Mutant COVID strain strikes UK as first American gets jab
A new coronavirus mutation that spreads more easily has sparked a near lockdown of London in the lead up to Christmas, as Europe continues to battle soaring infection rates.
Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on Monday local time that London would go into Tier 3 restrictions, joining most of the north of England.
The rules mean that pubs, cafes and restaurants can only offer takeaway service from Wednesday before a planned relaxation at Christmas time.
Many pubs would close as a result because it would be unprofitable to remain open.
Shoppers have been urged to avoid London's famous Oxford Street, which was packed with thousands of people at the weekend.
Social distancing was almost impossible, even with some streets closed to traffic.
Mr Hancock told the UK parliament that its hi-tech labs in Porton Down, near Salisbury, south west of London, had detected a new coronavirus mutation.
"Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants," he warned.
"We've currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas. And numbers are increasing rapidly."
However, Mr Hancock said that the mutated virus was still likely to be able to be stopped by a vaccine, which began rolling out at GPs across the UK on Monday.
"But it shows we've got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus," he said.
Tests were urgently being done to find samples of the new strain to check its effectiveness against vaccines.
There were now more than 34 million people in the UK under the stricter conditions, and that could rise at a further review later this week.
The decision to crack down on London comes after Germany tightened its restrictions this week.
Bars and pubs have been closed since November in Germany, but schools were also closed for an extra week either side of the planned two-week Christmas break.
Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed Christmas shopping for a spike in cases, justifying the decision to shut non-essential shops at their busiest time of year.
The economy crushing lockdowns come amid the backdrop of Brexit negotiations, with talks still continuing.
Britain has threatened to walk away without a deal, which would hurt both the UK and EU economies at a time when government debt across Europe was soaring.
The news came as the number of COVID deaths in the US passed 300,000.
UK Hospitals are already under pressure, and the doubling of cases will be mirrored in hospital admissions which could overwhelm the national health care system, Mr Hancock warned.
Across England, hospital admissions have jumped 13 per cent.
Mr Hancock said: "This action is absolutely essential, not just to keep people safe, but because we've seen early action can help prevent more damaging and longer lasting problems later."
US ROLLS OUT VACCINE
A Queens, New York critical care nurse who has been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic has become the first person in New York City - and the first person in the US - to receive Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine.
Sadly, on the same day, the US COVID death toll passed 300,000.
Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was vaccinated on-camera at the Queens hospital as New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo looked on via livestream.
Applause broke out as Ms Lindsay was jabbed with the potentially lifesaving shot, according to the New York Post.
"It didn't feel any different from taking any other vaccine," Ms Lindsay said right after she was given the shot by Northwell Health director of employee health services Michelle Chester.
"I am feeling well. I would like to thank all the front line workers," said Ms Lindsay. "I feel hopeful. I feel relieved."
Over the next few days, the vaccine should reach 600 administration sites nationwide in what is possibly the biggest mobilisation of resources since World War II.
As with Ms Lindsay, frontline health care workers and those in long-term care facilities will be offered the vaccine first.
Vaccines are expected to start in US nursing homes this week.
But as vaccines began being put into arms in New York City and indoor dining was shut down again, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that additional restrictions could be coming - potentially including a return to a full shutdown.
"There's the potential of having to do a full pause, a full shutdown, in the coming weeks, because we can't let this kind of momentum go," Mr de Blasio said on CNN.
"We're seeing the kind of level of infection with the coronavirus we haven't seen since May and we have got to stop that momentum - or else, our hospital system will be threatened," Mr de Blasio said.
Officials have warned that the full rollout will be complex and lengthy.
Pfizer can only provide up to 6.4 million doses by the weekend and only 40 million doses by the end of the month, which is short of the number needed to cover all of the 24 million people eligible for the first round of 2-shot inoculations.
On Monday morning (local time), the US recorded 16.4 million cases of coronavirus and more than 300,000 deaths caused by COVID-19.
It comes as US trucks on Sunday (local time) began shipping millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, part of an enormous logistics operation that should see some vulnerable people being vaccinated as early as Monday in the nation worst hit by the coronavirus.
Health care workers and nursing home residents will be among the first to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech shots, though it will likely be months before all those who want it can be vaccinated, officials said.
"My hope, again, is that this happens very expeditiously. Hopefully, (starting) tomorrow," US Food and Drug Administration commissioner Stephen Hahn said on US TV on Sunday.
The heartening breakthrough comes at one of the darkest moments of the nearly year-long pandemic, with infections in the United States soaring.
As trucks rolled out of a Pfizer facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, they were escorted to a local airport by armed US officers, in a sign of how precious the cargo is considered.
Some 2.9 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine - enough to vaccinate half that many people in the two-shot regimen - are being shipped in boxes containing dry ice that can keep supplies at -70 degrees Celsius, the frigid temperature needed to preserve the drug.
The vaccine is being allocated to states based on each state's adult population. The states then decide the specifics of how to distribute the drug, but are expected to follow the federal guidance to place healthcare workers and nursing home residents at the front of the line.
More than one-third of US deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities. Over the past two weeks, the US has repeatedly exceeded 2000 COVID-related deaths per day, rivalling tolls from the early days of the pandemic.
US DEATHS TOP 300,000
The US on Monday reached more than 300,000 deaths from COVID-19, data shows.
The figure amounts to nearly one-fifth of the world's total death count from the virus, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.
Between late September and mid-November, the stateside tally had jumped from 200,000 to 250,000.
It has rapidly accelerated since then - climbing to 300,000 in less than half of that time.
The US has the 11th-highest number of total COVID-19 deaths per capita - or a rate of about 886 fatalities per 1 million people, according to Statista.
Despite the hope from a new COVID-19 vaccine, virus-related deaths are expected to continue to soar throughout the winter months.
"The way the number of infections has been growing so fast, it's hard to believe we won't be at half a million deaths," Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California-Berkeley, told USA Today.
To date, there have been more than 16 million confirmed cases throughout the nation.
NEW ZEALAND AGREES TO TRAVEL BUBBLE WITH AUSTRALIA
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a travel bubble with Australia.
Assuming the COVID-19 situation in either country doesn't change, the arrangement looks set to begin before March 21 according to reports.
"It is our intention to name a date of when the bubble will start in the New Year," she said.
The "in principle" agreement would allow quarantine-free travel from Australia and require sign-off by the Australian government, Ms Ardern said on Monday.
Previously, the Kiwi government has been concerned about whether Australian authorities could manage local outbreaks and lockdown COVID hot spots.
While more work needs to be done before quarantine-travel from Australia to NZ is possible, the indication of a travel-bubble by next year will come as a relief to more than 600,000 Kiwis living across the Tasman, who have been unable to return home without entering expensive hotel quarantine.
Anyone looking to fly into NZ also needs ato obtain voucher to enter the country and apply for a place in hotel quarantine.
All spaces in managed isolation are currently booked out until at least March meaning no-one is able to enter the country without a travel exemption.
As it stands, New Zealanders are allowed into some Australian states without having to quarantine.
The bubble has been welcomed by the federal government as a "glimmer of hope" for Australia's struggling tourism industry.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the "welcome news" followed what had been an "incredibly tough year" for the sector in the wake of the border closures, pandemic restrictions and bushfires.
"Australia's tourism industry wants to stand on its own two feet as soon as possible and restarting some two way quarantine-free international travel with New Zealand is a step in the right direction," he said.
"It is also recognition of the comparable success both our countries have had in suppressing and managing COVID-19."
Mr Birmingham said New Zealand was a "huge part" of Australian tourism and getting people moving in a COVID-safe would provide an economic lift and save thousands of jobs.
"I thank those within the industry, the New Zealand Government as well as across the various levels of government here in Australia for the significant preparatory and planning work that has gone into taking this forward," he said.
GERMANY, NETHERLANDS BACK INTO LOCKDOWN
The Netherlands is the latest European country to go back into lockdown, with all but essential shops closing, as well as schools, museums, gyms and hairdressers.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte will announce the measures in a speech to the nation at 7pm, but many have already been leaked or confirmed via official channels.
However, reports that a curfew might be part of the package, particularly at New Year, have not yet been confirmed. Schools will shut and will shift back to online education.
Daycare centres will also close, but will remain open for parents who work in essential professions
Germany will go into a partial lockdown from Wednesday (local time) with non-essential shops and schools to close, as Europe's biggest economy battles to halt an "exponential growth" in coronavirus infections.
The new curbs will apply until January 10, with companies also urged to allow employees to work from home or offer extended company holidays, under the new measures agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel with regional leaders of Germany's 16 states on Sunday (local time).
"That would help to implement the principle 'we're staying at home'," according to the policy paper agreed by Mrs Merkel and state premiers.
Germans are urged to limit their social contacts to another household, with a maximum of five people excluding children under 14 meeting at each time.
From Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, the contacts would be eased to allow gatherings with another four people excluding children, but who should be limited to close relatives or partners.
Germany in November closed leisure and cultural facilities and banned indoor dining in restaurants.
The measures had helped to halt rapid growth of infections after the autumn school holidays, but numbers had plateaued at a high rate.
Mrs Merkel had repeatedly pushed for tougher curbs to break the chain of contagion, but implementation of the rules is in the hands of individual states and some were reluctant to impose more curbs.
The mood however has changed in the last week after Germany recorded new daily death tolls reaching close to 600 and as the country's disease control agency RKI reported that the infections trend had taken a worrying turn.
"Today is not the day to look back or to see what could have been, rather, today is the day to do what is necessary," said Mrs Merkel, pointing to "very high numbers of deaths" and stressing the urgent need for action.
"The corona situation is out of control," said Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder, pledging to implement the tougher restrictions in his state.
Germany has imposed far less stringent shutdown rules than other major European nations after coming through the first wave of the pandemic relatively unscathed.
But Europe's biggest economy has been severely hit by a second wave with daily new infections more than three times that of the peak in the northern hemisphere spring.
Germany recorded another 20,200 new COVID cases over the past 24 hours, reaching a total of 1,320,716 cases, according to RKI data published on Sunday (local time).
Another 321 patients died from the disease from a day earlier, bringing the total death toll to 21,787.
In a hard-hitting speech before the Bundestag last Wednesday, Mrs Merkel issued a stark warning ahead of the festive season when families are expected to gather.
"If we have too many contacts before Christmas and it ends up being the last Christmas with the grandparents, then we'd really have failed," she said.
Mrs Merkel's government has repeatedly said that new infections must be brought down to 50 per 100,000 people, but the rate is currently at 169.1 per 100,000.
Ahead of the talks, Germany's hardest hit states had already ordered new measures.
Saxony state, where in some areas incidence rates have hit 500 per 100,000 people, will shutter shops and schools from Monday.
A curfew will also kick in from 10pm to 6am.
- with Nathan Vass, Tiffany Bakker in New York