The Latest: Europe takes steps to contain new virus strain

BERLIN —The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says “timely efforts” to prevent and control the spread of cases of COVID-19 involving the new coronavirus variant observed in Britain are needed, but infections have already been reported in at least three other countries in Europe.

The Stockholm-based agency said in a “threat assessment” Monday that while preliminary analysis in the UK suggests the new variant is “significantly more transmissible” there is no indication that infections are more severe.

ECDC said a few cases with the new variant have been reported already by Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. It also cited media reports of cases in Belgium and Italy.

The EU agency urged health authorities and labs to monitor for the new variant’s spread and alert other EU countries about new cases. It said studies are ongoing to assess what impact the new variant has on the risk of reinfections or the efficacy of vaccines.

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PARIS — France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune has said that French nationals wishing to return to their homeland for end of year celebrations from Britain must take a PCR test — and have a negative COVID-19 result — to be allowed back in.

France and several European countries have announced temporary bans on certain travel from the United Kingdom, following the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus.

All travel and freight from the UK to France are suspended until at least Wednesday. Speaking on France Inter Monday, Beaune said of the required test: “This is what will certainly be asked if, beyond the 48-hour period, we are allowed to voyage by rail, by ferry, by plane, back, that is our wish ... that will certainly be one of the requirements on return. ”

Beaune added some clarification as to why French authorities chose a seemingly arbitrary two-day timeframe for the transport ban. “(It) is an emergency and precautionary period to coordinate even better at the European level. There is a meeting in Brussels to see what we are doing precisely beyond this deadline.”

He said it was to “seek solutions beyond this very strict 48-hour blockade” for “our nationals, our compatriots who are in the United Kingdom, who would like, it is legitimate, to be able to return for the holidays.”

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BANGKOK — Thailand’s total number of confirmed coronavirus cases surged past 5,000 on Monday as hundreds of migrant workers tested positive for the disease.

Thailand has been one of several Southeast Asian countries that had been relatively unscathed by the pandemic. But on Saturday, health officials reported a daily record of 548 new cases, almost all of them among migrant workers in the seafood industry in Samut Sakhon province, 34 kilometers (21 miles) southwest of Bangkok, the capital.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said his government would wait to see how the situation looked in a week’s time before deciding on any special restrictions for New Year’s celebrations.

The new cases in Samut Sakhon, most not exhibiting symptoms, were found by mass testing after a 67-year-old shrimp vendor at a seafood market tested positive.

The province has also imposed a night curfew and other travel restrictions until Jan. 3. Many public places have been ordered closed.

Most migrant workers in the province are from Myanmar, Thailand’s western neighbor, which has seen a surge in coronavirus cases beginning in August.

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TOKYO — Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Monday asked all residents to celebrate Christmas and New Year at home just with their families, and asked organizers to have events close early in the night.

Japan's daily coronavirus cases have been steadily on the rise and Tokyo hit its new high at 822 last Friday. On Monday, the Japanese capital city found 392 new cases for a prefectural total of 51,838.

“Christmas and New Year holidays are coming up but this year I would like everyone to put life before anything else,” Koike told a special news conference. “Please spend the holiday season just with your family and stay home.”

Koike said organizers of Tokyo’s Christmas illumination events have agreed to close at 8 p.m. every night, and subway companies will not operate overnight trains for New Year’s Eve to discourage people from gathering for annual countdown events.

City-operated parks and zoos will also be closed until Jan, 11, and the authorities and volunteers will patrol in entertainment districts for to raise awareness during the season, she said. Tokyo will also provide compensation for drinking places that cooperate for early closure request, and offer special allowances for hospitals that operate during the upcoming holidays.

Meanwhile, representatives from Japanese medical organizations jointly issued their own “state of emergency,” saying the country’s healthcare systems are on the verge of collapse, with hospitals burdened with many serious COVID-19 patients and compromising treatment for other patients. Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa compared the situation with “a candle flickering in the wind.”

Medical experts have urged Prime Minister Yohsihide Suga’s government to take tougher steps including a ban on travel and business closures. Suga has seen his support ratings plunge in recent media surveys amid public criticisms for his slow action because of apparent concern about further hurting the pandemic-hit economy.

Nationwide, Japan had almost 200,000 cases, with more than 2,900 deaths as of Sunday, according to the health ministry.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

A new COVID-19 relief bill shaping up in Congress includes individual payments reaching $600 for most Americans and an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits. Votes on the bill in the House and Senate are expected Monday. Among those getting help are hard-hit businesses, schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction. Also, President-elect Joe Biden will receive his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on live television as part of a growing effort to convince the American public the inoculations are safe.

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Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

CAIRO — Egypt has reported another record number of new coronavirus cases, adding 664 infections.

The Health Minister also said Monday that there were 29 new fatalities.

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country with more than 100 million people, has reported at least 125,555 cases overall, including 7,098 deaths.

The spike in new cases comes amid repeated warnings by the government about a second wave of the virus. Authorities have been urging people to adhere to preventive measures, especially by wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.

PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has become another European Union country to ban all flights from Britain due to an outbreak of a new strain of the coronavirus in England.

The Health Ministry says the ban becomes effective on Monday.

Monday’s announcement comes after the country started to require all people arriving in the country who spent at least 24 hours on British territory in the last two weeks to isolate.

The same restrictive measure was imposed by neighboring Slovakia, starting on Monday.

European countries including the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Bulgaria said they would halt flights from the U.K., hours after Britain’s government imposed tough new coronavirus restrictions on large areas of southern England to curb what officials described as a fast-moving new strain of the virus.

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HONG KONG — Hong Kong will ban flights from Britain after a more infectious variant of the coronavirus was found in the country, according to the city’s top health official.

Hong Kong joins countries like Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands in stopping flights from Britain, after the mutated strain of the virus was found to be 70% more transmissible than usual.

Health minister Sophia Chan said Monday that recent arrivals from Britain will also have to serve 21 days of quarantine, a week longer than the usual 14-day period. Two weeks of this will be served in a designated quarantine hotel, and the final week is to be served at home.

As of Sunday, Hong Kong had reported a total of 8,153 infections, with 130 deaths.

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SEOUL, South Korea — Gatherings of more than five people will be banned in South Korea’s capital region as an elevated step to suppress what authorities call an “explosive” surge in coronavirus infections.

The Seoul region is home to half of South Korea’s 51 million people and has been at the center of a recent viral resurgence. The country averaged about 960 new virus cases each day in the past week, more than 70% of them in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Acting Seoul mayor Seo Jung-hyup said Monday the ban will apply to any type of meetings including year-end parties, office dinners, birthday parties and picnics. Only weddings and funerals can follow the current rule of not more than 50 people.

He says the new restrictions will take effect from Wednesday and last until Jan. 3 in Seoul, Gyeonggi province that surrounds Seoul and Incheon city, just west of Seoul.

Seo says he knows the ban is “harsh” but stresses the current viral spread cannot be slowed without preventing transmissions among relatives and company colleagues. He says Seoul could face a lockdown if the current “explosive” surge isn’t contained.

Earlier Monday, South Korea has reported 24 more virus-related deaths in the country’s highest daily fatalities since the pandemic began. The government added a total of 926 new cases, taking the country’s total to 50,591 including 698 deaths.

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom will quarantine for 10 days after one of his staffers tested positive for COVID-19, according to his office.

The staffer tested positive Sunday afternoon. Newsom and others among those staffer's contacts have since tested negative.

Newsom’s 10-day quarantine is out of “an abundance of caution,” the statement said. The governor and other staffers were expected to be tested again in the next few days.

Another person in the governor’s office tested positive in October, and Newsom's family was also exposed to an infected person last month. He tested negative after both those cases.

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MELBOURNE, Australia — An Australian state government leader has apologized for a bungled hotel quarantine program that led to most of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths.

A retired judge who investigated Victoria state’s quarantine program for returned travelers criticized the use of private security guards to enforce isolation in Melbourne hotels in May and June.

After the investigative report was released Monday, Victoria Premier Dan Andrews explained the quarantine system had been implemented quickly and without a pandemic rule book.

“I want to apologize to the Victorian community for the very clear errors that were made in this program,” Andrews said.

The lax infection controls at two Melbourne quarantine hotels set off a wave of infections in Australia’s second-largest city while the rest of the country had been largely virus-free.

Of Australia’s 908 deaths from COVID-19, 820 died in Victoria.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has announced new social gathering restrictions while still refusing to implement a mask mandate despite pleas from front-line healthcare workers in a state experiencing the highest new cases per capita in the country.

Instead of a mask mandate, the Republican on Sunday signed an executive order limiting public gatherings to 10 people. However, places of worship, weddings and funerals are exempt from the order.

He called the state “ground zero” in the COVID-19 battle and urged Tennesseans not to gather with people outside their immediate households during the upcoming holidays. His message comes just a day after Lee confirmed that his wife Maria had tested positive for COVID-19. Lee says he has tested negative but will remain in quarantine at the governor’s residence.

Tennessee is one of a dozen states without a mask mandate. Instead, local counties have the option of implementing their own mask restrictions.

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