UK abandons vaccine passport plans, health minister says

A boy at COVID-19 test station as he entered his new secondary school for the first time at Wales High school, Sheffield, England, Sept 3, 2021. (RUI VIEIRA/AP)

ADDIS ABABA / ATHENS / JOHANNESBURG – The UK will abandon plans to call for proof of vaccination to enter venues, and may soon drop mandatory testing for returning travelers as part of a further easing of coronavirus restrictions to be announced this week, even as cases surge. 

“I’ve never liked the idea of saying to people, ‘You must show your papers’ or something to do what is just an everyday activity,” Health Minister Sajid Javid said in an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday. 

The UK removed many of its coronavirus restrictions in July, but that initial step toward normality has been marred by a surge in cases of the Delta variant of the virus

“We’ve looked at it properly, and whilst we should keep it in reserve as a potential option, I’m pleased to say that we will not be going ahead with plans for vaccine passports.”

Earlier, on Sky News, Javid said a final decision on vaccine passports was still pending. 

Javid spoke ahead of steps expected to be announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday to manage COVID-19 over the autumn and winter. 

The UK removed many of its coronavirus restrictions in July, but that initial step toward normality has been marred by a surge in cases of the Delta variant of the virus. 

Still, Javid isn’t expecting any further lockdowns. “I think it will be irresponsible for any health minister around the world to take everything off the table, but I just don’t see how we get to another lockdown,” he said.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made similar comments on Sky, saying Scotland wasn’t in danger of another lockdown despite rising cases there.

The UK is on pace to start a vaccine booster program this month, Javid said. 

The health chief is also keen to end the costly PCR tests needed by UK travelers returning from certain countries. 

“I want to take that away as soon as I can, but it must be based on the public health’s advice,” he said. “We should only keep measures in place if they are absolutely totally necessary.”

Javid said that Johnson will this week announce that some of the measures in the Coronavirus Act, which were by necessity emergency powers, will be dropped. 

These include the power to shut down a business, to shut down education settings and to require certain restrictions around people who are infectious.

“A lot of these powers can go,” the health minister said. “But some of them are necessary to keep, such as requiring people to self-isolate if they test positive.”

The Times earlier reported that while Johnson may drop the need for proof of vaccination for entry to nightclubs, cinemas and sports grounds, companies that now require certification of vaccines will be able to continue doing so. 

Javid said there was no deadline for the government to finalize plans for vaccinations in 12- to 15-year-olds. The UK’s four chief medical officers are considering the issue, he said.  

On Times Radio, Javid said that schools have been preparing vaccination programs for if or when the green light is given. He said he was “confident” of a fast rollout. 

UK coronavirus cases remain high, but with the vaccine program well advanced — more than 80 percent of people over 16 are double-vaccinated — hospitalizations and deaths have remained lower than in previous waves. 

Fall and winter are typically times when illnesses like the coronavirus and flu are on the rise. 

Javid said that the UK would be making a big push on flu shots, potentially paired with coronavirus boosters, to keep the country as healthy as possible.

“Of course we’ll get Christmas,” he said. 

 Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 8,008,802 as of Saturday morning,  the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The Africa CDC, the specialized healthcare agency of the African Union, said the death toll from the pandemic across the continent stands at 202,534.  Some 7,280,838 patients across the continent have recovered from the disease so far.

South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia are among the countries with the most cases in the continent, according to the agency.

South Africa has recorded the most COVID-19 cases in Africa with 2,848,925 cases, while the northern African country Morocco reported 899,581 cases as of Saturday morning.

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In terms of the caseload, southern Africa is the most affected region, followed by the northern and eastern parts of the continent, while central Africa is the least affected region in the continent, according to the Africa CDC. 

A volunteer checks information of a COVID-19 vaccine recipient at a vaccination site in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug 20, 2021. (CHEN CHENG / XINHUA)

Greece

Greek police fired tear gas and water canon on Saturday to break up a demonstration of thousands of people protesting against mandatory coronavirus vaccinations.

Authorities said protesters hurled flares at police in Greece's second-biggest city of Thessaloniki, who blocked them from trying to reach the area where Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was due to deliver his annual economic address.

The annual speech typically attracts crowds of demonstrators, and police estimated more than 15,000 people, including labour unions, took part in the demonstrations on issues ranging from economic policy to COVID-19 vaccines.

Protests against COVID-19 vaccinations began in July after the government announced the mandatory inoculation of health care workers and nursing home staff. Authorities have suggested vaccines could become obligatory for other groups too, such as teachers.

"Yes to vaccines, but not mandatorily," the federation of public hospital workers, POEDYN, said in a statement.

Greece has suspended nearly 6,000 frontline health care workers from their jobs for missing a Sept. 1 deadline to get at least one vaccine shot. Earlier this month, it offered unvaccinated healthcare workers a second chance to get a shot and allow those who have been suspended to return to work.

POEDYN is worried that a total of 10,000 unvaccinated staff could be suspended, disrupting operations at understaffed hospitals at a time when infections remain high.

Demonstrations against compulsory vaccination also took place in Istanbul on Saturday, where more than 2,000 Turks protested against the government's new inoculation push. 

Around 5.7 million Greeks, or 55 percent of the population, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 59 percent have received one dose, according to the latest official figures.

The country recorded 2,197 confirmed new infections on Saturday, and 39 deaths.

Mauritius

The tourism-dependent nation of Mauritius plans to roll out a booster-dose vaccination campaign from next month after taking into account recent studies and situation prevailing in other countries, Le Dimanche/L’Hebdo reported.

An additional dose is imperative for better efficiency and protection, the report said, citing Catherine Gaud, a senior advisor at the health ministry. Vaccines used in the Indian Ocean island so far are AstraZeneca’s Covishield, Sinopharm, Covaxin, Sputnik and Johnson & Johnson.

Morocco

Morocco registered 3,113 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking its nationwide tally to 902,604 on Saturday.

The total number of recoveries from COVID-19 in Morocco increased to 853,397 after 3,716 new ones were added, the health ministry said in a statement.

The death toll rose by 52 to 13,488, while 1,826 people are in intensive care units, it added.

Meanwhile, a total of 19,939,305 people have received their first vaccine shots against COVID-19 in the country, with 16,428,305 having received two doses.

The North African country launched a nationwide vaccination campaign on Jan 28 after the arrival of the first shipment of China's Sinopharm vaccine.  

South Africa

Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech on Friday launched the Phase III clinical trial of its COVID-19 vaccine on a group of children and teenagers between six months and 17 years old in South Africa.

The study, carried out in collaboration with South African company Numolux Group, has enrolled approximately 2,000 participants in the country, who will receive two doses of Sinovac's CoronaVac vaccine or a placebo, 28 days apart. The efficacy assessment will be based on relevant indicators.

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Numolux CEO Hilton Klein said that there are roughly 24 million children and teenagers in South Africa, and that if the vaccine made by Sinovac is approved for use on them, it will help the country reach herd immunity more quickly.

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority authorized the use of the CoronaVac vaccine on the country's adults in July.