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Coronavirus: European countries tighten controls amid COVID-19 second wave fears

Local lockdowns expand in the UK

Oldham became the latest British city on Tuesday to impose local measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 following a spike in infections.

It comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the government’s decision to recommend against all but essential travel to Spain.

“Let’s be absolutely clear about what’s happening in Europe, amongst some of our European friends, I’m afraid you are starting to see in some places the signs of a second wave of the pandemic,” he said.

The 235,000 residents of Oldham, near Manchester, are being urged not to have social visitors at their home and to keep two metres apart from others when outside. Furthermore, rules regarding visiting loved ones in care homes are not being relaxed while vulnerable people currently shielding are being asked to extend their self-isolation by a further two weeks from July 31.

Oldham Council said the measures were imposed to avoid a stricter lockdown following a rise in new cases.

“We have seen 119 cases in the seven days to 25 July. By comparison, the week ending 17 July saw just 26 positive cases,” it said.

It also stressed that a “significant proportion of recent cases are multiple individuals from one household showing that household speed is a real issue”.

Earlier this month, similar measures were also introduced Rochdale, also near Manchester, as well as Blackburn with Darwen and Pendle, both located in Lancashire.

The UK is Europe’s hardest-hit country with more than 45,900 fatalities and over 302,000 infections recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Most lockdown measures have been eased across Britain although residents must wear face coverings when on public transport and indoor public spaces. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week that the government doesn’t “rule out bringing a national lockdown if that is needed”.

Pandemic ‘continues to accelerate’

Across Europe, other countries are taking measures to avoid being overwhelmed by another wave of COVID-19 infections.

The coronavirus pandemic “continues to accelerate,” with a doubling of cases over the last six weeks, the World Health Organization chief said.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said nearly 16 million cases have now been reported to the UN health agency, with more than 640,000 deaths worldwide.

“COVID-19 has changed our world,” he told reporters from WHO’s Geneva headquarters on Monday. “It has brought people, communities and nations together — and driven them apart.”

Belgium reimposes social distancing restrictions

Belgium’s prime minister on Monday unveiled a set of drastic social distancing measures aimed at avoiding a new general lockdown amid a surge of COVID-19 infections.

Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said that from next Wednesday contacts outside family circles will be limited to the same five people over the next four weeks. Belgian residents are currently allowed to meet with 15 different people. The measures don’t apply to children under the age of 12.

“Our aim is clear — avoid another full lockdown,” Wilmes said after a meeting of the national security council.

Wilmes said that the new measures — which also include lowering crowd limits at public events to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors — could be sufficient to avoid further restrictions and to ensure children can return to school en masse in September, after the summer break.

After a sharp decline of infections, Belgium has witnessed a surge in the number of confirmed cases over the past three weeks. According to figures released Monday, the number of confirmed cases rose 71% from July 17-23 compared to the previous 7 days, with 47% of the cases detected in Antwerp province.

The number of cases also increased greatly in the rest of the county, with an average of 279 new daily cases and a 30% rise in the number of people admitted to hospital.

France wants firms to build-up stock of face masks

France and Belgium are recommending that travellers ditch plans to spend their summer vacations in Barcelona and its nearby beaches, which have seen crowds too massive to allow for social distancing.

Also on Monday, the government sent a note to companies, advising them to “build a preventive stock of protective masks for ten weeks to be able to deal with a potential resurgence of the pandemic.”

The supply of protective masks has improved, yet the government urged employers they should “collectively ensure (they) have the necessary equipment to protect employees” to make sure they can carry on with their activities.

Starting 20 July, France mandated all customers to wear masks in stores and indoor venues. The measure was taken shortly after the Mayenne area of the Loire region has seen several COVID-19 outbreaks, and authorities have recorded a marginal increase in infections in the Paris region.

France has so far avoided reinforcing lockdown, but the country’s ‘R’ infection rate grew by a worryingly 1.3 on Saturday — this means that infected people contaminate 1.3 others on average.

The country’s daily reported infections are also rising, reaching over 1,100 on Friday.

Health authorities have warned France risks taking a backward step in the battle against the virus, which has killed over 30,000 people there, as current infection indicators resemble those seen in May at the end of the strict two-month lockdown.

“We have cancelled much of the progress that we’d achieved in the first weeks of lockdown-easing,” health authorities said, also warning that French citizens appear to be letting their guard down during their summer vacations and that those who test positive are not self-isolating enough.

French authorities recently enforced a €135 fine for people who do not wear face-mask in closed public spaces.

Spanish tourism industry looks at ways of mitigating spike in cases

Spain is fighting a new outbreak of coronavirus cases, which has prompted Britain to reintroduce a 14-day quarantine for travellers arriving from Spain.

Spanish hoteliers are suggesting that foreign tourists take a coronavirus test when they leave their own country and take another before they return home.

The Spanish Confederation of Hotels and Tourist Accommodation says such a Europe-wide rule would remove the need for all travellers to certain countries having to go into quarantine when they arrive home.

The confederation’s president, Jorge Marichal, said in a video posted on social media Monday that Spanish hotels are prepared to pay for tests on their guests at the end of their stay.

Catalonia’s regional government head Quim Torra said Monday the region was in a critical phase and effectively enforcing protective measures and staying at home would be crucial in preventing a second wave.

“We are facing the 10 most decisive days of summer,” Torra told journalists at a news conference in the government headquarters.

Last week Catalonia ordered all nightlife venues to close for 15 days and applied a midnight curfew on bars in and around Barcelona and Lleida in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, especially among young people.

But no new restrictions were announced Monday.

Germany introduces COVID-19 tests for travellers returning from high-risk areas

Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn announced that he would impose tests for the novel coronavirus on travellers returning from regions at risk in light of the rise in new cases.

“We must prevent returning travellers from contaminating other people without knowing it and thus triggering new chains of infection,” the minister said in a tweet on his official account, adding that he would accordingly “decree a compulsory test for travellers returning from high-risk regions”.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Chief of Staff Helge Braun urged Germans on Monday to bring the recent daily case numbers of more than 800 cases, back down below 500.

Helge Braun said an increase in infections over recent days gives “cause for concern.” He added that causes range from clusters among seasonal and meat industry workers to small outbreaks related to family meetings, travel and leisure activities.

Meanwhile, Bavaria’s Minister-President Markus Söder said he is concerned that the number of cases may rise again due to travellers from abroad and said he would like to introduce mandatory and cost-free COVID-19 tests at German airports and voluntary testing at the railway stations in Munich and Nuremberg, as well as at border crossings for automobiles.

He also wants to test all harvest workers — an entire farm with 500 people was quarantined in the German state of Bavaria on Sunday after 174 workers tested positive for the virus.

Authorities are confident the outbreak in the town of Mamming, in the Dingolfing-Landau district, has not spread outside the farm.

Infected and non-infected people have now been separated, while a fence has been erected around the farm and patrol guards have been deployed to make sure nobody leaves.

Greece set to expand mandatory masks

Authorities in Greece say they are likely to extend the mandatory use of masks at churches and shopping malls, citing the worsening public adherence to the government’s pandemic safety guidelines.

Greece has maintained a low infection rate since ending lockdown measures and opening up to tourism in recent weeks but has seen an increase in Summer infections in cities — reaching 4,193 total number of confirmed cases and 202 deaths by Sunday.

Cases in Austria on the rise

People in the Austrian resort town of St. Wolfgang, near Salzburg, were urged to stay at home after 44 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

It is believed the infection spread during parties in the town’s bars — two of which have now been temporarily closed as a preventive measure. All bars and clubs now have to shut by 11 pm.

Austria has seen a rise in cases after relaxing restrictions, prompting Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to announce last week the reintroduction of mandatory face masks in supermarkets, smaller grocery stores, post offices and banks.

Austria has reported over 20,000 cases and more than 700 related deaths so far.

Italian region introduces fines for mask dodgers

The southern Italian region of Campania has imposed a €1,000 for anyone who does not wear a mask. On top of the new fee, businesses could be forced to close for a duration of five to 30 days.

“If our fellow citizens think that the problem is resolved, that means that within a few weeks we will return to a hard emergency,” the region’s governor Vincenzo De Luca warned on Friday as he announced the move on Facebook.

The measure will apply to anybody not wearing a mask in an enclosed space, including public buildings, supermarkets, bars, restaurants, shops as well as public transport (buses, trains and subways).

Italy is one of the countries worst affected by the pandemic in Europe, accounting for over 242,000 cases and more than 35,000 deaths.

Elsewhere in the world

The deadliest day in Australia and new cases in Vietnam

On Monday, Australia’s Victoria state registered a new record number of 532 new COVID-19 cases and six people died within a day.

Victoria premier Daniel Andrews said the biggest source of new infections was people continuing to go to work after showing symptoms. He warned Melbourne’s lockdown will continue until they stopped.

On Sunday, Vietnam reimposed restrictions in one of its most popular beach destinations after a second person tested positive for the virus — these marked the first locally transmitted cases in the country in over three months.

Da Nang authorities banned gatherings of more than 30 people in public places as well as all sport, cultural and religious events in the city of 1.1 million.

China to help Hong Kong build virus field hospital

People in Hong Kong will be required to wear a mask in public from Wednesday, authorities said on Monday, unveiling several measures to deal with a new wave of coronavirus cases.

“The epidemic situation is extraordinarily serious in Hong Kong,” Deputy Chief Executive Matthew Cheung told reporters, announcing that public gatherings of more than two would be banned, and restaurants would not be allowed other than for takeaway services.

Cheung also said that Beijing had agreed to help Hong Kong to build a field hospital to cope with the increase in cases.

The densely-populated territory was one of the first areas affected by the epidemic and initially reported remarkable results against the virus.

But contaminations started to rise again a few weeks ago, which led authorities to order new social distancing measures.

More than a hundred cases have been recorded daily for the past five days, bringing the total of contaminations in the city from 7.5 million inhabitants to 2,600, for 19 deaths.

Hajj starts in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is preparing to host the great Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca on Wednesday, but this year with a very small number of worshippers due to the coronavirus pandemic — a first in modern history.

Only 10,000 people from Saudi Arabia, including foreign residents of the kingdom, are this year allowed to perform the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.

Some 2.5 million pilgrims made the great pilgrimage last year, many coming from abroad.

The foreign press is also not allowed, as the Saudi government has tightened access to Islam’s holiest city.

The number of reported cases of the virus reached 16 million worldwide on Sunday, including 260,000 cases recorded in Saudi Arabia.