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Europe struggles to free Christmas from Covid’s shackles



Europeans who were looking forward to Christmas and new year holidays free from burdensome Covid-19 lockdowns have been brought abruptly down to earth in the past week, with persistently high infection rates across the continent obliging governments from London to Athens to strengthen or maintain restrictions on free movement. 

Belgium has extended curbs through the holidays and will allow people to invite only one adult friend — known as a “cuddle contact” — to their homes, or two if they live alone. France has cancelled a reprieve for New Year’s Eve gatherings and will impose an 8pm-6am curfew from Tuesday.

Italy, which at the weekend overtook the UK to register the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe of 64,036, has imposed some of the continent’s strictest Christmas travel restrictions that will ban Italians from moving between regions from December 20 to January 6. Greece will remain under lockdown until January 7. In the UK, infections have been rising and there is speculation that London and other regions will face a tightening of restrictions to be announced this week.

But it is Germany, which managed the first wave of the pandemic in the spring better than most of its neighbours, that faces one of the most serious threats from the second wave as governments seek to avoid a repeat of the US Thanksgiving celebrations last month that provoked a new surge of infections and deaths.

Chart showing that test positivity has soared since Thanksgiving in the US, underscoring fears that European countries may see a post-Christmas surge

Germany had initially planned to relax the partial shutdown imposed at the start of November for the festive season. It is now doing the opposite, decreeing a much more draconian lockdown that will come into force on Wednesday and last for three-and-a-half weeks. “We have been forced to act,” Angela Merkel, the chancellor, told reporters on Sunday after a meeting with the leaders of Germany’s 16 states.

The trigger has been a sudden, dramatic worsening of the coronavirus situation, with a record of almost 30,000 new infections and 598 deaths from Covid-19 on Friday.

“Corona is out of control,” said Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, on Sunday. “We are at five minutes to midnight.”

Germany imposed a “lockdown-lite” in November that led to the closure of restaurants, bars, theatres and gyms, though most businesses and schools stayed open. But Ms Merkel said on Sunday that those measures had “not been enough” and infections were again growing exponentially.

The leaders decreed that, from Wednesday, most shops and schools would shut. Companies are to encourage their employees to work from home wherever possible. Curbs on private social gatherings of more than five people will remain in place, though they will be slightly relaxed between December 24 and 26 so families can spend Christmas together.

Chart showing that test positivity remains in the double digits in many European countries, and declines have stalled in some places

Public consumption of alcohol will also be proscribed from Wednesday, and big public gatherings and firework displays banned on New Year’s Eve.

The shift in the rhetoric has been striking: even just a few days ago, authorities were discussing loosening the current restrictions for Christmas and the new year. Now there is a growing realisation that all public life must be wound down over the festive season and beyond.

France was quick to impose restrictions as the second wave took hold in the autumn weather after the summer holidays, and until the beginning of December seemed on track to substantially relax the controls for Christmas. Jean Castex, prime minister, boasted last week that France’s infection rate on December 10 was lower than that of Germany, Italy and the US, having been higher than all of them six weeks earlier. 

Chart showing that Covid-19 hospital occupancy is now falling in many European countries, but levels remain high, risking crisis in the event of a winter surge

But the slowdown in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in France has stalled and the figure remains stubbornly high at about 14,000 a day — nearly three times the target set by President Emmanuel Macron for a relaxation. Health officials blame a combination of the cold weather and increased contact between people at home, in shops and at work. 

That prompted Mr Castex to announce the new nationwide, night-time curfew and to declare that cinemas, theatres and sports centres would not be able to reopen on Tuesday as planned — although the French will be able to travel away from their homes and will not be required to fill in government forms justifying each movement. Police have made almost 3m checks since October, and more than 285,000 people have been fined for breaking the rules. 

Health minister Olivier Véran said: “One new French person is hospitalised every minute thanks to Covid infection.” 

Even in Spain, where the infection rate has descended steadily since the country imposed curfews and travel restrictions in late October, Pedro Sánchez, prime minister, warned citizens on Friday not to let their guard down during the festive season. “Although we have a level of slightly more than 180 [infections per 100,000 people],” he said, “we should be at 25.” 

Rising infections will lead inevitably in two to three weeks to more hospitalisations and more deaths during a season when medical facilities are already under pressure, and governments are anxious that Christmas festivities will again allow the pandemic to surge out of control. 

“People should really be very, very sensible over that period and over this whole period of risk because this is a very risky period for us,” said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, last week. 

Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London, Michael Peel in Brussels, Kerin Hope in Athens, Daniel Dombey in Madrid and Miles Johnson in Rome

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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor




Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.

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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland




The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.

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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 




France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.

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