In Europe, France, Belgium and Poland all tightened restrictions on Saturday as cases surged.
AS IRELAND CAUTIOUSLY reopens its society over the coming weeks in order to avoid another surge of the virus, countries worldwide have warned of rising incidence and implemented strict lockdown measures as vaccines are rolled out.
In Europe, France, Belgium and Poland all tightened restrictions on Saturday as cases surged.
France has admitted that the situation is “critical” and added three more departments to the 16 already under tight restrictions.
Around 20 million people in France, including those in the greater Paris region, are classed as living in high-infection zones.
They are not allowed to travel further than 10 kilometres (six miles) from their home unless they have an essential reason.
Checks at train stations, airports and toll-paying motorways have started to enforce the travel restrictions.
Only shops selling food, and book and music stores are open and classrooms in high schools are only running at half the capacity.
Daily cases in France have nearly doubled since the start of the month and there have been more than 200,000 new cases every week – the equivalent of 15,000 new cases per week in Ireland.
The country has administered first doses of vaccines to 13% of its population with 4.8% fully vaccinated.
Italy, meanwhile, is introducing a mandatory five-day quarantine for EU travellers amid a third wave.
Previously, only arrivals from outside the bloc had to self-isolate.
The decision comes as new rules requiring all air passengers to Germany to provide a negative coronavirus test come into effect.
Germany remains under a partial lockdown but cases there also continue to rise.
Belgium – which has similar vaccination rates to France but lower than Ireland – meanwhile closed all businesses involving non-medical physical contact such as hairdressers for four weeks at the weekend.
Shops offering “non-essential” services can only receive clients with appointments.
Poland closed creches, playgrounds, furniture and DIY stores, as well as beauty salons and barber shops.
These measures may not sounds overly strict in an Irish context considering the country has been living under a similar set of restrictions for more three months – but European leaders fear a deadly third wave across the continent will overtake the vaccination rollout if cases aren’t brought down.
There has been discussion ad nauseum about the EU’s slow vaccine rollout – with much of the focus recently on exports and, as EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen said last week, about levelling the playing field between Europe and other vaccines-producing countries like the UK and the US, which has blocked vaccine exports to Europe.
As cases rise across the continent, reliable deliveries and efficient rollouts will be key over the coming months.
Johnson & Johnson is expected to deliver 55 million doses of its one-shot vaccine to EU countries in April, May and June.
Pfizer/BioNTech is also set to deliver 200 million doses in Q2, with Moderna delivering 35 million doses.
“As for AstraZeneca, they will only deliver some 70 million doses. This is down from 180 million doses that they are contractually committed to delivering,” said von der Leyen last week, addressing the well-publicised setbacks with AstraZeneca.
Ireland receives 1.1% of all vaccines allocated to EU member states. The Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson doses due for EU distribution from 19 April translates into just over 2.9 million doses for Ireland in April, May and June.
If all deliveries go to plan and all doses are administered it will result in over 550,000 people in Ireland vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine, 192,500 with Moderna and 2 million million people with Pfizer/BioNTech.
As Europe waits, other nations have moved rapidly to vaccinate their populations. And yet the virus is still catching up.
In the United States yesterday, director of the CDC, Dr Rochelle Walensky, was speaking at a White House briefing when she said she was going to go “off script”.
“I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” Dr Walensky said, adding “we have so much reason for hope, but right now I’m scared”.
Even as vaccines are rapidly administered across the States, cases and hospitalisations are on the rise.
New Covid cases have reached around 60,000 a day in the past week, a rise of around 7%, according to US public health agency, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
President Joe Biden urged state politicians once again to make mask-wearing obligatory in public places.
He also promised that by mid-April 90% of American adults would be able to receive a vaccine.
Six states have so far lifted mask mandates and several more plan to do so in the first half of April.
American health workers have now administered 143 million shots, and 16% of the population is fully vaccinated, including half of over-65s.
The number of doses injected into arms accounts for some 26% of the world’s total, despite the fact the country is only 4% of the global population.
But the US is also by far the most affected country, with close to 550,000 deaths and more than 30 million confirmed cases.
The picture across Europe and the United States is clear – Vaccines can’t currently be administered quicker than Covid-19 can spread.
On a lighter note and in more positive news, a real-world study by the CDC on Monday showed that the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines, both based on new messenger RNA technology, reduced infection by 90% – with and without symptoms.
So how is Israel doing in that case?
The country has been closely watched as a bellwether for vaccine efficacy and delivery ever since it became the first country to undertake a mass vaccination campaign in January.
More than half the population (9.2 million) is now fully vaccinated. A total of 201 new cases were reported in Israel on Monday compared to more than 10,000 new cases on 20 January.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week emphasised his drive to obtain more vaccines from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in exchange for data on its effects.
Israel has had three lockdowns and 6,157 deaths from the pandemic.
As of Thursday, the positivity rate was 1.1 %, a drop from nearly 6% a month ago, according to the health ministry.
Vaccines are going far slower in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which has relied on donations and limited supplies from Israel.
South America, Africa, India
Meanwhile, Kenya became the latest African country to order a partial lockdown on Friday, shutting schools and bars in and around the capital Nairobi.
“I am convinced that the cost of not acting now would be far greater,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In India, too, a sharp rise in infections will see new measures with worst-hit state Maharashtra, including its mega-city Mumbai, put under night curfew from Sunday.
In Brazil, the political heat was turned up on President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday when his predecessor accused him of presiding over the “biggest genocide” in the country’s history.
“We must save Brazil from Covid-19,” said former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, adding: “Brazil will not withstand it if this man continues to govern in this way.
The country is currently experiencing one of the worst surges worldwide with the daily death toll having quadrupled since the start of the year to more than 2,600.
Vaccine shortages have put Bolsonaro’s government far off pace to meet the health ministry’s target of immunising the full adult population by the end of the year.
The administration faces questions over its rejection of an offer last August to buy 70 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – which Bolsonaro joked could “turn you into an alligator” – and its tense relations with Brazil’s top trade partner, China.
‘Big day’ in the UK
Finally, what’s the state of play across the water?
Ireland will be keenly watching the effects of the UK’s vaccine rollout and the government’s plan to fully reopen over the summer.
Boris Johnson appealed to the UK public on Monday to exercise caution as restrictions in England are eased amid fears of the new wave of the disease spreading from Europe.
Johnson acknowledged it had been a “big day” for many people as they were able to see friends and family outdoors for the first time since the latest controls were imposed earlier this year.
However, he said it was still not clear how “robust” the defences provided by the vaccination programme would prove if the rise in infections on the continent was repeated in the UK.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty – echoing remarks made here by NPHET in recent weeks – said there would be an inevitable uptick in cases as mobility increases and children return to school.
Whitty said the “wall of vaccination” would get stronger once people receive their second doses, underlining the importance of people attending for their follow-up jab.
“It is not a complete wall, it is a kind of leaky wall. Therefore, there will always be some people who either have chosen not to be vaccinated, or where the vaccine has had much less effect,” he said.
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Planned easing of coronavirus restrictions in Scotland at Easter is to go ahead despite cases “plateauing” rather than continuing to decline, Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday.
Sturgeon said the “Stay at Home” order would be removed from Friday and replaced with a “Stay Local” rule.
On Monday, hairdressers and barbers can reopen for pre-booked appointments, click and collect shopping will be permitted, and homeware shops and garden centres can welcome back customers.
University and college students can also return for in-person teaching and outdoor contact sports for 12-17-year olds may resume.
Sturgeon said she will give further updates in April but that Scotland is on course to ease restrictions further, with cafes, restaurants, shops and gyms due to open from April 26 and more people allowed to meet up outdoors.
Across the UK, more than 30 million people have had a first vaccine dose and more than 3.6 million have had a second.
The number of first doses administered each day is now averaging about 350,000 – a drop from an average of about 500,000 a week ago as the schedule of second doses starts to kick in.
The UK is, however, expected to see a reduction in doses available during April.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs last week the drop had been caused by the need to re-test the stability of 1.7 million doses as well as a delay in the scheduled arrival of jabs from the Serum Institute of India, which is holding back AstraZeneca doses for its own population.
The NHS is urging anyone who currently qualifies for a jab but has not had a first dose to book an appointment by 29 March.
The UK is still on track to offer a first dose to everyone aged 50 and over by the end of April, and to all adults by the end of July, Hancock has said.
The campaign to reach as many people as quickly as possible was boosted by a shift in policy in early January – to prioritise the first dose of a vaccine, with a second dose up to 12 weeks later, a bigger gap than seen in EU countries and bigger than originally planned.
The progress made in the UK so far means the country continues to be among those with the highest vaccination rates globally.
However, the situation remains volatile – it’s why the Irish government is taking such a cautious approach to reopening in the hope that the country will be in a much better place in eight weeks time as the vaccine rollout ramps up.
Speaking yesterday evening Taoiseach Micheál Martin laid out a cautious reopening plan for April and into May.
“Less than two weeks from now, all of our children will be back at school. In four weeks. many of our outdoor sporting facilities will be opened again. In over seven weeks, everyone over 70 will have been fully vaccinated. We are on the final stretch of this terrible journey,” he said.
“This summer, our businesses and our public services will safely reopen. We will finally be meeting, and enjoying the company of friends and family, once again, we will be able to travel within and enjoy our beautiful country.
“Again, jobs and livelihoods will be restored, and most importantly, the worst of this awful pandemic will be behind us, steadily and safely. Let’s get through this final phase together.”