The Latest: France closes borders to UK, plans vaccinations
PARIS — A croaky-voiced French President Emmanuel Macron held a cabinet meeting Monday via video, in which he indicated the French could enforce “systematic tests” as a condition for French nationals returning from Britain to France for the holidays.
Macron, in stable condition, has been working from home at the Elysee Palace as he recovers from his COVID-19 infection.
Macron said that the “problematic virus mutation” identified in southern England caused the U.K. “to take exceptional decisions on Saturday and accelerate the measure of closures and constraint.” It brought France to suspend all travel and freight from the U.K. until Wednesday.
Macron confirmed PCR testing could be required for French nationals wishing to return to home soil. Authorities, he said, could ask “that PCR tests are presented as being negative upon the arrival on (French) territory.”
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told reporters after the Cabinet meeting that “a certain number of strains viral are being analyzed constantly” by French scientists.
“The variant detected in Britain has not been detected in France in recent days, but that obviously doesn’t mean that it isn’t already circulating in our country,” said Attal. “It is absolutely possible that it is circulating in France.”
He defended France’s decision to close its border with the U.K., saying the idea behind the 48-hour freeze was to give enough time for Europe-wide negotiations.
Attal said vaccinations in France are expected to begin by Sunday.
He confirmed that France will start vaccinating elderly people in nursing homes, and said an advisory council will within 48 hours publish guidance for nursing homes on how to organize the vaccination and get consent from residents or family members.
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican says it’s “morally acceptable” for faithful to receive COVID-19 vaccines whose research used cell lines from tissue obtained from abortions.
The Vatican office on doctrinal orthodoxy on Monday noted in a statement that bishops and Catholic groups have made conflicting pronouncements on the matter. The statement says “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetus” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available to the public.
Pope Francis ordered the publication of the statement, which also stressed that the licit use of such vaccines “does not and should not in any way imply” moral endorsement of such cell line use.
The statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cited the circumstance of citizens not being allowed by health authorities to choose which vaccine to be inoculated with. It also noted that vaccination “is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and therefore must be voluntary. Still, the Vatican cited the “duty to pursue the common good” by protecting the weakest and most exposed to the virus through vaccination.
BERLIN — A top German virologist is hinting at some skepticism about how much more infectious a new coronavirus strain detected in England really is, though he says it’s right for politicians to take precautions.
Christian Drosten, a professor of virology at Berlin’s Charite hospital, told Deutschlandfunk radio Monday he is “not so very worried at the moment.” He pointed to “incomplete” information and said British scientists say they need to wait until this week to be able to conclude preliminary analyses that could confirm the suspicions, or not.
British officials say the new variant is up to 70% more transmissible than existing strains. They have tightened restrictions in southeast England, and a string of European countries on Sunday halted flights from Britain.
Drosten said it’s important to see what British scientists conclude in the coming days. But he said: “of course you have to act out of caution as a politician, particularly as there’s an extremely heated news situation coming from England -- you have to react somehow.”
MOSCOW — Russia is suspending air traffic with the U.K. for one week starting from Tuesday due to concerns over a new strain of the coronavirus detected in Britain, Russia’s government coronavirus task force said Monday. The U.K. is one of 16 countries Russia has resumed flights with after closing the borders in March in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
Russia, which has so far registered more than 2.8 million confirmed cases of the virus and over 51,000 deaths in the pandemic, has been swept by a rapid resurgence of the outbreak this fall, with numbers of infections and deaths significantly exceeding those reported in the spring.
Earlier this month, mass vaccinations started in Russia with Sputnik V — a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine that is yet to complete advanced studies among tens of thousands of people needed to ensure its safety and effectiveness. Kirill Dmitriyev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled Sputnik V’s development, assured Monday that the shots were “highly effective against the mutation of the virus detected in Europe.”
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.
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has announced that a new variant of the COVID-19 virus is driving the country’s resurgence of the disease, with higher numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
According to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy, the new variant, known as 501.V2, is dominant among new confirmed infections in South Africa’s current wave.
The new strain, different from the one in Britain, appears to be more infectious than the original virus. South African scientists are studying if the vaccines against COVID-19 will also offer protection against the new strain.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairman of the government’s Ministerial Advisory Committee, said in a briefing to journalists that the preliminary data suggests that the new strain of the virus is now dominating South Africa’s new wave which is spreading faster than the first.
South Africa currently has more than 8,500 people hospitalized with COVID-19, surpassing the previous high of 8,300 recorded in August.
BERLIN — The German government said Monday that it hopes European countries can coordinate their decisions on travel from the U.K., after several countries including Germany decided to take immediate action over the weekend amid concerns over a new variant of the coronavirus detected in Britain.
Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said indications that the variant could spread faster meant the first goal had to be “to keep the mutation (...) out of Germany and continental Europe.”
Health Ministry spokesman Hanno Kautz said the decree banning flights was based on the British government’s claim that the virus variant found there is 70% more transmissible.
Andrea Sasse, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry, said EU officials are meeting Monday in Brussels to discuss a joint response.
“We hope to reach a solution within the framework of the coordination meeting,” she said.
BERLIN — Switzerland has banned foreign nationals arriving from the U.K. and South Africa from entering the Alpine country and ordered those who arrived since Dec. 14 to go into quarantine amid concerns over a new coronavirus variant detected in those countries.
The Swiss government said Monday that the decision was taken “to prevent the further spread of this new virus strain.”
The decision by the non-European Union country bans air travel between Switzerland and the U.K. and South Africa.
The government said it is considering a temporary exemption for flights that would allow people currently in Switzerland but resident in the U.K. or South Africa to return home, and vice versa.
Switzerland said it gave the U.K. and South Africa prior notice of the measures.
No cases of the new strain have so far been identified in Switzerland, the Swiss government said.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Persian Gulf state of Oman says it’s temporarily suspending all entry to the country by foreigners and halting international passenger flights over worries about a fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus.
Oman said the one-week closure of all official ports of entry would begin on Tuesday “to protect community members from the severity of infection and the speed of spread.”
The sultanate’s decision to impose an international travel ban followed an announcement by its neighbor Saudi Arabia late Sunday that it would shut its borders for a week or until clearer details emerged about the more contagious variant of the virus that has prompted countries to bar travelers from the United Kingdom.
Oman’s trade routes will remain open, with cargo flights exempted from the restrictions.
The sultanate has struggled to contain a major outbreak that has infected over 127,900 people, although cases have declined in recent months.
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 U.K. 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.
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 U.K. 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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.