British Health Secretary Matt Hancock appeared before Parliament Tuesday to defend the government’s response to recent surges in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hancock told members of Parliament the virus is surging in Britain, and the infection rate is on the rise. As a result, the demand for testing has risen, and the government was prioritizing who could get tested first.
“The top priority is and always has been acute clinical care. The next priority is social care, where we're now sending over 100,000 tests a day, because we've all seen the risks this virus poses in care homes,” Hancock said.
Hancock said Britain’s testing capacity is being expanded, and currently has the capacity to process about 243,000 coronavirus tests a day, up from 220,000 at the end of August.
Responding to complaints that people were being sent to testing centers far from their homes, Hancock said, “The vast majority of people who use our testing service get a test that is close to home. And the average distance traveled to a test site is now just 5.8 miles, down from 6.4 miles last week."
Hancock also defended the government's new “rule of six” that went into effect Monday in England, Scotland and Wales. The rule prevents gatherings of more than six people in public venues. But there has been a myriad of exceptions to the new rule, which has caused confusion among many.
For example, the rule applies to pubs but not schools or workplaces. Hancock said they tried to keep the rule as simple as possible and said they will show flexibility in some areas. He also said they will keep the rule of six in place “only as long as it is absolutely necessary."
Austria to Welcome Skiers This Winter, Just Not Apres-Ski Parties
Austria announced Thursday that while the alpine nation’s ski resorts will be open and skiers are welcome, the nation is banning all apres-ski events (social activities after a day of skiing) during the upcoming winter tourism season.
Skiing and other winter sports are big business in Austria, making up as much as 15% of the economy. But in February and March, post-skiing partying in the clubs and bars of the popular west Austrian resort of Ischgl resulted in an outbreak that was considered one of Europe's earliest "super-spreader" events of the pandemic.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters in Vienna that while they want to encourage tourists, things cannot be as they were.
“Skiing, eating out, nature and enjoying the hospitality, outdoor activities, shopping — not just in ski resorts but also in cities, a wellness vacation in Austria, culture tourism. All that will be possible this coming winter. What won't be possible is apres ski the way we know it from the past. The risk of infection is simply too high," he said.
The new rules will follow the same COVID-19-related restrictions for all bars, clubs and restaurants in Austria — table service only, with no standing at a bar. In closed ski lifts, face masks will be required, and passengers must stay 1 meter apart, the same as on public transport.
Ski instructors and lift operators, as well as hotel and restaurant staff, will be tested regularly.
Austria is working to bring a recent surge in COVID-19 cases under control, a situation that has prompted one of its top sources of foreign tourists, Germany, to issue a travel warning for one of its skiing regions, the province of Vorarlberg.
Israel Tightens Lockdown as COVID Infections Skyrocket
Israel is tightening a strict lockdown beginning Friday as the number of COVID cases continues to skyrocket. There are close to 7,000 new cases a day, and total infections have passed 200,000, all in a country of just nine million people. Hospitals are turning away infected patients and the Israeli army is building a large field hospital for new cases.
Israel has become the first country in the world to order a second lockdown, after infection rates have spiked in the past few weeks. Israel now has one of the highest rates of new infections per capita, with more than one in eight Israelis who take a coronavirus test getting a positive result.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no choice but a complete lockdown to get the numbers down.
He said that if Israel does not take serious steps immediately, the country will be on the brink of disaster.
The order is for the entire country, except for essential services like supermarkets and pharmacies, to shut down completely for at least two weeks.
Schools were moved online a few weeks ago after the number of cases among students and teachers climbed.
On Sunday and Monday, the lockdown will affect prayers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar when people fast and atone for their sins.
Small groups will be allowed to pray together both inside synagogues and outside, with some doctors saying even this is a mistake. The new rules also limit anti–Netanyahu demonstrations which had been gaining strength over the past few months.
Officials have also considered shutting down Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.
The lockdown will exact a heavy economic price, and analysts expect the unemployment rate – which had been improving – to rise as more businesses close down permanently.
Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology and an advisor to Israel’s coronavirus czar, says Israel handled the first wave of the virus very well, but made some mistakes after that.
"At the beginning Israel responded and the public went with the plan, there were no exceptions, there was a complete lockdown and the public responded," said Levine. "What happened is that once the rates went lower, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the public go and have a good time. He said this is like an accordion when the rates are low, you can behave almost normally, when the rates are high, lockdown for everything. This is a wrong concept. Dealing with the current pandemic is like a marathon and in a marathon you need to keep pace all the time, you can run a bit differently but you need to keep moving on. You cannot stop completely."
Levine warns that Israel needs a detailed plan about how to slowly open up after the next lockdown. He also said that any long-term plan will only work if the public has trust in the government. For now, polls suggest that is in doubt.
Nations Urged to Help Virus-Stranded Mariners Stuck at Sea
Another COVID-19 problem the U.N. is trying to solve: How to help more than 300,000 merchant mariners who are trapped at sea because of coronavirus restrictions.
Describing the mounting desperation of seafarers who have been afloat for a year or more, Captain Hedi Marzougui pleaded their case Thursday at a meeting with shipping executives and government officials on the sidelines of this week's U.N. General Assembly.
As the pandemic washed over the world and made shipping crews unwelcome in many ports, he said, "We received very limited information, and it became increasingly difficult to get vital supplies and technical support. Nations changed regulations on a daily, if not hourly, basis."
Several months later, many borders remain closed and flights are rare, complicating efforts to bring in replacement crews for those stuck at sea and forcing their employers to keep extending their contracts.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined shipping companies, trade unions and maritime organizations in urging governments to recognize merchant crews as essential workers and allow them to travel more freely. With more than 80% of global trade by volume transported by sea, the world's 2 million merchant seafarers play a vital role.
Merchant ship crews are used to long stretches away from home, but as virus infections and restrictions spread early this year, anxiety mounted along with the uncertainty, Marzougui said.
"Not knowing when or if we would be returning home put severe mental strain on my crew and myself," he said. "We felt like second-class citizens with no input or control over our lives."
The Tunisian-born captain spent an extra three months at sea and finally made it home to his family in Florida in late May. But more than 300,000 mariners are still stranded, waiting for replacement crews; about as many are waiting on shore, trying to get back to work.
Maritime officials from Panama, the Philippines, Canada, France and Kenya defended steps they have taken individually to allow safe crew changes or otherwise ease the crisis.
But officials lamented a lack of international coordination among nations and shipping companies, calling for new rules to protect countries from the virus while respecting the rights of stranded crews.
No figures were released for how many merchant mariners have contracted the virus, but Guy Platten of the International Chamber of Shipping said the virus risk is "relatively low" because shipping companies have strict protection measures and "have no wish whatsoever to bring infections on our ships."
He blamed "red tape and bureaucracy" for crew change delays and said border guards and local port officials in some countries are being overzealous in blocking them from coming ashore. One way goods are still able to get ashore despite restrictions is by dock workers fetching them from the ships.
France proposed compiling a global U.N. list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes. Kenya called for sharing costs globally for a rapid testing plan for major ports.
Crews often work 12-hour shifts with no weekends, and Marzougui warned that extending stints without a break risks physical and mental strain — potentially putting ships and oceans in danger.
The captain compared it to telling a marathon runner at the end of the race that they had to "do it again, right away, with no rest."
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