Dutch return to partial lockdown as virus cases soar

Customers sit on a terrace alongside a canal in Amsterdam, on April 28, 2021, as the Dutch government eased the restrictions put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
(FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

MOSCOW / BRASILIA / VIENNA / GENEVA / OTTAWA / AMSTERDAM – The Netherlands returns to a partial lockdown from Saturday after the government ordered restaurants and shops to close early and barred spectators from major sporting events in an effort to contain a rapid surge in COVID-19 cases.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte said restrictions that the Dutch people had thought had ended for good were being re-imposed for three weeks.

Tonight we are bringing a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching measures. The virus is everywhere and needs to be combated everywhere.

Mark Rutte, caretaker PM, the Netherlands

Supermarkets and non-essential retailers will also close earlier and social distancing measures will be re-imposed. The government recommended that no more than four visitors be received at home, effective immediately.

Cafes and nightclubs will have to close at 8 pm from Saturday.

"Tonight we are bringing a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching measures," Rutte said in a televised address on Friday evening. "The virus is everywhere and needs to be combated everywhere."

A group of around 100 anti-lockdown protesters gathered outside the government building in The Hague where Rutte was speaking. Several people were detained for setting off fireworks and throwing objects at the police.

The government was also exploring ways to restrict access to indoor venues for people who have not been vaccinated, a politically sensitive measure that would require parliamentary approval.

ALSO READ: COVID-19 epicenter again: Europe faces fresh reckoning

New infections topped 16,000 for the second day in a row on Friday, beating the previous record of just under 13,000 confirmed cases in a day set in December last year.

Rutte instructed people to work from home whenever possible, and said no spectators would be allowed in the coming weeks to attend sporting events, including the Dutch soccer team's World Cup qualifier against Norway on Tuesday.

Schools, theatres and cinemas will remain open.

Demonstrators with the Austrian national flag take part in a protest against the government's anti-epidemic measures, in Vienna, on Sept 11, 2021.
(JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Austria

Austria's government is likely to decide on Sunday to impose a lockdown on people who are not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus as daily infections have surged to record levels, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday.

Schallenberg did not say when the lockdown would take effect, but the two provinces hardest-hit by this wave of infections, Upper Austria and Salzburg, will introduce the measure for themselves on Monday.

Roughly 65 percent of Austria's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe. Many Austrians are skeptical about vaccines, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest in parliament.

"The aim is very clear: that we give the green light this Sunday for a nationwide lockdown for the unvaccinated," Schallenberg, a conservative, told a news conference, adding that intensive-care units are increasingly strained.

"The development is such that I do not think it is sensible to wait … We will take this step now and my wish is that we take this step on Sunday and nationally for all nine provinces."

Schallenberg said on Thursday the unvaccinated would face the same restrictions on their daily movements that the whole country endured in three lockdowns last year.

Schallenberg wants to avoid placing further restrictions on those who are vaccinated to encourage holdouts to get a shot. Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said health workers will be required to get vaccinated.

In possibly a bigger blow to Austria's economy than the planned lockdown its biggest source of tourists, Germany, will classify the country a high-risk region as of Sunday, imposing a quarantine on people arriving from there. Austria is a popular destination for winter sports.

Brazil

Brazil's Supreme Court on Friday suspended a government order that prevented companies from requiring employees to provide proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and stopped dismissals of those not immunized.

Brazil has suffered the second-deadliest coronavirus pandemic outside of the United States.

ALSO READ: WHO warns vaccine alone won't end pandemic

Justice Luis Roberto Barroso said the pandemic had killed 610,000 Brazilians and it was reasonable to surmise that the presence of unvaccinated employees poses a threat to the health of the others.

"The lack of vaccination interferes with the rights of others," he wrote in his judgment, issuing an injunction sought by four opposition parties.

The government order was issued earlier his month by Labor Minister Onyx Lorenzoni, who said that allowing companies to fire employees who refuse to get vaccinated was absurd and a violation of their rights.

Canada

Canada's COVID-19 cases are creeping higher as cold weather approaches, health officials said on Friday, and more restrictive public health measures may be needed if cases continue to climb.

The seven-day average for new cases nationally is 2,500, 11 percent higher than last week, Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam said. Children under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated, are contracting COVID-19 more than all other age groups, she said.

However, a review of Pfizer/BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years should be completed in one to two weeks, said another official, sign inoculation for children could start this year.

Earlier this week, Ontario, Canada's most populous province, pushed back its plan to lift restrictions next week on the number of people who can congregate in restaurants, bars and other such "high-risk settings".

A tourist stands on the beach in Varadero, Matanzas province, Cuba, on Oct 22, 2021.
(YAMIL LAGE / AFP)

Cuba

The Cuban government is stripping away COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements for incoming travelers to help jump-start a tourism-dependent economy drowning in raging inflation and shortages of basic goods.

Starting Monday, only tourists without proof of vaccination will need to show a negative PCR test. The island dropped its mandatory quarantine requirements on Nov 7. And 70 percent of the population has now been vaccinated, the Ministry of Health said.

“The government doesn’t have any other choice but to reopen — the whole economy is focused on tourism,” said Carlos Alzugaray, an independent political analyst in Havana and a former diplomat. “They’re betting on tourism being the locomotive that will bring the economy back in force.”

Cuba saw a drop of almost 80 percent in international travelers this year through September, with just 280,913 international tourists arriving on the Caribbean island. Before the pandemic, the country was welcoming four million tourists per year.

Germany

Germany’s fourth wave of infections is hitting Europe’s biggest economy with full force and there’s no sign of record infection rates easing anytime soon, according to the country’s top health officials.

Some hospitals are already overwhelmed with patients, and efforts to speed up vaccinations won’t bring relief for weeks at the earliest, Lothar Wieler, the head of the RKI public-health institute, said Friday in Berlin. “The situation is serious,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a news conference with Wieler.

The number of new cases in Germany jumped by 48,640 and the seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people climbed to a record 263.7, according to the latest daily data from the RKI public-health institute.

Ireland

Ireland reported the most new cases since Jan 10, with government health advisers suggesting people should work from home where possible. 

There were 5,483 newly confirmed cases on Friday, the health ministry said in a statement. That is more than 1,500 cases above the previous peak in recent weeks. 

The jump in case numbers is “another indication of the very significant increase in the incidence of disease in almost all age-groups across the population,” chief medical officer Tony Holohan said.

Health ministry advisers have recommended people return to working from home, state broadcaster RTE reported on Friday. The government has yet to decide whether to go along with that recommendation.

Local residents in an observation area after receiving Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations in Oslo, Norway, Aug 2, 2021.
(FREDRIK SOLSTAD / BLOOMBERG)

Norway

A jump in COVID-19 infections is prompting Norway to roll out a third dose to everyone over 18 years old and will consider allowing a wider use of vaccine certificates by municipalities to stamp out regional outbreaks. 

“The infection will remain among us for several years to come, and there is a lot we can do together to prevent the virus from spreading, but we also need the protection vaccines provide,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store told reporters in Oslo on Friday.

Norway has fared the pandemic well, relying on its high vaccination coverage to relax close to all domestic restrictions. With infections now jumping to a record, the government is looking at allowing municipalities to use proof of vaccination more widely and will require all those who haven’t received an injection to be tested if they have had close contact with an infected person. 

Russia

The Russian government on Friday published a draft proposal to require QR codes as proof of immunity to COVID-19 from air and railway travelers up to June 1.

The government will decide later on the date when the rule would be implemented, transport minister Vitaly Savelyev said at a briefing broadcast on Friday.

The proposed laws, which have yet to be approved by the parliament, suggest that, starting from Feb 1, QR codes may be also needed to enter public places, including restaurants, but this set of restrictions may differ from region to region depending on the local infection rate.

Russia reports the highest number of daily infections since the start of the pandemic and has the third-highest coronavirus death toll in the world after the United States and Brazil.

Russian coronavirus-related deaths surpassed the 500,000 mark in November, the data from the coronavirus task force and the state statistics service Rosstat shows.

By imposing new restrictions the authorities try to speed up a slow vaccination campaign at a time when only about 40 percent of Russians are fully vaccinated.

A negative PCR-test can be presented instead of a proof of immunity to the coronavirus before Feb 1, the draft law says.

After this date, QR codes will be issued to those who have been vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 or have documents that prove that vaccination is not recommended for them for medical reasons, the documents said.

People wait after receiving the COVID-19 vaccines at a clinic hosted by The Tournament of Roses in partnership with the Pasadena Public Health Department, August 19, 2021 at Tournament House in Pasadena, California.
(ROBYN BECK / AFP)

United States

One in three Americans aged 65 and above has received a COVID-19 booster shot, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed on Friday.

The country had administered 437,352,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Friday morning and distributed 551,000,705 doses.

The agency said 225,606,197 people had received at least one dose while 194,747,839 people had been fully vaccinated as of 6 am ET on Friday.

WHO

World Health Organization officials said on Friday they were hoping to convene a meeting soon to set guidelines on the use of COVID-19 antiviral pills, saying they offered "very attractive" new prospects for clinical care.

Britain became the first country to approve one of the potentially game-changing pills earlier this month. Janet Diaz, the WHO's top official for clinical care responses, said that a meeting of its guidelines development group would consider the question of COVID pills in a forthcoming meeting in three weeks.

Another WHO official Mike Ryan said preliminary findings on the pills was "very, very welcome", adding that a "careful process" was not required before the therapies should be expanded more broadly.