Five million people in Australia’s second-largest city will remain under stay-at-home orders for at least another week after authorities extended a lockdown Wednesday after failing to curb Melbourne’s latest Covid outbreak.
The city entered its sixth pandemic lockdown last Thursday after a fresh Delta variant cluster emerged at a Melbourne school and quickly spread.
Daniel Andrews, the premier of the state of Victoria, said lockdown rules will be extended until at least August 19, after 20 new cases were detected overnight including several “mystery” cases.
“There are too many cases, the origins of which are not clear to us… for us to safely come out of lockdown now,” he said.
In Sydney, more than five million people are enduring their seventh week under stay-at-home orders, currently scheduled to remain until the end of August.
The state of New South Wales recorded 344 new cases Wednesday, taking the total for an outbreak that began in Sydney in mid-June to more than 6,100 cases.
Hundreds of thousands of people outside Sydney — including in Newcastle, Byron Bay and most recently, Dubbo — are in lockdown after cases emerged in recent days.
Authorities are pinning their hopes on a fresh vaccination drive, suggesting some restrictions could be eased if enough people get vaccinated in the coming weeks.
“If we keep the vaccination rate up, we will get to six million jabs by the end of August, which will give us an opportunity to think about what additional freedoms we can give people in September and October,” state premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
Australia won global praise for its successful coronavirus response in the early stages of the pandemic, but in recent months has struggled to contain the highly transmissible Delta variant amid a glacial vaccination rollout.
The nation has recorded more than 37,000 cases of Covid-19 and 941 related deaths to date in a population of 25 million.
Thousands of people were stranded in Bangladesh’s capital on Monday as authorities halted almost all public transport ahead of a sweeping lockdown imposed to combat a deadly resurgence of Covid-19 infections.
The South Asian nation reported pandemic highs of more than 8,300 fresh infections on Monday and 119 deaths on Sunday.
Officials blame the recent spike on the highly contagious Delta variant first identified in neighbouring India.
The majority of the South Asian nation’s 168 million population will be confined to their homes by Thursday as part of the restrictions, with only essential services and some export-facing factories allowed to operate.
The government’s cabinet secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam said troops would be deployed from Thursday to help enforce the lockdown.
“The armed forces will be on patrol. If anyone ignores their orders, legal action will be available to them,” he told reporters late Monday.
The lockdown announcement sparked an exodus of migrant workers from the capital Dhaka to home villages on Sunday, with tens of thousands cramming into ferries to cross a major river.
The staggered implementation of the lockdown rules left thousands of workers in Dhaka forced to walk to their offices on Monday, sometimes for hours, in the sweltering summer heat.
Large columns of people were seen walking on the main roads early Monday. Workplaces will be shut from Wednesday.
Bicycle rickshaws were allowed to operate in a last-minute government concession late Sunday, but prices soared to unaffordable levels, commuters said.
“I started walking at 7 am. I could not get any bus or any other vehicles. I can’t afford a rickshaw ride,” Shefali Begum, 60, who was going to her daughter’s home in central Dhaka, told AFP.
Restrictions on activities and movement were imposed across Bangladesh in mid-April as cases and deaths jumped to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.
Infections declined in May but started to rise again this month, sparking the harsher restrictions.
The country has reported nearly 900,000 infections and just over 14,000 virus deaths, but experts say the actual toll could be much higher due to possible underreporting.
Health officials across the world have been alarmed by the rapid spread of the Delta variant, now reported by the WHO to have reached at least 85 countries.
More than two-thirds of new virus cases in Bangladesh’s capital were of the Delta variant, a recent study by the independent Dhaka-based International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research reported.
“The rapid surge of the coronavirus cases in the country is due mostly to the Delta variant,” health services department spokesman Robed Amind told AFP.
He said studies outside of Dhaka have also shown the spread of the variant in border districts and the second-largest city Chittagong.
Tens of thousands of migrant workers fled Bangladesh’s capital Sunday on the eve of a tightened lockdown that will curtail most economic activity and confine people to their homes as coronavirus infections soar.
Restrictions on activities and movement have been in place since mid-April as cases and deaths jumped.
Infections declined in May but started to rise again this month, with just over 6,000 daily cases on Thursday and 108 deaths on Friday, according to the health ministry — the highest in more than two months.
The resurgence has prompted the government to toughen restrictions in stages from Monday, with economic activity — including shops, markets, transportation and offices — to shut down by Thursday.
People will be ordered to stay at homes while only emergency services and export-oriented factories continue operations.
The coming closure has sparked an exodus from Dhaka, the capital.
Millions of Sydney residents began the first full day of a two-week coronavirus lockdown on Sunday, as Australia imposed new restrictions to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant.
Restaurants, bars and cafes were shuttered after stay-at-home orders for central neighbourhoods were extended Saturday evening across the sprawling city and to the coastal and mountainous regions surrounding it.
While the city centre was virtually deserted, large numbers of surfers and swimmers hit the water at Sydney’s Bondi Beach, with outdoor exercise still allowed.
Australia’s northern city of Darwin also entered a separate snap 48-hour lockdown on Sunday after a handful of cases were linked to a coronavirus outbreak on a remote gold mine.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said officials were concerned about being unable to reach close contacts of infected people in the region, home to a large Indigenous population feared to be more vulnerable to Covid-19.
“We are taking extreme action right now to stop or slow any spread before the coronavirus is let loose in the Territory, and that means we need a lockdown,” he said.
Health experts had advised that a shorter snap lockdown of Sydney — which has proved effective in other Australian cities in recent months — would not be enough to contain the growing cluster, New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
More than 110 Covid-19 cases have been reported since a driver for an international flight crew tested positive in mid-June to the highly contagious Delta variant, which first emerged in India.
“Given how contagious this strain of the virus is, we do anticipate that in the next few days case numbers are likely to increase even beyond what we have seen today,” Berejiklian told reporters Sunday.
– Testing time –
The flare-up has been a shock for a city that had returned to relative normality after months with few local cases.
Matt Daly, 37, who lives south of Sydney, said he supported the measures but anticipated a “testing” period of working from home and entertaining his two young children who are on school holidays.
“A lot of juggling over the next two weeks. Really hope it doesn’t extend further,” he told AFP.
Sydney’s restrictions require people to stay home until at least July 9, only venturing out to purchase essential goods, obtain medical care, exercise, go to school or if they are unable to work from home.
Professional musician Blain Cunneen, 27, said his work — performing gigs, studio sessions and teaching students — had gone “up in smoke” overnight.
“All that was starting to operate again almost as normal… very suddenly overnight I got a bunch of emails and texts about everything being cancelled,” he told AFP.
Anyone outside of the lockdown zone who had visited Sydney since Monday was also instructed to self-isolate for 14 days, while several other states have banned travel to and from the city.
It is the latest in a string of “circuit-breaker” lockdowns across major Australian metropolises, with most cases linked to quarantining returning travellers.
More than 150,000 people in Darwin and surrounding areas are under stay-at-home orders for at least 48 hours to give health officials time to trace contacts, for the first time since a nationwide shutdown in the early stages of the pandemic.
“The Northern Territory is now facing its biggest threat since the Covid crisis began,” Gunner said.
Cases of Covid-19 were also detected in the major cities of Perth and Brisbane on Sunday, prompting local authorities to tighten restrictions.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was confident Australia would manage.
“It’s a difficult day but we’ve done this before, we know how to do it. And we will get through it,” he said.
Australia has been among the world’s most successful countries in containing Covid-19, with just over 30,000 cases and 910 deaths in a population of about 25 million. However, the government has faced criticism for a sluggish vaccine rollout.
Britons hugged their loved ones and streamed into pubs, gyms and other indoor venues on Monday as the country eased pandemic restrictions, but Asia faced more misery with new variants and a cyclone disrupting the fight against a Covid-19 wave ravaging India.
As the United States and Britain move away from harsh restrictions thanks to rapid immunisation campaigns, new strains have forced several countries in Asia to shut schools and impose travel bans, highlighting the persistent global threat posed by the pandemic.
With known global infections approaching 163 million and the rise of new variants complicating the fight, governments still pushed ahead with easing restrictions — a moving step for some.
“I actually feel a wee bit emotional saying this… you can hug your loved ones again,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said as businesses reopened in what The Sun tabloid dubbed “Freedom Monday”.
– ‘Nice to be back’ –
Across England, Wales and most of Scotland, people on Monday could once again grab a drink, a bite and dine inside pubs, restaurants and cafes.
Cinemas, museums and sports venues also opened their doors for the first time in months.
People were able to once again visit each other at home — and to head to Portugal, where the British are normally the largest tourist contingent.
“It’s nice to get away and be back here,” said Barry Thompson, a 63-year-old retired policeman from Manchester who landed in the southern town of Faro with his wife and son.
“We’re very excited.”
In another sign of life returning to normal in Europe, Disneyland Paris announced it would reopen on June 17.
But authorities have urged caution and warned that with new variants spreading, restrictions could be reintroduced.
– India hit by storm –
The pandemic has claimed more than 3.3 million lives worldwide, and one of the worst outbreaks is in India, where at least 4,000 people are dying from Covid-19 every day.
India was already dealing with limited medical infrastructure and scarce vaccine supplies, when a major cyclone in the Arabian Sea packing ferocious winds bore down on the South Asian nation.
Gujarat state moved all Covid-19 patients from hospitals within five kilometres (three miles) off the coast where the storm is expected to hit.
Authorities there were also scrambling to ensure there would be no power cuts at designated Covid-19 hospitals and oxygen plants in the districts under threat from the storm.
Nearly 600 patients in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, were also moved to “safer locations”.
The variant behind the explosive outbreak in India has spread to at least 44 countries, according to the World Health Organization.
They include Singapore, where a growing number of cases has prompted the government to tighten restrictions, including closing schools.
“A lot of people have taken for granted the past few months of peace and stability, but this is a wake-up call,” said Anthony Chang, a hawker stall owner in the city-state.
And authorities in Taiwan, which emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic last year, announced a suspension of classes in schools from Tuesday in Taipei and adjacent New Taipei City as the island battled a surge in infections. The island also banned all foreigners, except residents, from entry or transit for a month.
In South Africa, the continent’s worst-hit country on the cusp of a third wave, authorities on Monday launched a large-scale vaccination campaign aiming to immunise five million people over the age of 60 by end of June.
– UNICEF vaccine warning –
The persistent threat of the coronavirus is casting a shadow on the already delayed Tokyo Olympics, due to begin in less than 10 weeks even with parts of Japan under a state of emergency.
Organisers have insisted that they will go ahead despite the risk, but the opposition was brought into focus Monday when a new poll showed 80 percent of Japanese were against hosting the Games this year.
Japan’s vaccine rollout has been slow despite its wealth, but concerns are growing that poorer nations will be left even further behind because of vaccine inequality.
“We are concerned that the deadly spike in India is a precursor to what will happen if those warnings remain unheeded,” UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said Monday.
In France, pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi reported positive results for a Phase 2 trial of a Covid vaccine it is developing with Britain’s GSK, which will enable a late-stage trial to start in the coming weeks.
Britain’s economic recovery began to recover strongly at the end of the first quarter despite lockdown restrictions, official data revealed on Wednesday.
Gross domestic product jumped 2.1 percent in March, the Office for National Statistics said, although by not enough for the UK economy to avoid contracting overall in the first quarter.
GDP shrank by 1.5 percent overall in the first three months of 2021 compared with the final quarter last year, the ONS said.
The UK is meanwhile currently exiting lockdown at a gradual pace, allowing the economy to further recover from pandemic fallout.
“As we cautiously reopen the economy, I will continue to take all the steps necessary to support our recovery,” finance minister Rishi Sunak said in reaction to the data.
Darren Morgan, ONS director of economic statistics, said the strong recovery seen in March was led by retail and school reopenings, offsetting weakness in the services sector.
He added that construction grew strongly over the quarter and stood above its pre-pandemic level in March.
Morgan also noted that manufacturing recovered robustly in both February and March.
Meanwhile, “exports of goods to the EU continued to increase in March and are now almost back to their December level” before Brexit took place, he added.
“However, imports from Europe remain sluggish in the first three months of the year, being outstripped by non-EU imports for the first time on record.”
Britain formally exited the European Union at the start of the year.
The growth recovery tallies with the Bank of England’s outlook.
The BoE last week said the UK economy will enjoy a stronger-than-expected recovery this year after the government began easing its coronavirus pandemic lockdowns quicker than anticipated.
It is expected to rebound by 7.25 percent this year amid vaccine rollouts, the central bank predicted after it upgraded its prior guidance of a 5.0-percent expansion.
But it slashed its projection for 2022 to 5.75 percent from 7.25 percent as the government looks to claw back some of its vast pandemic-support outlay with higher taxation.
The UK economy tanked by 9.8 percent last year, Britain’s biggest slump in three centuries — and the worst G7 performance — on Covid-19 lockdowns.
– Restrictions lifted –
From next week, people in England will be able to eat and drink in indoor venues, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday as the country reported no coronavirus deaths for the first time in over a year.
The latest relaxation will see pubs, bars and restaurants restart indoor services, though only to groups of up to six people, via table service and with social distancing in place.
Indoor entertainment such as cinemas, museums and children’s play areas can reopen, alongside concert halls, conference centres and sports venues — which will operate within capacity limits.
The government will also lift advice against close contact among family and close friends, meaning they can hug one another again.
Devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have responsibilities for health policy, have been easing restrictions at their own, roughly similar pace.
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.”
New border controls went into force in France on Sunday as part of a massive effort to contain the spread of Covid-19 and avoid another nationwide lockdown.
After a slow start to vaccinations, French health authorities reported that a million people had received coronavirus inoculations by Saturday.
But stubbornly high new rates for infections, hospitalisations and Covid deaths fuelled fears France may need another full lockdown, which would be the third, inflicting yet more devastation on businesses and daily lives.
Starting Sunday, arrivals to France from European Union countries by air or sea must be able to produce a negative PCR test result obtained in the previous 72 hours.
The requirement had already applied to non-EU arrivals since mid-January.
EU travellers entering France by land, including cross-border workers, will not need a negative test.
Some 62,000 people currently arrive in French airports and sea ports from other EU countries every week, according to Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari.
Paris’s main international airport Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle has set up testing centres in a terminal dedicated to intra-EU flights to allow arriving passengers who failed to obtain a test in their country of origin to get one before passing immigration.
The French health agency on Saturday reported 23,924 new Covid cases in the previous 24 hours, and 321 new coronavirus deaths, taking the French death toll to 72,877.
The total number of hospitalised Covid patients stood at 25,800, of whom nearly 2,900 were in intensive care.
Also by Saturday, one million people in France had received at least one anti-Covid jab, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, four weeks after kicking off the vaccination campaign, focusing first on people over 75 in care homes and health workers over 50.
Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said she was “reasonably confident” France would meet its target of vaccinating 15 million people by the end of June, adding more than 1.9 million vaccine doses had been received to date.
Health Minister Oliver Veran meanwhile warned that if current measures, including a nationwide daily curfew starting at 6:00 pm, prove insufficient, another lockdown can not be ruled out.
“We need the curfew to show results,” Veran said.
“In a best-case scenario, we will manage to diminish the pressure of the epidemic. If not, we will not wait for the month of March before acting,” he told Le Parisien newspaper.
France went into lockdown twice in 2020, the first time between March and May and then October to December.
Police in England will be able to issue bigger fines to those breaking coronavirus lockdown measures by partying, with penalties of up to £6,400 ($8,775, 7,200 euros), interior minister Priti Patel said Thursday.
The new fines regime, which comes into force next week, targets those attending house parties and other illegal gatherings, with penalties doubling for each offence.
People caught at parties of more than 15 will initially face £800 fines, and could then face a maximum of £6,400 for further breaches.
“The science is clear: such irresponsible behaviour poses a significant threat to public health,” Patel said at a Downing Street press conference.
“We will not stand by while a small minority put others at risk.”
Current fines stand at £200, with police only able to hit the organisers of events comprising 30 or more people with the highest penalties of £10,000.
London’s Metropolitan Police said earlier this week it had issued more than 140 fines totalling £39,000 over two days.
A partial lockdown was imposed on the Chinese capital Wednesday, with 1.6 million residents banned from leaving Beijing, after a handful of cases were detected.
Seven cases were reported in the city on Wednesday, including six in southern Daxing district.
All 1.6 million residents of Daxing must not leave Beijing unless they have received special permission from the authorities and tested negative for Covid-19 in the past three days, the district said.
Meetings of 50 or more people in the district have been banned, while “weddings should be postponed and funerals simplified,” the district government said.
It also ordered all kindergarten, primary and secondary students in the district to study at home.
Residents of five Daxing neighbourhoods where the cases were detected were ordered to remain indoors.
Daxing includes one of the city’s two international airports.
China has largely brought the virus under control even as the rest of the world struggles with mounting deaths and overburdened hospitals.
But a spate of small, localised outbreaks has prompted Chinese officials to order mass testing, strict lockdowns and to prepare to move thousands into quarantine facilities to stamp out a resurgence.
China reported 103 new cases on Wednesday, including the seven in Beijing.
The outbreaks, including in neighbouring Hebei province, have put China on high alert for a potential wave of cases ahead of the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
Meanwhile, nearly three million people in northeastern Jilin province were placed under lockdown on Monday after a travelling salesman infected over a hundred people.
Heilongjiang, another northeastern province, has reprimanded 16 officials for “not doing their duty” to prevent recent clusters of cases in the province, the provincial Communist Party newspaper Heilongjiang Daily reported Wednesday.
As millions of Nigerians struggle to enrol for the National Identification Number (NIN), the Federal Government has revealed the next step it will take should there be another lockdown.
The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, who featured as a guest on Politics Today, noted that the ministry would immediately convene a meeting.
He explained that the meeting, which would be attended by stakeholders such as the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and telecommunications operators, would review the situation.
“If a second lockdown is enforced, then, the ministerial taskforce including NIMC, NCC, and all mobile network operators will come down and sit immediately and review.
“The task force meets usually within one week,” the minister said on the Channels Television political programme on Friday.
He added, “So, when there is a second lockdown, we are citizens, we must respect the Federal Government’s directives.
“When there is any announcement, we will come back to the drawing board immediately and review the process and see what we have achieved so far, and the challenges.”
‘We Need Attitudinal Change’
The minister, however, did not specifically state if the enrolment exercise will be suspended as the ultimatum issued to telecommunications operators to disconnect Subscriber Identity Modules (SIMs) without NIN draws near.
He insisted that it was not out of place for the government to take such action, coming at a time when the nation was experiencing the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Pantami, the Constitution provides that citizens should be captured not long after birth and Nigerians should be blamed for the present situation in the country.
He stated that before the government issued the directive for enrolment, the ministry had asked the people to ensure they comply with the COVID-19 protocols while at the NIMC offices.
“We are respecting the guidelines and we encourage our citizens to change their attitude; what we need is attitudinal change, laws cannot be implemented by themselves.
“We as citizens must be law-abiding and we must respect Federal Government’s laws and policies because they are for our own good,” the minister said.