Coronavirus

Covid live: Austria cases hit new record as provinces prepare full lockdown; Slovakia to impose lockdown for unvaccinated

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Hungary to make booster jab mandatory for healthcare workers

Hungary will make a third Covid shot mandatory for all healthcare workers and will require protective mask wearing in most enclosed places from Saturday, Viktor Orbán’s chief of staff said on Thursday.

Gergely Gulyás also told a government briefing that only vaccines can provide protection against coronavirus as case numbers are rising.

“The government’s advice is that everyone should get a booster shot, which is possible to get four months after the second dose,” Gulyás said.

Hungary reported 10,767 new Covid infections on Thursday, its highest daily tally since the end of March, and 131 people died of the virus the previous day.

The daily number of new infections is getting close to the peak of 11,265 reached during the third wave of the pandemic.

Hungary has hardly any restrictions in place and the vaccination rate is below the European Union average.

The steady rise in new Covid infections prompted the Hungarian Medical Chamber to call on Wednesday for strict measures.

The chamber called for a ban on mass events and mandatory mask wearing in enclosed spaces and said that entry to restaurants, theatres and cinemas should be conditional on a Covid immunity certificate.

Updated

Mark Brown

One of the most peculiar monuments in the UK is to be spectacularly lit up to be seen from as far as 20 miles away and accompanied by a blasting soundtrack including music by the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen.

Penshaw Monument is a 20-metre replica of the ancient Greek temple of Hephaestus built by the Victorians on a hill near Sunderland. It was intended to commemorate John Lambton, the first earl of Durham, a Whig politician whose nickname was Radical Jack. This weekend it elegantly commemorates the victims of Covid-19 as part of Lumiere in Durham, the UK’s largest light festival.

The work, A Telling of Light by the artists Elaine Buckholtz and Ian Winters, is a huge technical challenge involving about 140,000 separate points of light in tribute to the UK death toll from coronavirus.

The installation has been commissioned to commemorate the huge number of lives lost to Covid in the UK and is visible from up to 20 miles away.
The installation has been commissioned to commemorate the huge number of lives lost to Covid in the UK and is visible from up to 20 miles away. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Buckholtz said they were offering visitors a place to mourn but also to be inspired. “Sometimes it looks like a chariot in the sky. It feels like it’s not reachable, but it’s there. For me it speaks to the relationship between life and death.”

She said the intention had been to create a sublime, communal experience.

No one has been able to mourn together. Everyone has been separate. A lot of people haven’t even had a funeral so we wanted to create a place for people to be together and honour their losses.

Get the full story here:

Updated

Slovakia to impose lockdown for the unvaccinated

Slovakia will impose stricter measures for people who have not been vaccinated against coronavirus amid a surge in infections and hospital admissions that is stretching the health system, the prime minister Eduard Heger said on Thursday.

The country of 5.5 million has seen a record number of cases in the past few days, topping 8,000 on Tuesday, and said earlier this week that it had few intensive care beds available for coronavirus patients.

“It is a lockdown for the unvaccinated,” Heger told a news conference shown live on television.

Under the new rules, only people who have been vaccinated or who have had Covid in the past six months will be allowed to enter restaurants, shopping malls, shops with non-essential goods, sports activities and public events.

The measures, taking effect on Monday and foreseen for three weeks, echo those adopted in neighbouring Austria from this week. Tighter rules will exempt those vaccinated and those who have overcome Covid in the past six months.

Slovakia has one of the European Union’s lowest vaccination rates, with 45% of the total population vaccinated versus the EU average of 65%. It has reported 13,725 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Some services will face further restrictions in most-affected regions even for those vaccinated, with restaurants only being able to serve takeaway.

The new rules include the requirement to test unvaccinated people in workplaces in all but the least-affected regions. Heger said vaccinated people would be the first to benefit from an ease in restrictions.

Updated

The German region hardest hit by the country’s fourth wave of coronavirus is considering a partial lockdown, local media reported on Thursday as regional and federal leaders discussed tighter rules nationwide.

Saxony, which has Germany’s lowest vaccination rate and highest infection rate, is considering measures such as closing theatres, concerts and soccer games to the public and shutting bars and discos, according to Bild newspaper.

The eastern region, where daily infections have risen 14-fold in the past month, is a stronghold of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which harbours many vaccine sceptics who have joined anti-lockdown protests.

A Forsa poll published earlier this month found that half of unvaccinated respondents in Germany had voted for the rightwing populist AfD in the recent federal election.

“This coalition is ready to now impose a hard and clear wave breaker,” Saxony’s leader, Michael Kretschmer, told the national parliament, according to Bild. The specifics would be hammered out this week, he said.

The announcement comes the same week Austria imposed a lockdown for the unvaccinated. Kretschmer said he did not believe targeting only the unvaccinated was enough.

German federal and regional leaders will later on Thursday discuss nationwide measures to tackle the pandemic as cases continue to touch new record highs although the rate of increase is slowing down slightly.

Europe’s latest coronavirus wave comes at an awkward time in Germany with the chancellor, Angela Merkel, acting in a caretaker capacity while three other parties negotiate to form a new government after an inconclusive September election.

Those three parties shepherded a law authorising a package of measures to tackle the pandemic through the Bundestag earlier on Thursday. On Friday, the law, which is designed to come into effect as emergency powers expire, goes to the Bundesrat.

The law will tighten some measures currently in place, forcing people to show proof of vaccination or recovery or a negative Covid test on public transport and at work, in addition to wearing face masks. It will also provide states with a toolbox of other measures depending on the severity of their outbreak, with infection rates currently much higher in eastern and southern Germany.

But some, especially among Merkel’s conservatives who are likely heading into the opposition after 16 years in power, feel it does not go far enough. They would prefer to see the state of emergency, which allows the government to impose school closures and blanket lockdowns without consulting the parliament, to be extended. Merkel described Germany’s Covid situation as “dramatic” on Wednesday.

Separately, Germany’s vaccine advisory committee on Thursday recommended Covid-19 vaccine booster shots for all people aged over 18.

Vaccinations have picked up lately in Germany, which has a history of vaccine resistance, although largely due to the uptake of booster shots as more indoor gatherings due to colder weather raises the risk of spreading the virus.

Updated

Pfizer Inc has signed a $5.29bn deal with the US government to deliver 10m courses of its Covid-19 oral antiviral drug starting this year, the drugmaker said on Thursday.

The oral drug could be a promising new weapon in the fight against the pandemic, as it can be taken as an early at-home treatment to help prevent hospitalisations and deaths.

Pfizer on Tuesday filed for US authorisation of the drug, Paxlovid, and said it expects to manufacture 180,000 treatment courses by the end of next month and at least 50m courses by the end of 2022.

“This promising treatment could help accelerate our path out of this pandemic by offering another life-saving tool for people who get sick with Covid-19,” said Xavier Becerra, secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

The company earlier this month said the drug cut by 89% the chance of hospitalisation or death for adults at risk of severe disease.

The trial’s results suggest that Pfizer’s drug surpasses Merck & Co Inc’s pill, molnupiravir, which was shown last month to halve the chance of dying or being hospitalised for patients with Covid at high risk of serious illness.

The US government has also signed a contract worth $2.2bn for courses of the Merck drug.

Updated

Peter Walker

A “shambolic” rollout of third Covid vaccinations in England has left an unknown number of immunocompromised people still without proper protection going into winter, and in other cases even given the wrong type of injection, a leading charity has said.

Blood Cancer UK said a combination of poor planning and confusing messaging meant “many thousands” of people with weakened immune systems might have missed out, leaving them at greater risk of serious consequences if they catch Covid.

In a lengthy statement, the charity said NHS England had repeatedly failed to acknowledge the problem, while Sajid Javid, the health secretary, incorrectly said more than six weeks ago that the “vast, vast majority” of eligible people had already been invited for a third jab.

People were still coming forward to say they were struggling to get a third dose, said Gemma Peters, the chief executive of Blood Cancer UK. “The rollout of the third doses has been shambolic, causing yet more anxiety for immunocompromised people.”

The full story is here:

Nicola Davis

Only 63% of people in England believe information from the government about coronavirus can be trusted, official figures suggest, with a similar proportion reporting that they have taken additional measures, beyond those in in government guidelines and recommendations, to keep themselves and others safe.

The experimental statistics come from the first bulletin of a new survey, published by the Office for National Statistics, looking at the behaviour of fully-vaccinated people who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid.

Since 16 August, such contacts no longer have to self-isolate. Instead, advice of testing and guidance on preventing the spread of Covid is provided by Test and Trace.

“Even if you do not have symptoms, you will be advised to have a PCR test as soon as possible,” the guidance states.

The results of the survey, conducted between 25 and 30 October, involved 1,100 adults, with percentages weighted to be representative of the fully-vaccinated “contacts” population in England, reveals 90% of respondents reported wearing a face mask in shops before being alerted to being a contact of a Covid case.

And 91% of respondents reported taking either a lateral flow or PCR test after being contacted by NHS Test and Trace or the app – 13% of which tested positive.

However, only about 60% of all respondents said they trusted government information around Covid. A similar proportion revealed they went above and beyond government guidelines and recommendations to keep themselves and their families safe.

The survey has limitations, including that it is based on a limited sample and behaviours were self-reported.

But Dr Simon Williams, senior lecturer in people and organisation at Swansea University, said the data was important.

“This report again shows how much individual responsibility most people are taking to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, it also suggests that government should be providing more or clearer guidance on what additional measures could be taken,” he said, adding that a third of respondents felt guidance on self-isolation for double-vaccinated people was inadequate.

Williams added the data also show the importance of the booster: of those who had received two doses of the vaccine, 82% did not develop symptoms, compared with 96% of those who had also had a booster dose.

“This is a reminder of how essential it is that people accept their booster jab when offered and how authorities need to roll it out as quickly as possible,” he said.

Updated

Austrian Covid cases keep rising as provinces prepare full lockdown

Pressure on Austria’s government to impose a full Covid lockdown is growing as its worst-hit provinces said on Thursday they would adopt the measure for themselves since infections are still rising despite the current lockdown for the unvaccinated.

Roughly 66% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. Its infections are among the highest on the continent, with a seven-day incidence of 971.5 per 100,000 people.

As winter approaches, cases have surged across Europe, prompting governments to consider reimposing unpopular lockdowns. The Netherlands has imposed a partial lockdown that applies to all, but Austria has sought not to impose extra restrictions on the fully vaccinated.

“We have very, very little room for manoeuvre,” the conservative governor of Upper Austria, Thomas Stelzer, told the province’s parliament, referring to its strained intensive-care units.

Upper Austria, a stronghold of the far-right and vaccine-criticising Freedom Party, has the country’s highest infection rate and its lowest vaccination rate.

It and neighbouring Salzburg are the hardest-hit of Austria’s nine provinces. Both border Germany.

“If no national lockdown is ordered tomorrow, there will definitely have to be a lockdown of several weeks in Upper Austria together with our neighbouring province Salzburg as of next week,” Stelzer said.

The conservative-led provincial government of Salzburg, which this week said it was preparing for a possible triage situation in which the number of people needing intensive-care beds exceeds supply, confirmed in a statement that it is planning a joint lockdown with Upper Austria.

Austria’s governors are holding a meeting on Friday with the conservative chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and the health minister Wolfgang Mückstein.

Daily infections on Thursday reached a new record of 15,145. The biggest wave before this peaked at 9,586 a year ago, when Austria went into full lockdown.

Updated

Greece has ordered private sector doctors in five regions in the north of the country to assist its health system as it grapples with a rise in Covid infections, Reuters reports.

The government had called on private sector doctors to help out earlier this month, as Greece’s public hospitals and intensive care wards have been overwhelmed by rising infections in recent weeks.

The requisition order, published in the official government gazette on Thursday, is effective for a month.

Greece reported 6,682 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday and 87 deaths, bringing total infections to 853,841 since the pandemic began last year, while 17,012 people have died.

Earlier in November, the government imposed restrictions to unvaccinated citizens in an effort to curb soaring infections.

The prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is expected to address the nation later on Thursday, calling for more Greeks to get vaccinated.

About 61.8% of a population of about 11 million are fully vaccinated, while authorities had hoped for a rate of about 70% by autumn.

Updated

Good morning from London. I’m Lucy Campbell, I’ll be bringing you all the latest global developments on the coronavirus pandemic for the next eight hours. Please feel free to get in touch with me as I work if you have a story or tips to share! Your thoughts are always welcome.

Email: lucy.campbell@theguardian.com

Twitter: @lucy_campbell_

  • The head of Germany’s disease control agency has warned that the country faces a “really terrible Christmas” unless steps are taken to counter the sharp rise in coronavirus infections.
  • The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control agency, said on Thursday that 65,371 newly confirmed cases had been reported in a single day, continuing the upward trend that experts have been warning about for weeks. It is another new daily record.
  • “We are currently heading toward a serious emergency,” the agency’s director, Lothar Wieler, said. “We are going to have a really terrible Christmas if we don’t take countermeasures now.”
  • Russia has had a remarkably consistent set of official Covid death figures. Since first rising above 1,000 on 20 October, they have gradually crept up to hover around the 1,200 mark. The country today has set a new highest official record for deaths at 1,251. There were 37,374 nationwide infections recorded. This is down slightly from the peak daily caseload of 41,335 recorded on 6 November.
  • Virologists in the Netherlands have proposed extending holidays over Christmas to slow a surge in Covid-19 cases among children that has forced half of schools nationwide to send classes home.
  • Sweden is introducing a digital Covid-19 vaccination certificate for public gatherings and events with more than 100 people indoors, authorities said Wednesday.
  • Children aged 12 and over who have had a Covid-19 infection should not get a vaccine until 12 weeks later, UK officials have said.
  • A rise in coronavirus cases in the UK is likely in the new year when schools return after the festive break, an expert has warned, adding that he is “cautiously optimistic” for Christmas. Prof Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Study app, has reiterated his belief that people could have to deal with Covid-19 for the next five years and insisted it is important to look “much further ahead and not just to save Christmas”.
  • Scientists studying an offshoot of the Covid Delta variant on the rise in England and known as AY.4.2, found it is less likely to cause symptoms than the dominant Delta variant, AY.4.
  • A steep rise in Covid-19 cases in Europe should serve as a warning that the US could also see significant increases in coronavirus cases this winter, particularly in the nation’s colder regions, scientists say. “I do expect to see cases increasing – we’ve started to see this in the last week or so,” said Dr David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
  • South Korea has reported its biggest daily jump in coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic. The 3,292 new cases reported by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Thursday marked the second straight day of over 3,000 cases
  • China has reported a third Covid-19 case among foreign athletes at preparatory events ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. A foreign athlete participating in the Luge World Cup in Beijing was confirmed on Tuesday as being an asymptomatic case after a routine Covid test.
  • The detention of Zhang Zhan, the Chinese journalist jailed after reporting on the Covid pandemic in Wuhan, is intended as a “warning to others”, her former lawyer has said, as calls grow for her emergency release on medical grounds.
  • Indigenous health workers in the Northern Territory town of Katherine in Australia say they fear for vulnerable community members – including many living on the streets or in severely overcrowded homes – as authorities scramble to contain a Covid outbreak.

Andrew Sparrow has our UK politics live blog. Lucy Campbell will be here shortly to carry on bringing you the latest coronavirus developments from the UK and around the world. I will be back tomorrow, but right now I am off to go and host the comments on our regular Thursday quiz. I will maybe see you there.

Virologists in the Netherlands have proposed extending holidays over Christmas to slow a surge in Covid-19 cases among children that has forced half of schools nationwide to send classes home.

The National Institute for Health (RIVM) this week reported a record of over 110,000 weekly cases through 16 November, an increase of 44% from the week before. The strongest rise was among children aged between four and 12.

Anthony Deutsch and Bart Meijer report for Reuters that infections among children of primary school age, five to nine, jumped almost 85% and rose 76% among children aged 10-14.

“Keeping primary schools closed for longer is an effective way to keep the virus under control,” the immunologist Ger Rijkers told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper. “Children are virus factories and infect adults as well as each other.”

Not all experts say closing schools is the best option, but Marion Koopmans, a virologist and member of the country’s leading Covid-19 advisory board, told the paper “we need to consider other measures” if rates don’t fall.

The latest wave began after the government ended social distancing and other measures in September, a decision that has since been reversed.

Caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte’s proposal to exclude the non-vaccinated from a pass for indoor events has faced opposition in parliament. Rutte’s government has reintroduced protective mask-wearing in stores and reimposed a partial lockdown.

Updated

Here’s the chart showing the latest Covid incidence rates across Europe. Germany has again set a daily record for new cases, as part of wave of infection that appears to be gradually moving westwards across the continent. [See 9.16am]

A rise in coronavirus cases in the UK is likely in the new year when schools return after the festive break, an expert has warned, adding that he is “cautiously optimistic” for Christmas.

It is clear that children and school holidays play “a key role in the waves of infection”, said Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London.

PA Media report that the lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Study app reiterated his belief that people could have to deal with Covid-19 for the next five years and insisted it is important to look “much further ahead and not just to save Christmas”.

He stressed the importance of “healthy behaviours such as working more from home when possible and self-isolation with all symptoms”, as well as wearing face coverings in high-risk areas.

But Prof Spector said the most important thing is to get fully vaccinated, a term he said must be redefined to having three doses “to protect us all from Delta and the inevitable new variants of Covid yet to come”.

Andrew Sparrow has launched our UK politics live blog. He will be no doubt absorbed with rail announcements and the ongoing Tory sleaze allegations, so I will be continuing here with UK Covid lines, as well as the latest coronavirus news from around the world.

RKI director: Germany is ‘heading toward a serious emergency’ and ‘a really terrible Christmas’

The head of Germany’s disease control agency has warned that the country faces a “really terrible Christmas” unless steps are taken to counter the sharp rise in coronavirus infections.

German lawmakers are debating measures today that would replace the nationwide epidemic rules, which will expire at the end of the month.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control agency, said on Thursday that 65,371 newly confirmed cases had been reported in a single day, continuing the upward trend that experts have been warning about for weeks. It is another new daily record.

“We are currently heading toward a serious emergency,” the agency’s director, Lothar Wieler, said. “We are going to have a really terrible Christmas if we don’t take countermeasures now.”

Wieler said Germany needs to increase its vaccination rates to significantly above 75%, from 67.7% at present. Some regions in Germany have vaccination rates as low as 57.6%.

He warned that hospitals across Germany were struggling to find beds for Covid-19 patients and those with other illnesses.

Associated Press reports that he also called for the closure of clubs and bars, an end to large-scale events and access to many parts of public life to be limited to those with vaccine or recovery certificates.

Updated

China making example of jailed Wuhan Covid journalist, says lawyer

Helen Davidson

The detention of Zhang Zhan, the Chinese journalist jailed after reporting on the Covid pandemic in Wuhan, is intended as a “warning to others”, her former lawyer has said, as calls grow for her emergency release on medical grounds.

Hundreds of Chinese human rights lawyers and citizens have put their names to an open letter calling for immediate medical care for Zhang, who her family fear is close to death. Zhang has been on a hunger strike for more than a year in protest at her persecution for reporting on the Wuhan lockdown in early 2020.

Her reports challenged official claims about the Wuhan lockdown and the outbreak, which authorities had attempted to cover-up. On Thursday she was awarded the Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 Press Freedom award for courage.

Zhang, a 38-year-old former lawyer, was sentenced in December last year to four years in jail on charges of disseminating false information in her video and blog reports from Wuhan and in interviews with foreign press. She was first arrested in May of that year, accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – an accusation commonly used against dissidents, activists and journalists.

Read more of Helen Davidson’s report from Taipei: China making example of jailed Wuhan Covid journalist, says lawyer

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