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.
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.
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.
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
Thousands protest against French Covid health pass rules
French politics updates
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Over 200,000 people marched in cities across France on Saturday in the biggest turnout of three consecutive weekends of protests, calling for an end to what they see as draconian rules forcing them to get vaccinated against their will.
They marched down the streets of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and elsewhere, shouting “This is a health dictatorship!” and “No vaccination, no health pass!”, in protests that included a wide range of social and political movements.
Staunch Communists marched with supporters of the far-right Rassemblement National party and some from the gilets jaunes movement against a new law making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for healthcare workers and requiring a health pass for anyone wanting to enter public places such as restaurants, bars and high-speed trains.
“This is an experimental vaccine, we do not know what all of the side effects will be for ourselves or our children,” said Catherine Largo, a 42-year-old dental assistant, who is legally obliged to get vaccinated before the autumn but says she will refuse to do so.
The vaccines used in France have been extensively tested around the world and approved by the European and French medical authorities.
“I won’t be able to find other work, because what else would I do?” she said, as she arrived at one of four protests taking place in Paris on Saturday afternoon. “We should have the choice, we should have the liberty to choose.”
Although the final version of the law was watered down last weekend, a vocal minority of French citizens remain up in arms about the rules which they believe infringe on their personal liberties. But despite the pockets of angry opponents, the policy has so far proved successful at boosting vaccination rates and has been met with approval from the wider public.
Over 60 per cent of people are in favour of the health pass to enter public places and 70 per cent support compulsory vaccination for caregivers, according to an Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll conducted this month.
Around 204,000 people marched on the streets of France on Saturday, up from 161,000 a week before and 114,000 the week before that, according to estimates from the interior ministry.
One protester missing this week was François Asselineau, president of the pro-Frexit Popular Republican Union party and an ardent campaigner against the health pass, who was unable to attend the march in Paris after he tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday.
The 2022 presidential candidate said he was suffering from “body aches, fever and a cough” in a video posted on his party’s website, but told his followers that he had obtained ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, both controversial drugs which scientists say have no proven benefit against Covid-19.
Macron announced the extended application of the health pass in the midst of a vaccination campaign that was losing momentum while the highly infectious Delta variant was spreading fast.
So far his decision to power ahead with the hardline vaccination strategy appears to have paid off. The number of first doses being administered per day has jumped back up to more than 350,000 after stagnating around 160,000 last month, according to data from the government compiled by Covidtracker.fr.
France has overtaken the US in the proportion of its population that is fully vaccinated — 52 per cent against 50 per cent in the US and 56 per cent in the UK, according to Our World in Data.
Only 7 per cent of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in France between May 31 and July 11 had been fully vaccinated, according to data released by the French government this week.
Turkey’s marine crisis: ‘death knells are ringing for Sea of Marmara’
For a decade, marine biologist Nur Eda Topcu has fought to preserve delicate corals off the Istanbul coastline, which environmentalists say are threatened by the dumping of industrial waste, fuel and sewage.
Now she fears a new threat may hasten the end of the Sea of Marmara’s coral reefs. A gelatinous substance colloquially known as sea snot has in recent months choked aquatic life, blighted fishing and repelled swimmers.
Long brown streaks of the marine mucilage were still visible across the Marmara in late July, while the gooey foam sank below the surface settling on the rare corals. Scientists warn that the sea, whose mix of Mediterranean and Black Sea currents foster coral usually found at far deeper depths, itself is at risk.
“The death knells are ringing for the Marmara,” said Topcu after surfacing from a recent dive to clean the slime that coated normally fuchsia-hued corals off an Istanbul archipelago. “We can’t stop the mucilage. It’s smothering the gorgonians [and] infecting them with harmful bacteria.” She fears most of Marmara’s soft, red Paramuricea clavata, listed as a vulnerable species of coral, will perish this year.
Factories have nearly doubled the deluge of wastewater they discharge into Turkey’s seas in recent years, according to official statistics. The 50,000 tankers that sail through the Marmara each year illegally dump waste and fuel, according to one municipal monitor. Almost two-thirds of the nation’s industry, including an oil refinery, carmakers, chemical plants and power stations, is concentrated in the region.
Most wastewater from Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is only treated to remove solids, then pumped to the bottom of the sea. “We use it as our cesspool,” said Levent Artuz, a hydrobiologist at the Marmara Environmental Monitoring Project and author of a new book A Recent History of the Polluting of the Sea of Marmara.
The situation was not helped by the fact that sea temperatures had climbed by an average two degrees Celsius in the Marmara since the start of this century as pollution trapped heat, he said. A state project that diverted the Ergene River, one of Europe’s most toxic waterways, to the Marmara last year was “the tipping point”.
“The essential problem isn’t mucilage. That’s just a link in the chain of decades of degradation,” Artuz said. “We have zero chance of recovering the Sea of Marmara as it was. What we have to do now is figure out how to prevent the Marmara from harming us.”
In recent years, marine life has died in mass mortality events, and there have been infestations of jellyfish and algal blooms such as red tides and mucilage.
But scientists and fishermen say the current flare-up is unprecedented. Phytoplankton is flourishing because of nutrient-rich sewage and fertiliser from agricultural runoff while overfishing has wiped out populations of small fish and crustaceans that would consume the algae.
Gone are the mackerel, tuna, swordfish and other seafood that Istanbul was known for. This year’s haul was down 90 per cent from 2020 as mucilage clogged and dragged off nets, said Erdogan Kartal, the head of Istanbul’s fishing co-operative. “Even if we could supply fish markets, customers aren’t buying out of disgust.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has vowed to crack down on polluters and “save our seas from this scourge of mucilage”. Thousands of cubic metres of the sea snot had been vacuumed up, the country’s environment minister said. In early July, he pronounced the Marmara “cleaner and bluer” than before.
Turkey is the only G20 country that has not ratified the Paris accords on climate change, and grassroots movements to protect the environment are often viewed as provocateurs by the government.
Authorities have refused to register a new Green party eager to fight climate change. Scientists also say that a planned shipping canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara could deplete oxygen in the Marmara and promote hydrogen sulphur gas that would envelop Istanbul with the stench of rotten eggs. Erdogan’s transportation minister argues that the cleaner water coming through from the Black Sea would improve the quality of the Marmara.
Along the way, there have been successes for Topcu and members of Istanbul’s Marine Life Conservation Society (MLCS). They secured protected status for the tiny outcrop of Neandros this April, stopping boats from dropping anchors or trawling for fish near its corals. They spent two summers transplanting fan-like yellow sea whips to Neandros after a nearby colony of the golden Eunicella cavolini was buried in debris from a government construction project.
“We carried them like a heart or kidney for transplant, keeping them in cold water and in the dark to prevent shock,” said Serco Eskiyan of the MLCS. It took more than 100 dives to harvest and replant 300 corals 30 metres down.
But Eskiyan, who has dived the waters off the islands since the 1970s and knows the area “like the rooms in my house”, was unable to locate the transplants in July, blinded by the sea snot that reduced visibility to a metre or two. “It looks like a different planet,” said Topcu.
A generation ago, the Marmara’s rich fauna included seahorses, poisonous scorpionfish and great white sharks, now all gone, though Eskiyan still occasionally confronts a rare angular roughshark when he hunts for “ghost nets” abandoned by industrial fishing boats that choke the corals. The MLCS has collected 32,000 square metres of the meshing since 2015.
“I have faith in the sea’s ability to renew itself from the damage people do. But now I question how much longer it can fight back,” Topcu said.
Ransomware attacks rise despite US call for clampdown on cybercriminals
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In mid-June, US president Joe Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a recent scourge of cyber attacks against the US, including by Russian-based criminal ransomware hackers.
Biden has said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyber attack — period”. Nevertheless, data show that ransomware attacks continue apace, including in sectors such as healthcare and education. It is unclear whether Biden will take further action in light of this.
Ransomware, which usually involves hackers seizing an organisation’s data or computer systems and only releasing access if a ransom is paid, has long plagued businesses large and small. The first known ransomware virus, PC Cyborg, was recorded in 1989, with victims infected via floppy disk and told to send a $189 cheque to an address in Panama.
Today, these financially motivated hacks are far more sophisticated — and are proliferating fast. Attacks have quadrupled during the pandemic, SonicWall data show, partly because the shift to remote working has left staff more vulnerable than if they were connecting to more secure corporate networks.
Additionally, hackers have swapped demanding cheques for requesting hard-to-track cryptocurrencies, meaning that as the price of bitcoin has risen during the past year, the business of ransomware has become all the more lucrative. It is also easier to launch attacks with little to no technical knowhow, given the growing market for “ransomware-as-a-service”, where hackers maintain their ransomware code but rent it out to others and take a cut of any extortion payouts.
While known attacks have reached unprecedented levels, the story of what we do not know — given that there are few rules around disclosure — may be far worse. Earlier this week, Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI Cyber Division and other cyber agency officials called for mandatory reporting rules around attacks, so that accurate data can be gathered and analysed by the US government.
Small businesses with little spare resources have tended to be the hardest hit by ransomware attackers. But the matter was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after several audacious attacks on critical infrastructure such as the Colonial Pipeline, which led to fuel shortages for several days on the US east coast, the Irish health system and Brazilian meat supplier JBS. All of these attacks were believed to originate from Russia-based ransomware hackers, although the US government has accused Chinese state-backed groups of also orchestrating attacks.
The number of ransomware gangs stretches into the dozens and continues to proliferate as the economics remain so profitable. Vorndran said the FBI tracked 100 gangs, using an algorithm to rank them and the effect that each has on the economy. The largest one rakes in an estimated $200m a year in revenues, he said.
To help victims fight the gangs, a cottage industry for “ransomware negotiators” has emerged. These middlemen are tasked by victims with haggling down the ransom payments. As go-betweens, they also collect data on attacks, learning the playbooks of various groups in order to best know how to speak to them.
According to data from Coveware, the average ransom payment has fallen in the second quarter to $136,576, from more than $200,000 in the first quarter, amid an emergence of smaller ransomware groups. But in the majority of attacks — about 80 per cent — hackers are using the newer tactic of threatening to leak data as extra leverage in extorting victims. About half of these “leak threat” victims paid out in the second quarter, Coveware said.
Unfortunately, the negotiators’ services continue to be in high demand. According to data on reported attacks collated by Recorded Future, in the US there have been 10 attacks on healthcare, nine on schools and 10 on public state and local government groups during June and July this year. Despite Biden urging Putin last month to crack down on the criminal groups and warning against attacks on 16 critical entities, attacks on many of these key sectors have continued.
“The volume of targeted attacks on government organisations and enterprises that impact civilians, countries and the global economy will not end without a change in approach,” said Bill Conner, the chief executive of SonicWall.
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