplace is “absolutely necessary”. A requirement for COVID-19 passes (based on vaccination or recovery) is extended to cinemas and theatres, while closing times for all on-licensed premises, including in hotels, will move to midnight.

With immediate effect, household close contacts who are fully vaccinated and showing no symptoms should restrict their movements until they have 3 negative antigen test results taken within a 5-day period.

Announcing the measures, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said that without the country’s massive vaccination campaign, Ireland would be in “total lockdown”. Nearly 90% of people over 12 years old are fully vaccinated.

The measures follow stark warnings from health officials, who say modelling predicts a steep rise in case numbers and hospital admissions under the most pessimistic scenarios.

Ukraine

As the daily death toll in the country reached a record-breaking 832 on Tuesday (November 16), Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that those who receive two jabs of the vaccine will be given a payment of 1,000 hryvnias, or about 33 euros in an attempt to alleviate vaccination reluctance.

The average nominal wage in Ukraine was around 13 thousand hryvnias earlier in 2021, while the minimum salary rests at six thousand, according to the country’s State Statistics Service.

Statistics on how many people received both doses vary greatly, with reports claiming that it stands anywhere between 20 and 28 per cent. The country of 41 million has been in the throes of the latest wave for weeks, forcing a reintroduction of significant restrictions in several cities, including Kyiv.

Switzerland

After nearly 4,000 new cases were reported on November 12, Tanja Stadler, head of the country’s COVID-19 Task Force said that hospitals might have to admit up to 30,000 COVID patients this winter, according to the Swiss outlet Le Matin.

About 64.9% of the alpine country’s population is fully vaccinated according to the latest figures. Meanwhile, anti-vaxxers demonstrated against a government-led vaccination drive, with riot police having to protect public vaccination sites in places like Zurich.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria has topped the list of countries worldwide in the number of COVID-related deaths. With the latest figure reaching 283.68 deaths per one million inhabitants, the wave in this Balkan country has still not relented.

The grim situation has deteriorated to the point where hospitals in Bulgaria are forced to temporarily suspend all non-emergency surgeries so more doctors can treat the influx of COVID-19 patients.

At the same time, parents across the country have protested a measure demanding that schoolchildren be tested once a week in order for in-person classes to resume. Protests against the Green Passes also entered their third week.

Bulgaria, which held its third general elections of the year on Sunday, has the lowest double vaccination rate among EU member states, sitting squarely at about 23%.

Romania

Like Bulgaria, Romania has found itself in the throes of a deadly spike in cases, with reports claiming that the morgue in the main hospital in the capital has run out of space for the dead in recent days.

Five European countries — Italy, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and Poland — offered to help Romania treat as many patients in critical condition as possible, and just last Wednesday, four Romanians with severe forms of COVID-19 were flown to Italy.

Although the cases seem to be on a downward trajectory, the current bi-weekly average of 724.42 citizens testing positive for COVID-19 is still considered to be grave in a country of 19.29 million.​

Serbia

In Serbia, the rate of fully vaccinated citizens has slowed down significantly since May and remains at 43%, despite the country’s initial success in procuring a large number of vaccines by several different producers as early as January.

The country of almost 7 million has been averaging at least five thousand cases per day since mid-September.

The government responded by reintroducing some light measures, such as bars, cafes, restaurants, and other public venues requesting their guests present a COVID pass after 10 pm.

Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić’s statement last month that she “doesn’t believe in [going back to] the same measures that were implemented before the vaccines,” pondering the purpose of the vaccines altogether if lockdowns continue to be a necessity, has come under heavy scrutiny.

Some doctors are now threatening to sue her due to conditions in certain hospitals that forced the medical workers to focus exclusively on treating COVID patients. Brnabić has rejected that criticism, saying on Thursday that she is proud of her government’s response.

Meanwhile, authorities at the graveyard in Belgrade say they have an average of 65 burials a day, compared to between 35 and 40 before the pandemic. Gravediggers are forced to bury people on Sundays — which typically they didn’t — to handle the load.

Croatia

Soaring infections appear to have been a wake-up call to some extent in Croatia, which saw unusually large lines of people waiting for vaccines in recent days.

Authorities said on Wednesday (November 17) that more than 15,000 people received their first dose a day earlier — a significant jump after vaccinations had all but halted in the Adriatic country of 4.2 million.

At the same time, anti-vaxxers held vigils in a number of cities in the country after the government announced plans to introduce mandatory COVID passes for government and public employees, including school teachers.

Some protesters were seen wearing a yellow Star of David, imitating those forced on the European Jewry in Nazi Germany, local outlet Index.hr reported.

North Macedonia

The country’s health authorities might have to bin about 30 thousand doses of AstraZeneca vaccines that are about to expire, according to local outlets’ reports on Tuesday (November 16).

The soon-to-be inert AstraZeneca doses are only used as a second vaccine for those age 60 and above, which further complicates the issue.

Health experts in the country are warning that North Macedonia might be headed towards a major peak in the upcoming weeks, especially considering a relatively low vaccination rate of 37% and the ongoing waves in neighbouring countries like Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria.

Latvia

Last month, Latvia introduced a nighttime curfew from 20:00 to 05:00 due to the worsening coronavirus situation in the Baltic country of 1.9 million. Most stores were closed, and indoor and outdoor gatherings, including entertainment, sports, and cultural events weren’t allowed.

As these restrictions ended on Monday (November 15), the government has now revised its measures, allowing for those with certificates proving vaccination or recovery to access all services.

Restrictions are still in place for the unvaccinated, who can as of Monday only do basic things outside of their homes, such as grocery shopping or travel with public transportation.

The country also banned unvaccinated MPs from attending parliament and participating in meetings.

Latvia is still seeing a significant number of cases emerge, with a bi-weekly average of 1,533.33 testing positive per 100,000 inhabitants.

Denmark

On November 12, Denmark reintroduced its digital pass as it declared COVID-19 “a socially critical disease” once again amid an increase in cases.

For the next month, a valid pass is mandatory in order to enter nightclubs or cafes or to be seated indoors in restaurants.

People above the age of 15 must show their pass when attending outdoor events where the number of people exceeds 2,000.

The Danish pass app shows a QR code with a green banner if the holder is fully vaccinated or received the first dose at least two weeks ago, has recently recovered from COVID-19 or has had a negative test in the past 72 hours. A paper version is also available.

Watch the full interview with the WHO special envoy on COVID-19 David Nabarro in the video player above.

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