Saudi Arabia Suspends Social Distancing, Other COVID-19 Restrictions

Pilgrims Arrive In Mecca For Second Pandemic Hajj
FILE PHOTO: Pilgrims arrive at the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, at the start of the Hajj season, on July 17, 2021. PHOTO:AFP


Saudi Arabia said Saturday it was lifting most COVID-19 restrictions including social distancing in public spaces and quarantine for vaccinated arrivals, moves that could facilitate the arrival of Muslim pilgrims.

The decision includes suspending “social distancing measures in all open and closed places” including mosques, the official Saudi Press Agency cited an interior ministry source as saying.

Masks will only be required in closed spaces, according to the decision, which came into effect on Saturday.

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The Saudi Kingdom, which is home to Islam’s two holiest places in Mecca and Medina, will no longer require vaccinated travellers to provide a negative PCR or rapid test before their arrival in the kingdom or to quarantine, SPA said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hugely disrupted Muslim pilgrimages, which are usually key revenue earners for the kingdom, bringing in some $12 billion annually.

Hosting the pilgrimages is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.

In 2021, the coronavirus outbreak forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the hajj for a second year, and just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom took part.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 746,000 coronavirus cases, 9,000 of them fatal, in a population of some 34 million.


Swiss And Austrians Drop Almost All COVID-19 Restrictions

File photo of people in Austria during a demonstration against the restrictions related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Vienna on January 31, 2021. PHOTO: ALEX HALADA / AFP


Alpine neighbours Switzerland and Austria on Wednesday became the latest European countries to drop almost all of their COVID-19 restrictions despite the virus still circulating strongly.

The Swiss government said the conditions were right for a “rapid normalisation” of national life.

From Thursday, the only remaining coronavirus requirements in Switzerland will be the obligation to self-isolate for five days after a positive test and to wear masks on public transport and in healthcare institutions.

However, those rules will expire at the end of March at the latest.

“The Federal Council took the decision to lift the majority of measures in place to contain the coronavirus pandemic,” the government said in a statement.

“Masks and COVID-19 certificates will no longer be required to enter shops, restaurants, cultural venues, and other public settings and events.

“The requirement to wear masks in the workplace and the recommendation to work from home will also end.”

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said the government would drop most measures from March 5.

Only mask-wearing in essential shops and public transport will remain compulsory, as well as entry restrictions at hospitals and other places with vulnerable groups, he added.

“The outlook shows us that together we can cautiously and prudently but with determination take back the freedom that the virus took,” Nehammer told reporters.

“From March 5, most of the restrictions that are burdening people will be lifted.”

Nehammer warned that the pandemic was not over yet, adding “coronavirus is still part of our lives” and that vaccination “remains important”.

Switzerland and Austria will thus join European countries including the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway in dropping most restrictions.

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“Thanks to the high level of immunity among the population, it is unlikely that the healthcare system will be overburdened despite the continued high level of virus circulation,” the Swiss government said.

“This means that the conditions are in place for a rapid normalisation of social and economic life.”

To get into Switzerland, it will no longer be necessary to provide proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test, or complete an entry form.

Though Covid passes are being dropped domestically, Switzerland will still issue vaccination/recovery certificates that are recognised by the surrounding European Union.

Restrictions on large-scale public events and private gatherings are also being dropped from Thursday.

This month Austria became the first EU country to make coronavirus vaccination mandatory. The law, stipulating fines from mid-March for those who refuse to get jabbed, took effect on February 5.

Nehammer said the government is setting up a commission of health and judicial experts to evaluate the law before penalties are imposed given the new opening up of restrictions.

Switzerland has registered more than 2.6 million Covid-19 cases and over 12,500 deaths during the pandemic while Austria has recorded more than 2.3 million cases with more than 14,400 deaths.

The vaccination rates are almost identical with Switzerland at 70 percent and Austria at 69 percent.


Germany To End Most COVID-19 Restrictions In March

Passengers line up at a Covid-19 test centre at Frankfurt International Airport in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany. PHOTO: Armando BABANI / AFP


Germany will end most government restrictions to fight the coronavirus pandemic in March, according to a draft official plan seen by AFP on Monday, as new infections rates ease.

Two years after the start of the outbreak in Germany, curbs to prevent contagion will begin falling away.

As a first step, contact restrictions will ease allowing more to meet privately, while access to shops will be open to all without checks on whether the individuals are vaccinated or tested.

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From March 4, access to restaurants will be open to unvaccinated people too if they show a negative test.

In a final step, “broad restrictions of social, cultural, and economic life should be gradually lifted by the start of spring on March 20, 2022,” said the draft document to be approved by federal and state leaders on Wednesday.

After that date, Europe’s top economy would rely on “basic protection measures” including “in particular the wearing of medical masks” in public.

Rules requiring employers to allow staff to work from home if possible would also be lifted at that time.

For several weeks, Germany has restricted access to bars and restaurants to people who have received a booster jab of the coronavirus vaccine or who are tested on top of being fully vaccinated or recovered.

Contact restrictions are also in place keeping private gatherings to 10 people, or two households if an unvaccinated person is present.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to meet with leaders of Germany’s 16 states on Wednesday to agree the next steps on dealing with the pandemic.

On Monday, Germany reported 76,465 new Covid-19 infections over the last 24 hours and 42 deaths in the second week in a row to show falling rates.

Germany’s states, which have significant autonomy in implementing restrictions from mask-wearing in public transport to home-schooling, have already begun to gradually ease curbs.


All Travellers To UK To Show Pre-Departure Virus Tests

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 13, 2019 Passengers wait for their flights at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 in west London, on September 13, 2019. – The Supreme Court on December 16, 2020 is set to hand down its judgement on a legal challenge over the Government’s decision to give the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)


The UK government has announced that those travelling into the country will need to show a negative coronavirus test pre-departure as it reintroduces Covid-19 restrictions due to the Omicron variant.

From 0400 GMT on Tuesday, anyone travelling to the UK will have to show evidence of a negative lateral flow or PCR test taken within the last 48 hours before boarding a flight, the health ministry said late Saturday.

This will apply to travellers aged over 12 from any country. Currently travellers have to take a PCR test within two days of arrival.

The reintroduction of compulsory pre-departure testing prompted an angry response from the travel industry.

The Business Travel Association said that the measure would be a “hammer blow”, while the Airport Operators Association said that “pre-departure tests are a devastating blow, as they deter people from travelling”.

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Justice Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News that he knew the new measure was a “burden for the travel industry” but stressed the UK needed to act.

“We’ve got to take the measures targeted forensically to stop the new variant seeding in this country to create a bigger problem.”

The government has vowed it “will take further decisive action if necessary to contain the virus and new variant”.

The UK earlier banned flights from South Africa and put 10 African countries on its red list, meaning only UK and Irish citizens or UK residents can travel from there to the UK. Nigeria will join the list from Monday.

Experts cautioned that travel restrictions and bans will not halt the virus spread.

Statistician David Spiegelhalter, a University of Cambridge professor who co-authored a history of the pandemic, told Sky News that “travel restrictions at the moment are only going to slow things up a little bit.. but they’re not going to stop it (Omicron) and it’s going to come in”.

England has made masks compulsory again in shops and on public transport in response to the new variant, with 160 Omicron cases confirmed for far in the UK.

The UK has also extended its booster programme to make all adults eligible.


Thousands Protest COVID Restrictions In New Zealand

Protesters attend a Freedom and Rights Coalition demonstration to demand an end to COVID-19 restrictions and mandatory vaccination outside the Parliament House building in Wellington on November 9, 2021. PHOTOS: Neil SANDS / AFP


Thousands of demonstrators marched on the New Zealand parliament to protest against Covid-19 restrictions Tuesday, prompting a major police deployment at the Wellington building known as the Beehive.

About 3,000 people, most not wearing masks, made their way through the capital’s city centre, including dozens of motorcyclists in biker gang regalia performing burnouts.

Some attendees carried “Trump 2020” flags, while others bore signs carrying messages from Maori groups, those impacted by lockdowns, and teachers who face losing their jobs if they refuse vaccination.

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Others targeted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with slogans such as “Pro Choice, Anti Jacinda”, with “Media Lies” and “Media Treason” also prominent.

The protest was peaceful, with demonstrators dispersing after performing a massed haka on the grounds of parliament. The traditional Maori haka is used in a variety of ways — to intimidate rivals, to celebrate, but also to mourn.

Police said there were no arrests in Wellington, although they expressed disappointment over so many participants flouting coronavirus restrictions.

They said one officer was bitten at a separate small protest just outside Auckland when police were physically removing a demonstrator from the road.

Ardern said most New Zealanders supported her government’s virus response, citing figures showing almost 90 percent of the population had received their first vaccination dose.

“What we saw today was not representative of the vast bulk of New Zealanders,” she told reporters.

Ardern’s government has adopted a tough Covid-19 response, including hard lockdowns and tight border restrictions, which has seen New Zealand record only 31 virus deaths in a population of five million.

Residents of the country’s largest city, Auckland, have been subject to stay-at-home orders since mid-August and Ardern this week indicated the restrictions would remain until the end of November.

She has promised to introduce more freedoms, including an end to lockdowns, once 90 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

However, those who remain unvaccinated will still face curbs on their employment, travel and entertainment options.


COVID-19 Restrictions: German Car Sales Plunge In January

File photo of cars parked for movie watching.


New car sales in Germany nosedived in January as virus restrictions and the end of a VAT sales tax reduction stifled demand, official data showed Wednesday.

A total of 169,754 new cars were registered last month in Europe’s largest car market — down 31 percent on January 2020, the KBA transport authority said.

The plunge was caused by “car dealerships being closed due to the pandemic and the VAT rate,” according to the German Automobile Association (VDA).

The German government had reduced VAT for six months from July to stimulate spending during the virus outbreak, with the new year seeing a return to the higher rate of 19 percent.

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The cut led to a spike in car sales in December, with new registrations jumping 10 percent year-on-year.

But overall in 2020, Germany’s key car market plunged to its lowest levels since reunification, with output and sales down dramatically due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A total of 2.9 million cars were registered in the country last year, down 19 percent, with production of 3.5 million vehicles reaching the lowest in 45 years, according to the VDA.

But there was good news for electric cars in January, with new registrations rising by 129 percent to 36,903.

Electric vehicle sales represented 21.7 percent of the total market, according to the VDA.

Sales of purely electric cars increased by 118 percent, while new registrations of plug-in hybrids rose by 138 percent.

Including hybrids, e-vehicles accounted for 13.5 percent of new registrations in 2020.


Austrians Defy Ban To Protest COVID-19 Restrictions

People take part in a demonstration against the ongoing restrictions related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Vienna on January 31, 2021. – The forbidden rally is under the motto Christian walk. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)


Around 5,000 people defied a ban to march Sunday in Vienna in protest against a curfew and lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19.

The march was organised by the far-right FPOe party, and many participants ignored government regulations on mask wearing and the respect for minimum distances from each other.

Neo-nazi militants and thugs were reportedly among the crowd, which refused to disband and blocked traffic as it began to march towards the national parliament.

Police then intervened and detained some protestors.

It was the first time that the FPOe, and member Herbert Kickl who is a former interior minister, officially called for a protest against the third Austrian lockdown.

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“We are seeing unprecedented censure,” Kickl told media Saturday, before the party put in a second request for a rally permit which was also refused.

The reason for the refusal was given as a risk of increased tranmisssion rates of new variants, and a “lack of contact traceability” among those who were to take part in the march.

Austrian schools, sports clubs, hotels, restaurants, cultural venues and many stores have been shut to stem the spread of Covid-19, but the country’s iconic ski resorts have been allowed to remain open.