COVID-19 Restrictions: Norway Scraps Social Distancing, Face Masks Usage

In this photo taken on December 2, 2020 a face mask hangs with a table tennis bat cover at a park in Beijing. GREG BAKER / AFP
Photo used to illustrate the story: In this photo taken on December 2, 2020 a face mask hangs with a table tennis bat cover at a park in Beijing. PHOTO: GREG BAKER / AFP

 

Norway on Saturday lifted its final Covid restrictions, scrapping social distancing and masks in crowded spaces despite a surge in Omicron infections.

“The metre is disappearing. We are taking away the recommendation on social distancing,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store told reporters at a press conference.

“Now we can now socialise like we did before, in nightlife, at cultural events and other social occasions. And on the way to and from work on buses, trains and ferries,” he said.

Norway lifted most of its other Covid curbs earlier this month, including remote working, crowd size limits, and restricted alcohol sales in bars and restaurants.

READ ALSO: France To Scrap COVID-19 Test Rule For Vaccinated Travellers

The requirement to isolate for four days after a positive Covid test was meanwhile on Saturday downgraded to a recommendation, and children with respiratory symptoms are no longer required to get tested for Covid.

Gahr Store stressed however that “the pandemic is not over”, and advised unvaccinated people and those in risk groups to continue practising social distancing and wear masks where social distancing is not possible.

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI) said the country had yet to see the peak of the Omicron surge, but it was expected soon.

The agency’s director Camilla Stoltenberg told reporters the number of Covid hospitalisations had risen by 40 percent in the past week.

As of Friday, 986,851 cases and 1,440 virus-related deaths had been recorded in Norway, where more than 91 percent of the population has received at least two doses of the vaccine.

FHI estimates that three to four million people from a population of 5.4 million may be infected by this summer.

AFP

Turkish President Erdogan Tests Positive For COVID-19

File photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. PHOTO: BULENT KILIC / AFP

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday he had tested positive for Covid-19 but was not experiencing severe symptoms.

“After experiencing light symptoms, my wife and I tested positive for Covid-19. We have a mild infection thankfully, which we learned to be the Omicron variant,” the 67-year-old president said in a tweet.

“We remain on duty. We will continue our work from home. We hope for your prayers,” Erdogan added.

“God willing we will shake this infection off together with Mr Tayyip,” his 66-year-old wife, Emine Erdogan, tweeted.

The Turkish president received his third vaccine dose in June last year.

READ ALSO: Compulsory Vaccination Rules Come Into Force In Austria

Turkey has recorded around 12 million cases of Covid-19 and nearly 90,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Turkey requires people to isolate for seven days if they test positive. However, if they test negative on the fifth day, they can leave quarantine.

The country’s daily number of cases has risen to over 100,000 in recent weeks, which officials have attributed to the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Masks are widely used in Turkey but there are no restrictions with schools and universities still open, and life continuing as normal without curfews.

The latest official figures on Saturday showed 52.5 million have had their second vaccine dose in Turkey, which has a population of around 85 million.

More than 25 million Turks have also got their third dose and officials continue to push for citizens to get vaccinated.

AFP

Sweden To Lift Most COVID-19 Curbs On Feb 9

File photo: Karin Hildebrand, a doctor in an intensive care unit (ICU) in Stockholm’s Sodersjukhuset hospital walks in a corridor before treating patients with COVID-19 on June 11, 2020, during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

 

Sweden said Thursday it would lift most of its coronavirus restrictions on February 9 as the pandemic enters a “whole new phase” with the highly contagious but milder Omicron variant.

Among the domestic restrictions that will be lifted are the 11:00 pm closing for bars and restaurants, and limits on crowd numbers.

Vaccine passes for indoor events will no longer be required, and face masks will no longer be recommended on public transport at peak times.

“The pandemic is not over, but we are entering a whole new phase,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters.

“Knowledge about Omicron has improved… Several studies show Omicron leads to less serious illness.”

While Omicron has led to a record number of infections in the past month, hospitalisations for severe infections have not overwhelmed the healthcare system.

More than 83 percent of people over the age of 12 have had two doses, and almost 50 percent have received third doses.

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren said the government would remain “vigilant” about the pandemic’s progress.

A return to working in person will resume gradually, as will university and higher education classes.

However, authorities recommended that people continue to stay home if they have Covid-19 symptoms, and border restrictions will remain in place for the time being.

Unvaccinated people are meanwhile advised to continue avoiding crowds after February 9.

Sweden made headlines early in the pandemic for choosing to not impose lockdowns.

With over 16,000 fatalities so far, its death toll is in line with the European average, but is far higher than those of neighbouring Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Denmark on Tuesday became the first European Union country to lift most of its domestic Covid-19 restrictions, followed later in the day by Norway.

Russia Records Over 100,000 COVID-19 Cases In One Day

FILE PHOTO: A man wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus disease walks past a poster reading “The town of Chekhov” in the town of Chekhov, some 70 km outside Moscow. PHOTO: Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP

 

Russia reported more than 100,000 daily coronavirus cases for the first time on Saturday as the country weathers a surge of infections driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant. 

A government Covid-19 portal registered 113,122 new cases over 24 hours, nearly double the number of daily infections just a week ago.

The number of cases across Russia continues to rise sharply, with Omicron accounting for the majority of cases.

Following a strict but brief national lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, Russia has held back on curbs hoping instead to protect its struggling economy.

READ ALSO: England Lifts Omicron Restrictions, Face Masks No Longer Required

But with four vaccines widely available for months, Russians remain reluctant to get jabbed with just under half of the population fully vaccinated.

Russia’s government figures have reported 330,111 deaths from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic — the highest death toll in Europe.

However, those figures are contradicted by statistics agency Rosstat, which counts Covid deaths under a broader definition and says the overall death toll is close to double the official number.

On Friday, Rosstat said that Russia’s population declined by more than a million people last year, a historic drop not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

AFP

England Lifts Omicron Restrictions, Face Masks No Longer Required

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the exhibition hall to try means of green transportation on the third day of the annual Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Central convention centre in Manchester, northwest England, on October 5, 2021. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP)

 

England on Thursday lifted coronavirus restrictions imposed to tackle the Omicron variant, with masks no longer required in enclosed places and vaccine passports shelved.

The number of positive Covid-19 cases has fallen sharply over the past two weeks, and although still at high levels, have plateaued in recent days.

The UK government introduced the so-called “Plan B” restrictions on December 8, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of a looming “tidal wave” of Omicron.

Face masks were required in all enclosed spaces and, controversially, vaccine documentation also was to enter places such as nightclubs, football grounds and large-scale events.

READ ALSO: US Ships Nearly 1.7 Million COVID-19 Vaccine Doses To Uganda

On the streets of London around St Paul’s Cathedral, there was general support for the lifting of restrictions, which comes after more than 37 million people had booster jabs.

“I think it’s a really good thing,” said Elizabeth Hynes, 71, who is originally from Ireland but has lived in England for 47 years.

“I was coming up the lifts here at St Paul’s and I was looking at all the shows” being advertised, she said of the posters inside the underground station.

“And I thought ‘how wonderful, it’s like old times’.

“It’s like we’re getting back to how London was, and you realise how much you’ve missed live theatre and fantastic shows.”

Hynes said she had stage-4 melanoma skin cancer, but had so far “been lucky” and not caught Covid.

“We don’t know about tomorrow, we have to live… for today, trying to get a bit of enjoyment out of life,” she added.

Julia, 28, from Spain, said it was time to “have a normal life”.

“It’s been two years and it’s time to take responsibility ourselves,” she said as she waited for the St Paul’s eatery in which she works to open.

“In Spain we need to wear masks everywhere, even in the street,” she added.

Even if “there’s nobody in the street… you need to wear the mask. On the beach, you need to wear the mask.

“I prefer the UK restrictions because it’s going to be very difficult to visit the family there. I’m fully vaccinated but I don’t want to get the vaccine every nine months.”

‘Traumatic’

England previously lifted restrictions on July 19, so-called “Freedom Day”, but then introduced new rules as the Omicron wave arrived.

Health minister Sajid Javid credited the country’s booster programme for allowing restrictions to be lifted.

“Our vaccines, testing and antivirals ensure we have some of the strongest defences in Europe and are allowing us to cautiously return to Plan A, restoring more freedoms to this country,” he said.

From Thursday, passengers on London’s transport network will still be required to wear face masks but they will no longer be mandatory in secondary school classrooms.

“It was traumatic for them, they couldn’t hear the teachers, the teachers couldn’t hear them,” Hynes said of the mask rules in school.

US holidaymaker Ethan Letson, 24, agreed with London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to mandate face coverings on the capital’s trains and buses.

“I still wear the mask on public transport, I will wear it in very crowded areas like the Underground. It’s so tight down there, you could get sick at any time,” he said.

Unlike Scotland and Wales, which set their own health policy, England kept nightclubs and bars open over the festive period.

But businesses still took a heavy hit as punters stayed at home.

Hospitality workers in the business district around St Paul’s said things had only just started to improve.

“The last week, business has started to pick up again. Around Christmas it was dead,” said bartender Lewis Colby, 39.

“People aren’t so scared anymore, trains are busier coming into work, people are starting to drink more.”

Despite the lifting of restrictions, those who test positive for coronavirus must still self-isolate for a minimum of five days.

Johnson said he also hopes to scrap those rules when they expire on March 24.

AFP

COVID-19 Cases ‘Drop Significantly’ In Africa, Says WHO

File photo: A man sprays commuters with hand sanitiser as a preventive measures at Wanderers taxi rank in Johannesburg CBD, on March 18, 2020. Michele Spatari / AFP.

 

Cases of Covid have plummeted in Africa and deaths are declining for the first time since the Omicron-dominated fourth wave of the virus reached its peak, the UN said Thursday.

Describing the 56-day flareup as Africa’s “shortest upsurge yet,” the World Health Organization’s African regional office said newly reported cases fell by 20 percent in the week to Sunday, while notified deaths dropped by eight percent.

In a statement issued after a weekly press briefing, the office also said South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected, had seen cases trending downward over the past four weeks.

READ ALSO: Australian Open Under Pressure Over ‘Optional’ COVID-19 Tests

Only North Africa reported an increase in cases last week, “with a 55 percent spike”, it said.

Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, warned, however: “The continent has yet to turn the tables on this pandemic. So long as the virus continues to circulate, further pandemic waves are inevitable.”

She said the world’s poorest continent should “not only broaden vaccinations but also gain increased and equitable access to critical Covid-19 therapeutics to save lives and effectively combat this pandemic.”

Only 10 percent of the African population are fully vaccinated, according to the WHO.

The continent, with a population of 1.2 billion, has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic, reporting 234,913 deaths from 10.5 million cases, according to AFP tallies.

AFP

COVID-19 Is ‘Nowhere Near Over,’ Says WHO

A picture of the billboard of the World Health Organization (WHO)

 

The World Health Organization has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, as France, Germany, and Brazil posted new records of infections in the past 24 hours.

The highly transmissible Omicron strain has spread unabated around the world, pushing some governments to impose fresh measures while speeding up the rollout of vaccine booster shots.

“This pandemic is nowhere near over,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Tuesday from the agency’s headquarters in Geneva.

Europe is at the epicentre of alarming new outbreaks, with Germany’s cases soaring past 100,000 and France reporting nearly half a million cases on Tuesday.

The UN health chief warned against dismissing Omicron as mild, as the dominant Covid strain continues to flare new outbreaks from Latin America to East Asia after it was first detected in southern Africa in November.

“Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,” he said.

READ ALSO: Omicron: FG Asks Saudi Arabia To Lift Travel Restrictions On Nigeria

 European surge 

Five millions cases were reported in Europe last week and the WHO has predicted Omicron could infect half of all Europeans by March, filling hospitals across the continent.

Germany on Tuesday recorded 112,323 coronavirus cases and 239 deaths, officials said, with Omicron found in more than 70 percent of the infections.

The surge has pushed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to seek compulsory vaccinations to ramp up the immunity of the population in Europe’s biggest economy.

Other European countries are also battling soaring Omicron rates, with neighbouring France recently averaging around 300,000 cases daily.

The latest data issued by Public Health France showed that there were 464,769 new cases in the last 24-hour period, a record number.

The record cases come days after the two-year anniversary of the announcement of the first person dying of a virus in China only later identified as Covid.

Since January 11, 2020, known fatalities in the pandemic have soared to more than 5.5 million.

Hopes for Europe’s tourism recovery remain bleak with the World Tourism Organization saying Tuesday that foreign arrivals will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 at the earliest, despite a rise of 19 percent last year compared to 2020.

‘Quasi-emergency’ 

Elsewhere in the world, Brazil registered a new record number of daily cases of more than 137,000 on Tuesday.

The country suffered a devastating second wave last year with deaths topping 4,000 a day, pushing its death toll to the second highest in the world behind the United States.

President Jair Bolsonaro, an avowed vaccine sceptic who has downplayed Omicron, is increasingly under fire for his handling of the pandemic, and he is on course to lose the country’s October presidential election, according to polls.

In Asia, Japan was set to tighten restrictions across the country, including Tokyo, as it battles record infections fuelled by Omicron while China partially relaxed transport restrictions in the megacity of Xi’an where millions have been confined to their homes for weeks.

Japanese experts on Wednesday backed placing 13 regions “under quasi-emergency measures from January 21 to February 13” Daishiro Yamagiwa, minister in charge of coronavirus affairs, told reporters.

China’s resumption of some inter-city train routes in Xi’an from Tuesday comes just before the Lunar New Year holiday later this month, traditionally a period of mass travel.

It also comes as Beijing battles multiple clusters that are testing its enforcement of a strict “zero-Covid” approach ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics.

Hamsters and big cats 

Focus is increasingly turning to animals and how the virus interacts with them, after at least two countries reported Covid-19 cases in creatures big and small potentially passed between them and humans.

A study published Tuesday in South Africa said big cats caged in zoos are at risk from catching Covid from their keepers.

Researchers found clues pointing to the infection of three lions and two pumas by their handlers at a zoo in Johannesburg, some of whom were asymptomatic.

In Hong Kong, hamsters were bearing the brunt of the semi-autonomous Chinese city’s similarly strict approach to Covid, with officials appearing to blame them for two human cases.

The financial hub’s government faced growing outrage Wednesday over its decision to cull 2,000 small animals in pet shops after several hamsters in a store allegedly tested positive for Covid-19.

“Internationally, there is no evidence yet to show pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans,” Health Secretary Sophia Chan told a press conference.

“But… we will take precautionary measures against any vector of transmission.”

 

UK Unemployment Drops Amid Omicron Spread – Official

Photo: Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

 

Britain’s unemployment rate dropped late last year before the onset of the Omicron coronavirus variant that has since shaken the economy, official data showed Tuesday.

The rate fell to 4.1 per cent in the three months to the end of November, from 4.2 percent in the quarter ending in October, the Office for National Statistics said in a statement.

More to follow…

Omicron: FG Asks Saudi Arabia To Lift Travel Restrictions On Nigeria

File photo of passengers at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja following the resumption of international flights on September 7, 2020. Photo: Sodiq Adelakun/ Channels Television

 

The Federal Government has asked Saudi Arabia to lift the travel restrictions it imposed on Nigerian travellers following the outbreak of the omicron variant of the COVID-19 in South Africa that was later discovered among some travellers said to have visited Nigeria.

Ambassador Zubairu Dada, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, made the appeal on Saturday when he met with the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Nigeria, Ambassador Faisal bin Ebraheem Al-Ghamdi.

Dada in a statement by his spokesman Ibrahim Aliyu urged the Saudi Authorities to review the travel restrictions its placed on Nigerians over the Omicron outbreak as already done by many countries who have earlier banned Nigeria but have since reversed their stands having studied the achievements of Nigeria so far in the fight against the Omicron variant and the Coronavirus pandemic in general.

READ ALSO: Electoral Bill: State Governors Not Against Direct Primaries – Governor Sule

While commending the cordial relationship that existed for years and continues to exist between the two countries, the Minister expressed optimism for a timely response to Nigeria’s request from Saudi Arabia.

This is as he pledged to continue to give every necessary support and cooperation to the ambassador in the discharge of his responsibility.

In his remarks, Ambassador Al-Ghamdi expressed satisfaction with the effort the government is making to contain the spread of Omicron and promised to convey Nigeria’s message to the relevant authorities back home in Saudi Arabia

According to the diplomat, Saudi Arabia also has similar agencies that are responsible for monitoring and recommendations on the issues of the corona.

He equally lauded the Minister for his commitment to improved bilateral relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary ban on flights from Nigeria in December amid the Omicron variant of COVID in Nigeria.

Omicron Spreads To Southern China City Bordering Macau

(FILES) This file photo taken on December 28, 2021, shows a health worker taking a swab sample from a man to be tested for Covid-19 coronavirus in Beijing. Noel Celis / AFP

 

The southern Chinese city of Zhuhai suspended public bus routes on Saturday after announcing it had detected at least seven cases of the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant there and warning residents not to leave the city.

The coastal city of Zhuhai, which borders the gambling hub Macau, said late Friday Omicron had been detected in one mildly ill and six asymptomatic patients, after launching mass testing due to a case in a neighbouring city.

China is battling a spate of coronavirus outbreaks, including several from the Omicron variant, as the country steps up vigilance against the virus ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics next month.

Millions of people across the country have been ordered to stay home in recent weeks, with scores of domestic flights cancelled and factories shut down.

READ ALSO: Brazil Begins Vaccinating Children Despite President’s Objection

Zhuhai officials have asked residents avoid leaving the city “unless necessary”, with those who do require to show negative Covid test results within the past 24 hours.

The city had launched mass testing for its population of 2.4 million people on Friday after a Covid case was detected in neighbouring Zhongshan earlier in the week.

Businesses including beauty salons, card rooms, gyms and cinemas were ordered to close on Thursday, with officials announcing the suspension of public bus routes in parts of the city.

China has kept Covid-19 cases relatively low throughout the pandemic with its zero-tolerance strategy of immediately ordering mass testing and strict lockdowns when infections are detected.

But the fast-spreading Omicron variant has tested that strategy in recent weeks, appearing in the port city of Tianjin close to Beijing before spreading to the central city of Anyang.

The country reported 104 domestically transmitted Covid-19 cases on Saturday.

Indonesia Launches COVID-19 Booster Campaign To Stem Omicron Spread

File photo: Health officials take samples of saliva and nasal fluid from a resident (L) to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Tangerang on April 2, 2020. FAJRIN RAHARJO / AFP.

 

Indonesia opened its coronavirus booster campaign to the public Wednesday as the country records rising infections driven by the Omicron variant.

The free shots will be given to the elderly and at-risk residents as a priority, but will be available to everyone who received their second dose six months prior, President Joko Widodo said on Tuesday after announcing the decision.

The boosters will be administered as half doses — which a local study confirmed was sufficient protection against the virus — due to supply shortages, said health minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country with more than 270 million people, has struggled to procure enough vaccines for its residents since the onset of the pandemic.

Elderly Indonesians lined up at vaccinations centres in Jakarta Wednesday for their boosters in hope of better protection against the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“I must get this shot because I have a lot of activities,” said 84-year-old Hardini in Jakarta after receiving her third shot.

“I am still playing tennis, running. If I don’t have immunity then I could infect people or I could become sick.”

Indonesia is administering half doses for all of its approved vaccines, of which there is no precedent elsewhere in the world, Covid-19 taskforce spokesperson Siti Nadia Tarmizi told AFP.

Indonesia uses Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac for Covid-19 inoculations.

Some countries, including the United States, are injecting half a dose of Moderna as a booster.

The decision to use half doses was based on a study conducted by the University of Indonesia and the Padjadjaran University in collaboration with the Health Ministry, Tarmizi said.

The country has been severely impacted by the pandemic since July last year, with hospitals running out of beds and oxygen to treat infected patients.

It had reported more than 4.2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases, and more than 144,000 deaths as of Wednesday.

Around 40 percent of the Indonesian population is double-jabbed.

The low vaccination rate is leaving the country vulnerable to new outbreaks, especially of the more transmissible Omicron variant that is driving record case numbers in Europe.

‘Deltacron’ Likely Result Of Lab Error, Experts Say

A healthcare worker prepares to administer a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a person at a drive-thru site in Tropical Park on December 16, 2021 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP

 

Experts said Monday that an alleged hybrid coronavirus mutation dubbed “Deltacron” reportedly discovered in a Cyprus lab is most likely the result of a lab contamination, and not a new worrying variant.

Cypriot media reported the discovery Saturday, describing it as having “the genetic background of the Delta variant along with some of the mutations of Omicron”.

While it is possible for coronaviruses to genetically combine, it is rare, and scientists analysing the discovery of so-called “Deltacron” say it is unlikely.

“The Cypriot ‘Deltacron’ sequences reported by several large media outlets look to be quite clearly contamination,” Tom Peacock, a virologist with the infectious diseases department at Imperial College London, tweeted over the weekend.

Jeffrey Barrett, the head of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at Britain’s Wellcome Sanger Institute, said the alleged mutations are located on a part of the genome that is vulnerable to error in certain sequencing procedures.

“This is almost certainly not a biological recombinant of the Delta and Omicron lineages,” he said Monday.

Scientists are eager to battle a deluge of disinformation about Covid-19, much of it circulating online.

Last week, unverified reports emerged of a “flurona” or “flurone” virus circulating — a combination of the flu and the coronavirus — which the World Health Organization (WHO) dismissed Monday.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Millions More Locked Down As China Battles Omicron Spread

“Let’s not use words like Deltacron, flurona or flurone. Please,” tweeted Maria van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the WHO.

“These words imply combination of viruses/variants and this is not happening,” she said.

While people can suffer from influenza and coronavirus at the same time, the two viruses cannot combine.

In contrast to new variants of Covid-19 such as Omicron, which greatly impact the course of the pandemic, cases of simultaneous infection of the flu and coronavirus are nothing new.

Since the start of the pandemic, the coronavirus has given rise to dozens of variants, four of which have been designated “of concern” by the WHO: Alpha, Beta, Delta and Omicron.