Global report: rise in Delta variant cases forces tougher restrictions
Moscow has recorded the highest Covid-19 daily death toll of any Russian city so far, as the highly contagious Delta variant forced tougher restrictions on countries across the Asia-Pacific region and fuelled mounting concern over holiday travel in Europe.
Vaccinations have brought infection numbers down in many wealthy countries, and curbs on daily life continue to ease in much of the EU and US, but experts warn the fast-spreading strain means the pandemic – while slowing globally – is far from over.
The World Health Organization this weekend registered the lowest number of cases worldwide since February, but cautioned that the Delta variant, now present in 92 countries, is driving a deadly new wave in countries from Indonesia to Russia.
Moscow on Sunday registered a record 144 Covid-19 deaths in 24 hours after an explosion of new cases nationwide. The Russian capital’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, warned that the “only solution” was “rapid, large-scale vaccination”.
In most countries in Europe, meanwhile, infections, hospitalisations and deaths continued to fall to levels not seen since last summer, with several governments this weekend easing restrictions further as mass vaccination campaigns advance.
Spain ended mandatory outdoor mask-wearing, as did the Netherlands, where indoor dining restrictions were relaxed and nightclubs reopened to guests with a negative PCR test. Belgium further eased its measures, allowing tables of eight in and as guests in homes, while most remaining restrictions were lifted in Switzerland.
The Swiss health minister, Alain Berset, echoed several of his European counterparts in saying that he believed the country’s greater use of the mRNA Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines should give sufficient protection against the Delta variant.
However, Germany – which has fully vaccinated more than 35% of its total population and given 53% a first shot – this weekend declared Portugal a “virus-variant zone”, banning most arrivals from the country except German nationals and residents and imposing a mandatory two-week quarantine on all.
The move, which came just days before the official launch of the EU’s “digital green certificate” intended to allow easier travel for those who are vaccinated, recovered or have a negative test, raised fresh fears for summer tourism within the bloc.
The Delta variant now accounts for more than 70% of new cases in the Lisbon area, according to Portuguese authorities and 51% of cases nationwide, with the southern Algarve region, popular with tourists, recording a reproduction or “R” number of 1.34.
Portugal imposed stricter rules late last week, including ordering restaurants to shut earlier over the weekend in Lisbon and Albufeira. About 30% of the Portuguese population has been fully vaccinated so far.
In other popular European holiday destinations, health experts have said the Delta variant will probably be the dominant strain in Greece by mid-August and warned that strict local lockdowns may be needed over the summer in areas with low vaccination coverage that experience a surge in cases.
Several Spanish regions, including Catalonia, are already recording a 20% incidence of Delta cases, and regional health officials are predicting the more contagious strain could be dominant within two to four weeks.
Beyond Europe, Indonesia, the hardest-hit country in south-east Asia, recorded a new high of more than 21,000 daily cases, with hospitals in Jakarta and other cities overwhelmed after millions travelled at the end of Ramadan.
Similar spikes are occurring across the region: Thailand said on Sunday it would reimpose strict controls on Bangkok restaurants, building sites and gatherings from Monday to contain a fresh wave that began in upmarket clubs in the capital.
In neighbouring Malaysia, the prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, announced that a month-long nationwide lockdown would continue indefinitely, while Bangladesh also said it would impose a new national lockdown from Monday.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, urged the country’s 940 million adults to overcome any hesitancy and get vaccinated as quickly as possible amid growing concerns about the spread of the Delta variant in some states.
“Get vaccinated – that is a good safety shield,” Modi said in his monthly radio address. India must administer 10m doses a day to achieve its aim of inoculating all adults by December, experts say, but has so far fully vaccinated fewer than 6% of its population.
In Australia, restaurants, bars and cafes were shut in Sydney as more than five million people began a two-week lockdown to contain an outbreak of more than 110 cases detected since an airport driver tested positive for the Delta variant in mid-June.
The northern Australian northern city of Darwin also began a separate 48-hour lockdown on Sunday after an outbreak in a remote goldmine that the state’s chief minister described as its “biggest threat since the crisis began”.
Citing “multiple outbreaks” in its larger neighbour, meanwhile, New Zealand – where, similarly, life had all but returned to normal – announced an emergency three-day suspension of its quarantine-free travel corridor with Australia.
Even countries with highly successful vaccination drives have run into difficulty: Israel has reimposed a requirement to wear masks in enclosed public places after seeing a surge in new cases linked to the variant since dropping it 10 days ago.
In regions where vaccination has so far been minimal, the strain’s progress is alarming: cases have jumped 25% over last week across Africa as a whole, with South Africa, the continent’s hardest-hit country, warning on Saturday that the country was in “the exponential phase” of the pandemic.