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COVID-19

WHO warns of Europe virus spike as countries impose new curbs

The World Health Organization expressed concern Friday over a coronavirus resurgence in Europe as certain countries stepped up restrictions and rules to battle outbreaks.

WHO warns of Europe virus spike as countries impose new curbs
Testing at airports is increasing in European countries. AFP

The World Health Organization expressed concern Friday over a coronavirus resurgence in Europe as Britain joined France, Germany and Austria in announcing tighter mask requirements and greater testing.

Europe accounts for a fifth of the world's more than 15 million cases and remains the hardest hit in terms of deaths, with 207,118 out of more 630,000 globally since the pandemic emerged in China late last year.

The WHO's European chapter pointed to rising cases on the continent over the past two weeks, stressing that tighter measures may be needed to curb infections.

Europe like other regions is struggling to balance restrictions to halt the spread of COVID-19 against the need to revive economies as they emerge from some of the world's toughest lockdowns.

A three-year-old girl died in Belgium, becoming the country's youngest known coronavirus victim, in a further wake-up call for a continent which has only recently lifted shutdowns.

“The recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases in some countries following the easing of physical distancing measures is certainly cause for concern,” a WHO-Europe spokeswoman told AFP.

“If the situation demands, reintroduction of stricter, targeted measures with the full engagement of communities may be needed.”

In Spain, health authorities are already facing worrying outbreaks in Aragon and Catalonia, where officials have reintroduced local restrictions and urged residents in Barcelona and its suburbs to leave home only for essential trips for two weeks.

“We have to monitor what's going on, see where we need to take action and act early,” said health ministry official Maria Jose Sierra.

“If the important outbreaks are controlled quickly and if we manage to ensure that there are no (other) outbreaks of such magnitude, we will have a much more contained situation.”

On-the-spot tests

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday met his top ministers to discuss contagion measures, and his prime minister Jean Castex later announced on-the-spot tests would be required for travellers visiting from 16 high-risk countries including the United States.

In this file photo taken on June 30, 2020 at the airport in Frankfurt am Main shows a view of the laboratory of German biotech company Centogene which opened a walk-in testing centre. AFP

France has yet to resume general travel to and from these countries so the tests will be for French citizens and residents.

Masks are now mandatory on public transport and in shops and enclosed spaces in France but there are fears that the summer holidays could see a spike in cases with people flocking to beaches and tourist spots. 

Britain on Friday made it compulsory to wear a face covering in shopping centres, banks, takeaway outlets, sandwich shops and supermarkets, following the lead of Scotland.

Exceptions have been made, for example, for children under 11 or people with respiratory problems, but anyone refusing to cover their nose and mouth risks a fine of up to Ł100.

Germany will offer free coronavirus tests to all returning travellers in new measures agreed Friday.

Austria also made face masks mandatory again in supermarkets, food stores, post offices, bank branches and health care facilities in addition to public transport and pharmacies.

“It was a mistake to lift mandatory mask use so soon,” said one shopper, Andreas Poschenreither.

Trump convention scrapped

The United States, the hardest-hit country by the virus, recorded more than 144,305 total fatalities. It has seen a coronavirus surge, particularly in southern and western states.

US President Donald Trump has scrapped next month's Republican convention in Florida at which he was due to be confirmed as the Republican candidate for November's election, saying “the timing for this event is not right.”

Bolivia meanwhile postponed its general elections for a second time because of the pandemic, putting it off until October 18, while South Africa said it was closing public schools for a month from July 27.

There was bad news in China and India — the two world's most populous nations — as new clusters emerged.

Chinese authorities said Friday they would introduce a wave of testing in the port city of Dalian, home to about six million people.

The Dalian health commission said the city had to “quickly enter wartime mode”. It announced strict new measures, including on-the-spot nucleic acid tests to detect the virus.

Kindergartens and nurseries have been closed, and some communities have been placed under lockdown, according to state-run newspaper Global Times.

India's death toll overtook France's on Friday with 30,601 fatalities. Officials said there were nearly 50,000 new cases overnight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns in late March, but it has been steadily eased to lessen the devastating economic impact.

State governments have now brought in fresh restrictions as cases soar, including in IT hub Bangalore.

UN projections have warned the virus could kill 1.67 million people in 30 low-income countries.

Virus restrictions have been bolstered in several countries this week, including Australia and Belgium as well as in Hong Kong and the Japanese capital Tokyo.

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COVID-19

OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

After several months of a relatively low number of coronavirus cases in Switzerland, the rate of infections rose by over 22 percent in a span of seven days this week. What measures are Swiss health officials planning to prevent a new wave?

OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

The Swiss government has said that “further waves of infections are to be expected in the fall/winter of 2022/2023″.

As in previous waves, “the main objective of managing the pandemic is to prevent an overload of the health system. It is currently difficult to predict the magnitude of the waves of infection and, therefore, the burden on the healthcare system”, it added.

According to current estimates, “it can be assumed that ordinary structures will be sufficient to manage the situation”.

However, unless new, deadly variants emerge in the near future, health officials  expect the new wave to be milder than the ones  that struck in the winter of 2020 and 2021.

There are several reasons for this optimism:

Higher immunity

Due to vaccinations and infections, “it is estimated that 97 percent of the Swiss population has been in contact with the virus”, which means that “immunity within the population is currently high”, authorities said.

Lighter course

This means that unlike the early Covid strains like Alpha and Delta, which were highly virulent, the latest dominant mutation — Omicron and its subvariants — while highly contagious, are also less dangerous for most people.

New vaccines

The new version of the Moderna vaccine, which should better target certain sub-variants of Omicron, will be rolled in Switzerland from October 10th.

Compared to the original vaccine, which was effective mostly against early strains and offered no protection against Omicron, “the new vaccine produces a stronger immune response against the Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.4/5″, according to the drug regulatory body, Swissmedic.

READ MORE: BREAKING: Switzerland approves new Covid-19 boosters

Is the government planning any specific measures this winter?

While the severity of the new wave is not yet known, authorities have made several ‘just-in-case’ provisions by, for instance, extending the Covid-19 law until June 2024.

This legislation, which was approved in a referendum in November 2021, allows the Federal Council to maintain and apply emergency measures that are necessary to manage the pandemic. Without the extension, ithe law would lapse in December of this year.

READ MORE: Covid-19 law: How Switzerland reacted to the referendum results

“No one wants to reactivate the Covid law. But after two years of the pandemic, we have understood that we must be ready”, said MP Mattea Meyer.

While no mask mandates or other restrictions are being discussed at this time, the re-activated legislation would allow the authorities to quickly introduce any measures they deem necessary, according to the evolution of the epidemiological situation.

More preparations from the cantons

As it would be up to the cantons to apply measures set by the federal government, some have asked that financing be made available in case regional hospitals have to again accommodate patients from other cantons.

They are also making sure enough intensive care beds are ready for Covid patients.

What about the Covid certificate and tracing?

Though it is no longer used in Switzerland, the certificate continues to be required abroad.

The government will ensure its international compatibility.

The legal basis for the SwissCovid tracking app will also remain in force and can be reactivated during the winter of 2023/2024, if necessary.

MPs are also debating possible rules to be enforced for cross-border workers in the event of border closures.

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