Masks mandatory for outdoor public gatherings in Paris


Paris has made the wearing of face masks outdoors mandatory again at public gatherings as the Covid-19 infection rate in the French capital soars, police said.

The police prefecture said in a statement that masks will have to be worn for gathering in public spaces, at festivals and spectacles, on markets and when standing in line.

Meanwhile, Belgium has detected Europe’s first confirmed case of the Omicron variant and at the same time has announced measures aimed at curbing a rapidly spreading fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a news conference that a case of variant B.1.1.529 had been found in an unvaccinated person who had developed symptoms and tested positive on 22 November.

“It is a suspicious variant. We do not know if it is a very dangerous variant,” he said.

The new coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa, has caused global alarm, with the EU, Britain and Canada among those tightening border controls as researchers seek to find out if the mutation is vaccine-resistant.

Belgium’s national reference laboratory said the infected person was a young adult woman who had developed symptoms 11 days after returning from a trip to Egypt via Turkey. She had flu-like symptoms, but no signs to date of severe disease.

None of her household members developed symptoms, but were being tested.

The new variant has emerged as Belgium and many other European countries are battling a surge in coronavirus infections.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced that nightclubs would close and bars and restaurants would have to shut by 11pm for three weeks from tomorrow, and have a maximum six people per table.

The strain on the health service was mounting, Mr De Croo told a news conference, adding: “If we did not have such a high rate of vaccination today, we would be in an absolutely drastic situation”.

Under the new rules, private parties and gatherings are also banned, unless they are for weddings or funerals, and Belgians will have to do shopping on their own.

The country’s health ministers will meet tomorrow to discuss accelerating the roll-out of vaccine booster doses.

Belgium has the sixth-highest number of cases per capita rate in Europe, behind the likes of Austria and Slovakia that have re-entered lockdowns.

The fatality rate though is just below the EU average, with 75% of the population vaccinated against the virus.

Israel finds case of Covid variant first detected in South Africa

Israel has also identified a case of the Omicron variant, its health ministry has said.

“The variant discovered in southern African states has been identified in Israel,” the ministry said, adding it was recorded “in a person who returned from Malawi”.

Two more cases were detected in “people returning from abroad”, it said, adding that they had been placed in quarantine.

The three people were all vaccinated, the health ministry said, without specifying the number of doses or the type of vaccine.

Israel was one of the first countries to launch vaccines against the coronavirus last year thanks to a deal with Pfizer that gave it access to millions of doses in exchange for data on the vaccine’s efficacy.

More than 5.7 million of the country’s nine million people are now fully vaccinated.

Israel had already last night placed on its “red list” the southern African nations of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe because of the discovery of the variant.

On Tuesday, Israel rolled out Covid-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11, one of only a handful of countries to inoculate minors that young as it seeks to stem another pandemic wave.

Earlier this month, Israel held a “war game drill” in case of an outbreak of a new lethal variant of Covid-19.

The simulation covered different aspects of a crisis, including mass inoculation, ordering curfews and imposing a flight ban.

Germany to declare South Africa virus variant area – sources

Germany will declare South Africa a virus variant area after the detection of a new Covid-19 variant there, a health ministry source said.

The decision, which will come into effect from tonight, will mean airlines will be allowed to fly only Germans to Germany from South Africa, according to the source.

Returning Germans, even those who are vaccinated, will then have to spend 14 days in quarantine.

“This newly discovered variant worries us. That is why we are acting pro-actively and early here,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

“The last thing we need now is a new variant being introduced that causes even more problems.”

It comes as Germany reported a new record of more than 76,000 Covid-19 infections in a day as its air force got ready for the first time in the pandemic to fly severely ill patients to other parts of the country to unburden struggling hospitals.

Italy imposes entry ban on southern African states over variant

Italy has imposed an entry ban on people who have visited a group of southern African states, including South Africa, in the last 14 days, due to the spread of a new Covid-19 variant there.

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza signed an executive order banning entry from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini in last 14 days, a statement said.

“Our scientists are studying the new B.1.1.529 variant. In the meantime, we will adopt the greatest possible caution,” Mr Speranza said.

The variant has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, South African scientists say.

India to tighten Covid-19 testing for tourists amid new variant concerns

India issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other “at risk” countries amid concerns over the new variant, after easing some of its travel restrictions earlier this month.

The federal health ministry said reports of mutations in the variant had “serious public health implications”.

“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said in a letter to states late yesterday.

While some major Asian countries rushed to tighten border controls and restrict travellers, India had not yet issued a notification, a senior government source said.

“This has not been studied fully by Ministry of Health,” the source said.

India, the world’s second-worst affected country by Covid-19, posted the smallest rise in new cases in one-and-a-half years this week, due to rising vaccinations and antibodies in a large section of its population from previous infections.

The country’s total cases of the coronavirus reached 34.56 million today. India’s daily caseload has halved since September and the country reported 10,549 new cases.

Earlier this month, India identified ten countries “at risk” that includes Europe, Britain, China, South Africa, and New Zealand, among others. And has opened its borders to 99 countries overall.

Ban on flights from Southern Africa ‘a possibility’ – US

The Chief Medical Advisor to the US President has said a ban on flights from Southern Africa was a possibility and the United States was rushing to gather data on the new Covid-19 variant.

Dr Anthony Fauci said that no decision to halt flights had yet been made.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, said White House officials were discussing potential travel restrictions on southern African countries.

Those officials were expected to meet with agency officials this afternoon to make a recommendation, the newspaper said, without specifying which agency.

The White House referred to Mr Fauci’s earlier comments when asked about the report and declined further comment.

“There is always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Mr Fauci said in an interview on CNN.

“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do. You’re prepared to do everything you need to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that,” he said.

“Obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can.”

Mr Fauci said US scientists would speak with South African counterparts today about the new variant,which has raised concern about its transmissibility and whether it might evade immune responses.

He added that there was no indication that the new variant was already in the United States.

Canada bans travelers from seven African countries

Canada has banned travelers from seven African countries – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – over concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant.

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