Britain shuts schools as Germany braces for extended shutdown

Anna MALPAS with AFP bureaus
·4-min read

Britain closed its schools on Tuesday ahead of a new national lockdown and Germany extended its shutdown of businesses and offices for another three weeks, as Europe battles surging coronavirus infections.

Officials promised £4.6 billion ($6.3 billion, 5.1 billion euros) to help battered businesses weather the latest lockdown in England. Other parts of the UK are also bringing in or extending lockdowns.

Germany's states agreed to keep schools, leisure facilities and non-essential shops shut until January 31, extending restrictions that had been due to run out next Sunday.

Britain is suffering a rash of new high-profile victims, including 40 footballers and staff in the English Premier League and Armenia's President Armen Sarkisian, who is self-isolating in London after coming down with the virus there.

Senior minister Michael Gove warned of "very, very difficult weeks" ahead as Britain struggles to contain a new fast-spreading coronavirus strain.

And some at least accepted the need for the new restrictions.

"They are never going to get a handle on this virus until everybody is in total lockdown," 69-year-old Patricia Cairns told AFP in Edinburgh.

The B117 strain is believed to have emerged in England in September and has since been detected across the world -- prompting Swiss official Virginie Masserey to warn it could cause "a pandemic within the pandemic".

Denmark, which has already confirmed 86 cases of the new strain, has banned gatherings of more than five people and urged everyone to stay at home in the hope of minimising the fallout of its arrival.

- World Bank warning -

The World Bank downgraded its outlook for the global economy, warning that the situation could deteriorate if Covid-19 infections accelerate or the vaccine rollout is delayed.

The Bank expects the world economy to grow by 4.0 percent this year -- two-tenths lower than previously forecast -- after shrinking 4.3 percent in 2020.

Mass vaccinations are considered key to breaking the back of a pandemic that has caused more than 1.8 million known deaths worldwide and created havoc in the global economy.

Various European governments are facing accusations of a sluggish vaccine rollout, particularly in France, where only 2,000 people have been vaccinated so far compared to some 317,000 in Germany.

As the race to rollout out current vaccines hots up, officials are already considering possible next steps.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have discussed the possibility of jointly producing vaccines, according to the Kremlin's account of a phone conversation.

While Germany is using the vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and German company BioNTech, Russia has put into mass circulation its homemade jab -- Sputnik V -- which has been viewed with scepticism in the West.

The new coronavirus strain detected in Britain has meanwhile raised questions over whether existing vaccines will be able to combat it. Chinese firm Sinopharm has said its vaccine -- with a claimed effectiveness of 79 percent -- can tackle the new variant.

On Monday Britain celebrated the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, seen as a potential game-changer in the global fight against the disease.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs are cheaper and easier to store and transport than the Pfizer and Moderna alternatives, meaning potentially greater access for less wealthy nations in the fight against the virus.

Mexico and India have already approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, while Rwanda, which on Tuesday banned transport in and out of the capital Kigali in a bid to combat surging infections, said it was in touch with its makers to purchase doses.

- China visa problems -

A much-trailed World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the virus -- first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan more than a year ago -- is struggling to get off the ground.

The WHO announced on Tuesday that after months of preparation, its experts had begun travelling to China -- only to be told that there were problems with their visas.

"I am very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The mission is hugely sensitive to all parties -- China does not want to be blamed for a global pandemic and the WHO needs to be seen to be impartial.

US President Donald Trump -- who has repeatedly called the pandemic the "China virus" -- accused the WHO of being under Chinese control.

Trump has begun withdrawing the US from the organisation.

burs-kjl/jxb/jj