Portugal on Monday reopened museums, cafe terraces, and secondary schools nearly two months after tightening Covid-19 curbs following a wave of cases early this year.
There was an explosion of cases following Christmas and New Year festivities which led to overstretched hospitals and the government imposed a general lockdown in the middle of January and closed schools a week later.
There have been nearly 16,900 coronavirus deaths and 823,335 cases so far, according to an official tally on Sunday.
Businesses with close contact with customers — mainly hairdressers, tattoo parlours, and beauty shops — will be shut at least until that date.
In the new rules, the “outside bubble”, the maximum number of people with which you are allowed to be in public, will be reduced from 10 to four.
The school closure will begin a week ahead of a two-week Easter holiday, with the government trying to limit the impact on parents.
With Belgium already subject to a night curfew, a work-from-home edict and a general travel ban into and out of the country, the blame was put on the spread of the UK variant of the virus, which is more contagious and can have more severe effects.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the first to be inoculated Wednesday as South Africa launched its coronavirus vaccine campaign using Johnson & Johnson jabs, after the rollout was delayed.
South Africa earlier this month received a million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca formula but halted administering it over concerns it would not protect against a widespread variant.
A nurse who works in a maternity ward at a hospital in Khayelitsha township in Cape Town was the first to be immunised, hours after the first batch of 80,000 doses landed in the country late Tuesday.
She looked relaxed as she received the jab, which was broadcast on live television.
After five healthcare workers got their jabs, it was Ramaphosa’s turn.
Before taking off his jacket and rolling up his white shirt’s long sleeves for the injection, he asked the nurse who was administering the jab if there would be any side effects.
“This day represents a real milestone for us as South Africans that finally the vaccines are here and they are being administered,” he said as he left the hospital to go to parliament.
He was upbeat that the rollout will be “flawless”.
“This is a new era for us,” he said.
South Africa late Tuesday took delivery of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines at an event that was closed to the press, in contrast to the fanfare two weeks ago when it received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs.
The new vaccines, only recently approved by the national health authorities, were distributed to 32 vaccination centres overnight.
The stock is part of a consignment of nine million doses that South Africa secured from the American pharmaceutical giant.
The first doses will target healthcare workers as part of a study by the country’s medical research authority.
Another 420,000 doses will be delivered over the next four weeks.
The country — the worst affected by the virus in Africa — suspended its vaccine rollout after a study found the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab failed to prevent mild and moderate illness caused by a variant found in South Africa.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven to be 57 effective against the variant, identified as 501Y.V2.
South Africa has recorded nearly 1.5 million coronavirus infections, including more than 48,000 deaths.
It is emerging from a second wave of infections — fuelled by the new strain of the virus — and has seen the number of daily new cases drop from highs of 20,000 in early January to slightly over 1,000 this week.
Khayelitsha, a sprawling township and home to at least 400,000 people — became a hotspot during the first wave when it was identified as worst hit in the country.
Zanzibar’s first vice president, Seif Sharif Hamad, who led the island’s opposition for three decades, died Wednesday, the president said, after he had been hospitalised for over three weeks with coronavirus.
Tanzania and its semi-autonomous island Zanzibar have played down the threat of the virus, which President John Magufuli claims has been fended off by prayer.
However, Hamad’s ACT-Wazalendo party announced in January that the 77-year-old had been hospitalised with the virus, as part of rising evidence of a surge in cases in the country.
“Hamad died this morning at Muhimbili National Hospital in Dar es Salaam where he was hospitalised,” Zanzibar president Ali Hassan Mwinyi said in a short speech broadcast by state-run ZBC television.
“The nation has really lost a patriotic leader. I also declare seven days of mourning and the national flag will fly at half-mast.”
Magufuli also expressed his condolences in a message on Twitter.
Neither leader mentioned the cause of death.
Hamad was born on the island of Pemba, part of the Zanzibar archipelago.
He was a member of Tanzania’s sole ruling party, the CCM, and served as Chief Minister of Zanzibar until being expelled and imprisoned for two years from 1989 to 1991.
In 1992, when Tanzania adopted a multiparty system, Hamad formed the Civic United Front (CUF) party, the main opposition on Zanzibar.
He would go on to face off against CCM candidates in six elections on the volatile island — once a centre of the Arab slave trade — where sectarian and political tensions have always been more marked than on the mainland.
Hamad’s CUF was long seen as more aligned with the old Arab oligarchy, calling for independence from the mainland, however increasingly was supported by African Zanzibaris fed up with economic woes on the island, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a 2019 report.
Hamad alleged that every election was stolen from him, and many foreign observers have agreed. Zanzibar’s elections have often ended in bloodshed.
In 2020, Hamad quit the CUF and ran under the banner of the ACT-Wazalendo opposition party, in an election that saw a brutal crackdown on the islands.
Hamad was arrested twice during the election and his party spokesman Ismail Jussa mercilessly beaten by security forces.
The island teemed with soldiers, police and a militia linked to the ruling party known as “zombies” — clad in black with their faces covered by bandanas — who were feared for rounding up and beating civilians at random.
“We are ready to die for Zanzibar,” Hamad said at his final election rally.
In December, his party decided to join a unity government in a bid to “heal the nation”, and Hamad was named first vice president
Britain’s shuttered pubs urgently need the government to decide when they can reopen from coronavirus lockdown to help them survive, the British Beer and Pub Association said on Wednesday.
Pub beer sales slumped by 56 percent or £7.8 billion ($10.8 billion, 8.9 billion euros) last year on the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, which sparked a series of lockdowns, the industry body added in a statement.
“This is not sustainable for our sector. We cannot continue to hold out under these circumstances,” noted BBPA Chairman Philip Whitehead.
“We urge the government to provide clarity to our sector on when it can expect to fully reopen.”
Much of the UK re-entered lockdown in early January to curb a variant Covid-19 strain that was deemed more transmissible, with restrictions similar to initial curbs imposed in the second quarter of 2020 — when pub beer sales collapsed to almost zero.
However, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to outline plans for lifting widespread restrictions in England on February 22, as vaccinations gather pace.
The BBPA, which represents 20,000 drinking establishments across the UK, also published its own “recovery roadmap” on Tuesday which it said should be implemented after the vulnerable have been vaccinated.
“The roadmap states that post vaccination of the most vulnerable, pubs must reopen when non-essential retail and other parts of the hospitality sector reopen,” it said.
“It also says that mandatory trading restrictions — such as alcoholic drinks served only with a substantial meal, no mixed households and the 10 pm (2200 GMT) curfew — must be removed when pubs reopen in a timely way.”
Sales had collapsed in 2020 from the previous year, despite a third-quarter boost from lower taxation and the government’s temporary “Eat Out to Help Out” discount scheme.
“As a sector we have invested hundreds of millions in ensuring that we provide places for people to safely socialise in,” added Whitehead.
“When pubs reopened in July we did so safely and successfully to world leading standards.
“When pubs can reopen, the restrictions they face… must be removed. They simply destroy the ability to operate as viable businesses.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government wants to extend strict pandemic curbs until March 14, according to a draft text seen by AFP on Wednesday, even as Germans grow increasingly weary of the shutdowns.
Coronavirus infection numbers have come down in Europe’s top economy after more than three months of shutdowns, but fears are growing over more contagious virus variants first detected in Britain and South Africa.
The new strains “are spreading especially quickly and require significant additional efforts”, the government said in a draft document that still needs to be approved by leaders of Germany’s 16 states.
Merkel and the state premiers are due to hold crunch talks later on Wednesday to decide the next steps in their pandemic response.
Under Germany’s federal system, regional states have significant decision-making powers and some have strayed from the government line in the past to loosen some restrictions.
The draft text stresses that schools and daycare centres should be “the first to gradually reopen”, but that it is for individual states to decide how and when.
South Africa will begin its coronavirus inoculation campaign with Johnson & Johnson vaccines, the health minister said on Wednesday, after withholding the Oxford/AstraZeneca formula over doubts about effectiveness.
The country worst-hit by the pandemic in Africa has suspended its vaccine rollout — meant to begin with Oxford/AstraZeneca this week — after scientists found the shot failed to prevent mild and moderate illness caused by a local virus variant known as 501Y.V2.
“Given the outcomes of the efficacy studies…, (government) will continue with the planned phase one vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines instead of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a press briefing.
“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant.”
He did not say when immunisation would begin.
To date South Africa has ordered nine million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines, of which a small shipment is expected to arrive next week.
“Nevertheless, recent UK and global activity has been affected by an increase in Covid cases, including from newly identified strains of the virus, and the associated reimposition of restrictions.”
Much of the UK re-entered lockdown in early January to curb variant strains that are deemed more transmissible, with restrictions similar to initial Covid curbs imposed in the second quarter of 2020.
However, more than 10 million people in the UK have now received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The BoE meanwhile noted Thursday that Britain and the European Union reached a trade agreement that has applied since January 1, averting a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
And it signalled that Britain would likely avoid a double-dip recession with marginal growth expected in the final three months of last year.
– Negative rates eyed –
The BoE also declared Thursday that it was “appropriate” to start preparations for the potential introduction of negative interest rates in six months’ time.
A negative interest rate would likely see retail banks further cutting their own borrowing costs, which would be unwelcome news for savers but a boost for borrowers.
The radical policy — which has already been employed by the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank — has been under consideration for some time in Britain.
“Commercial banks need at least six months to prepare for negative rates and the central bank has now put them on notice, potentially paving the way for negative interest rates from August,” noted AJ Bell analyst Laith Khalaf.
“It’s likely markets will take this as a negative sign for longer term UK interest rate policy, even if it is designed simply to cover all bases as the pandemic continues to elevate economic uncertainty.”
The BoE said that the economy was about eight percent smaller in the fourth quarter than before the pandemic began in early 2020.
It expects gross domestic product to shrink by about four percent in the first quarter of this year, reversing a forecast for growth.
In response to the pandemic, the BoE and UK government have pumped billions of pounds into the British economy to stimulate growth and protect jobs.
The central bank added Thursday that it had maintained its quantitative easing stimulus programme at £895 billion ($1.2 trillion, 1.0 trillion euros).
The government has so far spent about £300 billion in emergency measures to combat economic fallout, including a costly subsidy for private sector wages.
The 41 million doses were secured as part of efforts by an African Union task team to help countries on the continent gain equitable access to vaccines.
Also, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres said Thursday that conscious efforts have to be made to ensure that vaccines get to everyone.
Shortly after receiving his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in New York City, Guterres said the world must come together if progress is to be made.
Globally, at least 2,191,865 people have died from the virus since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to an AFP tally from official sources.
More than 101,436,360 cases have been registered.
The US remains the country that has suffered the highest toll with 433,206 deaths, followed by Brazil with 221,547 and Mexico with 155,145.
The number of deaths globally is, however, said to be underestimated as the toll is calculated from daily figures published by national health authorities and does not include later revisions by statistics agencies.