covid-news:-spain-drops-mandatory-use-of-face-masks-outdoors;-uk-reports-another-66,638-daily-cases-–-as-it-happened

Spain drops mandatory use of face masks outdoors

Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors on Thursday, though many people kept them on in Madrid, with face coverings now an everyday staple, AFP reports.

Spain first imposed obligatory mask-wearing outdoors in May 2020, but lifted it in June last year.

Wearing a face covering was still required for indoor public spaces.

However, the government reimposed the measure just before Christmas as Covid cases exploded due to the Omicron variant.

Even as rules eased across the country on Thursday, in Madrid, some kept them on out of habit.

“I’m wearing one and I’ll keep on doing so even though the law says I can take it off,” said Alberto Diaz, a pensioner from the southern Andalusia region who was in the city for a concert.

Face masks have been embraced across Spain in all public spaces, both inside and out, and they have largely become ubiquitous like in many cities in Asia.

Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds.

Newlyweds Ricardo Alfredo Sanchez and Yvette Candero looked delighted as they had their photo taken in Puerta del Sol Square.

“It’s not the same having a souvenir photo taken with your face covered, you can’t see the person’s expression or how happy they are,” said the groom.

In another anticipated move, in the northeastern region of Catalonia, nightlife venues were set to open at the stroke of midnight.

In late December, the Catalan government put in place some of Spain’s most restrictive measures to fight Omicron, imposing a night curfew from 1am, closing nightlife venues and halving the capacity in bars and restaurants.

The bar and restaurant restrictions were eased last month, but nightlife venues had remained closed, until Friday – with most set to open just after midnight.

Despite high vaccination rates, Covid cases exploded in Spain over the Christmas holidays, giving it one of Europe’s highest incidence rates, although that has now fallen.

So far, Spain has registered some 10.5 million infections and more than 95,000 deaths.

That’s it from me, Helen Livingstone, for now. Please join us a little later for a new live feed where we will continue to cover the coronavirus crisis.

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You can also keep up with the top headlines here.

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I leave you with a summary of the latest developments from the past 24 hours:

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  • Prince Charles met the Queen two days before testing positive for Covid for the second time. A palace source said the monarch was not displaying any symptoms, but declined to say whether or not she had tested negative.
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  • Elsewhere in the UK, Boris Johnson was condemned by former Conservatiove prime minister Sir John Major as a lawbreaker whose disregard for honesty and ministerial standards risks undermining the UK’s long-term democratic future, on another politically bruising day for the prime minister.
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  • Brussels authorities have banned a pan-European “freedom convoy” of motorists protesting Covid restrictions from entering the Belgian capital, the regional government said in a statement. Reuters reports the convoy was expected to arrive at the home of European Union institutions and NATO on Monday. Authorities in Paris had earlier banned the convoy.
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  • Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors. Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds.
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  • New Zealand has hit a new record daily of community Covid cases, with 446 announced on Friday. That is an increase of 140 cases from the previous record, which was set the previous day.Cases are expected to climb steadily now that Omicron is spreading within New Zealand.
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  • Novavax says its Covid vaccine has proved safe and effective in a study of 12- to 17-year-olds. Armed with the new data, Novavax plans to soon seek expanded use of its shots down to age 12. Later this year, it plans to begin testing in younger children.
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  • The Dutch government has said it aims to drop most of its coronavirus restrictions by the end of the month, as record levels of infections in recent weeks have only had a limited effect on hospital numbers.
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  • The Philippines welcomed back more than 200 foreign tourists on Thursday, becoming the latest south-east Asian nation to reopen in a bid to revive a battered tourism sector after its borders shut to visitors nearly two years ago due to the pandemic
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  • The UK recorded another 66,638 Covid infections and a further 206 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data on the government’s coronavirus dashboard.
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  • Coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly on the Pacific island of Tonga. Health minister, Saia Piukala, told reporters that 31 more people had tested positive for the virus, nearly doubling Tonga’s active cases for the second day in a row to a total of 64.
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  • Covid passes are to be scrapped and the need to wear face coverings in certain venues removed later this month as coronavirus cases continue to fall, the Welsh government has announced. The changes will be confirmed on Friday during the first three-week review of Wales’s alert level zero measures.
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  • The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been isolating since Saturday after contracting Covid, has tested negative, the state-owned Anadolu news agency cited his doctor as saying.
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  • The Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado, tested positive for Covid-19, his office said. “He is doing well and will be in isolation at his home,” it added.
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  • Africa is transitioning out of the pandemic phase of its Covid outbreak and moving towards a situation where it will be managing the virus long term, the World Health Organization’s regional head for Africa said. Dr Matshidiso Moeti also said the number of Covid infections in Africa could be seven times higher than official data suggested, and deaths from the virus two to three times higher.
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Here is a quick recap of some of the main developments from today so far:

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  • Prince Charles met the Queen two days before testing positive for Covid for the second time. A palace source said the monarch was not displaying any symptoms, but declined to say whether or not she had tested negative. The 95-year-old is believed to have spent time with Charles on Tuesday when her eldest son was carrying out an investiture on her behalf at her Windsor Castle home. She is understood to be fully vaccinated so will not be self isolating, although she will be advised to take daily lateral flow tests for a week. The Prince of Wales, who first tested positive for Covid in March 2020, is self-isolating, Clarence House said. He had attended a reception at the British Museum on Wednesday to celebrate the work of the British Asian Trust. The event had brought him into close contact with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the home secretary, Priti Patel, and scores of others. Story here.
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  • Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors. The Spanish government first imposed obligatory mask-wearing outdoors in May 2020, but lifted it in June last year. Wearing a face covering was still required for indoor public spaces. However, Spain reimposed the measure just before Christmas as Covid cases exploded due to the Omicron variant. Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds. More here.
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  • The UK recorded another 66,638 Covid infections and a further 206 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data on the government’s coronavirus dashboard.
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  • The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been isolating since Saturday after contracting Covid, tested negative, the state-owned Anadolu news agency cited his doctor as saying. Erdoğan said on Saturday he had tested positive for the Omicron variant. “The PCR tests we have done over the past two days have come back negative,” his doctor, Serkan Topaloğlu, was quoted as saying on Thursday. “I think the president will go back to his routine programme very soon, even tomorrow.”
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  • The Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado, tested positive for Covid-19, his office said. “He is doing well and will be in isolation at his home,” it added.
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  • Africa is transitioning out of the pandemic phase of its Covid outbreak and moving towards a situation where it will be managing the virus long term, the World Health Organization’s regional head for Africa said. “The pandemic is moving into a different phase,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti said. “We think that we’re moving now, especially with the vaccination expected to increase, into what might become a kind of endemic living with the virus.” Moeti also said the number of Covid infections in Africa could be seven times higher than official data suggested, and deaths from the virus two to three times higher. “We’re very much aware that our surveillance systems problems that we had on the continent, with access to testing supplies, for example, have led to an underestimation of the cases,” Moeti told a briefing. Story here.
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Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors on Thursday, though many people kept them on in Madrid, with face coverings now an everyday staple, AFP reports.

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Spain first imposed obligatory mask-wearing outdoors in May 2020, but lifted it in June last year.

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Wearing a face covering was still required for indoor public spaces.

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However, the government reimposed the measure just before Christmas as Covid cases exploded due to the Omicron variant.

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Even as rules eased across the country on Thursday, in Madrid, some kept them on out of habit.

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“I’m wearing one and I’ll keep on doing so even though the law says I can take it off,” said Alberto Diaz, a pensioner from the southern Andalusia region who was in the city for a concert.

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Face masks have been embraced across Spain in all public spaces, both inside and out, and they have largely become ubiquitous like in many cities in Asia.

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Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds.

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Newlyweds Ricardo Alfredo Sanchez and Yvette Candero looked delighted as they had their photo taken in Puerta del Sol Square.

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“It’s not the same having a souvenir photo taken with your face covered, you can’t see the person’s expression or how happy they are,” said the groom.

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In another anticipated move, in the northeastern region of Catalonia, nightlife venues were set to open at the stroke of midnight.

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In late December, the Catalan government put in place some of Spain’s most restrictive measures to fight Omicron, imposing a night curfew from 1am, closing nightlife venues and halving the capacity in bars and restaurants.

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The bar and restaurant restrictions were eased last month, but nightlife venues had remained closed, until Friday – with most set to open just after midnight.

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Despite high vaccination rates, Covid cases exploded in Spain over the Christmas holidays, giving it one of Europe’s highest incidence rates, although that has now fallen.

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So far, Spain has registered some 10.5 million infections and more than 95,000 deaths.

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The UK has recorded another 66,638 Covid infections and a further 206 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data on the government’s coronavirus dashboard.

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That is compared with 68,214 cases and 276 fatalities recorded in the 24 hours prior.

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The Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado, has tested positive for Covid-19, his office said on Thursday.

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“He is doing well and will be in isolation at his home,” it added.

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The Prince of Wales, who has Covid for the second time, met the Queen recently but the monarch is not displaying any symptoms, a palace source has told the PA news agency.

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It is not known when exactly the prince met the Queen. But he held an investiture on Tuesday at Windsor Castle, where the monarch is currently staying. People who develop coronavirus symptoms are asked to notify those they have been in contact with in the previous 48 hours.

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The prince took a routine test and is not thought to be showing symptoms.

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Charles usually greets his mother in public with both a kiss on the hand and a kiss on the cheek.

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The Queen is understood to be fully vaccinated so will not need to self isolate, unless she tests positive.

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But she will be advised to take rapid lateral flow tests, one a day for seven days.

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Downing Street said Boris Johnson hoped the Prince of Wales would make a swift recovery after he tested positive for Covid-19.

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Africa is transitioning out of the pandemic phase of its Covid-19 outbreak and moving towards a situation where it will be managing the virus long term, the World Health Organization’s regional head for Africa has said.

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“The pandemic is moving into a different phase,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti said. “We think that we’re moving now, especially with the vaccination expected to increase, into what might become a kind of endemic living with the virus.”

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Moeti also said the number of Covid infections in Africa could be seven times higher than official data suggested, and deaths from the virus two to three times higher.

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“We’re very much aware that our surveillance systems problems that we had on the continent, with access to testing supplies, for example, have led to an underestimation of the cases,” Moeti told a briefing.

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Moeti’s comments confirm what has increasingly been suspected by a number of researchers who have been working to understand the so-called “Africa paradox” – why official reporting from African countries had failed to capture the same distribution of infections and deaths as elsewhere in the world.

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Some have suggested the much younger age profile across countries on the continent may have contributed, but a consensus is coalescing around significant undercounting in countries with weak health surveillance systems that have failed to pick up infections and deaths over the past two years.

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According to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, recorded infections across Africa exceeded 11 million as of 10 February and deaths at 250,000. If the WHO’s estimates are correct the real figures could be nearer 70 million and 750,000 respectively.

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Concern about undercounting have been driven by a number of studies and serological surveys – not least in South Africa, which has one of the continent’s most sophisticated disease surveillance – that suggest higher rates of infection than previously thought.

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Africa is the latest region that the WHO has suggested may be transitioning out of the pandemic phase and moving towards a more stable situation.

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The WHO’s European regional director, Hans Kluge, said last week that the continent could soon enter a “long period of tranquillity” that amounted to a “ceasefire” in the pandemic thanks to the less severe Omicron variant, high levels of immunity and the arrival of warmer spring weather.

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His upbeat assessment said the 53-country region, which includes the UK, was in a position of higher protection that could “bring us enduring peace”, even if a new, more virulent variant than Omicron should emerge.

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He said Europe had recorded 12 million new cases in a week. the highest single weekly total of the pandemic, with about 22% of all tests returning a positive result.

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The story is here: Africa transitioning out of pandemic phase of Covid, WHO says

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Prince Charles has tested positive for Covid-19, his office said on Thursday, the second time the heir to the throne has contracted the virus.

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“This morning The Prince of Wales has tested positive for Covid-19 and is now self-isolating,” Clarence House said, adding he had cancelled his planned engagements for Thursday.

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“HRH is deeply disappointed not to be able to attend today’s events in Winchester and will look to reschedule his visit as soon as possible.”

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Charles, 73, who said in December both he and his wife Camilla had received their booster shots, first tested positive for Covid in March 2020 when he said he had been “lucky” to have suffered only mild symptoms. He spent seven days in self-isolation at his Birkhall home in Scotland before resuming his duties.

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On Wednesday, he attended a reception for the British Asian Trust at the British Museum with Camilla, where the other guests included the chancellor Rishi Sunak, the home secretary Priti Patel and the health secretary Sajid Javid.

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Democratic standards across the world fell again in 2021 amid the pandemic and growing support for authoritarianism to leave just over 45 percent of the world’s population living in a democracy, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said on Thursday.

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As in 2020, less than half of the world’s population is living in a democracy but the trend has deteriorated further, the London-based analysis group said according to Reuters.

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Its annual democracy Index “sheds light on continued challenges to democracy worldwide, under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and increasing support for authoritarian alternatives,” the group said.

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Its annual index, which provides a measurement of the state of global democracy, registered its biggest fall since 2010 and set “another dismal record” for the worst global score since the index was first produced in 2006.

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In Europe, Spain was downgraded to a “flawed democracy”, reflecting a deterioration in its score for judicial independence.

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The EIU said the UK also dropped in the ranking following controversies over party financing and a series of scandals, but remains a “full democracy”.

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Less than half – 45.7 percent – of the world’s population now live in a democracy of some sort, a significant decline from 2020 where the figure was 49.4 percent.

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Even fewer – 6.4 percent – reside in a “full democracy” after Chile and Spain were downgraded to “flawed democracies”. Spain’s downgrade reflects a deterioration in its score for judicial independence, it said.

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More than a third of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule, a large proportion of which are in China.

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“China has not become more democratic as it has become richer. On the contrary, it has become less free,” the EIU said.

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The top three places in the index are occupied by Norway, New Zealand and Finland while the final three countries are North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

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Along with Tunisia, Myanmar and Afghanistan recorded the biggest declines in the index following the military coup and Taliban takeover in those countries.

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Hello and welcome to the Guardian’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with me, Helen Livingstone.

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Democratic standards across the world fell again in 2021 amid the pandemic and growing support for authoritarianism to leave just over 45 percent of the world’s population living in a democracy, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said on Thursday.

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New Zealand has announced a record 306 new community infections of Covid-19, while police have arrested more than 120 people at a protest against public health measures on parliament’s grounds in Wellington. Case numbers have been tracking upward since Omicron arrived several weeks ago.

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Here’s what else has been happening over the past 24 hours:

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    n

  • In the UK, The Metropolitan police is going to review its decision not to include the Christmas quiz in Downing Street on 15 December 2020 in its partygate investigation in the light of a new picture showing prime minister Boris Johnson with a bottle of prosecco and two staff members.
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  • Sweden scrapped almost all of its few pandemic restrictions and stopped most testing for Covid, even as the pressure on the healthcare systems remained high and some scientists begged for more patience in fighting the disease.
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  • New Zealand’s anti-vaccine protesters are being evicted from parliament grounds on the third day of their protest, with more than 50 arrested after clashes with police.
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  • Blockades on the busiest border bridge between Canada and the US to protest against coronavirus rules could have a serious impact on the economies of both countries, disrupting the automotive industry, agricultural exports, and causing multimillion-dollar losses, the two countries’ governments have said.
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  • The US government is planning to roll out Covid-19 jabs for children under the age of 5 as soon as 21 February. The US Food and Drug Administration is considering authorising the use of the Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE vaccine in the age group even though it did not meet a key target in a clinical trial of two- to four-year-olds.
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  • Palestinian authorities have ramped up Covid testing and vaccinations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and have warned that public indifference to calls for mask-wearing and social distancing is hampering efforts to fight the pandemic. The Palestinian Authority health ministry registered more than 64,000 active cases of Covid on Wednesday.
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  • Boris Johnson plans to abolish the last domestic Covid restrictions in England, including the requirement for people with the virus to self-isolate, in less than two weeks, a month earlier than initially proposed, he announced.
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  • Top European Union officials said low absorption of Covid-19 vaccines in African countries had become the main problem in the global vaccine rollout following a recent increase in supplies of jabs,
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  • Only five hospitals in Afghanistan still offer Covid treatment, with 33 others having been forced to close in recent months for lack of doctors, medicines and even heating, the Associated Press reports. It comes as the economically devastated nation is hit by a steep rise in the number of reported coronavirus cases.
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  • Spain’s King Felipe has tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday after displaying mild symptoms overnight and will remain in isolation for seven days, the Royal Palace has said.
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  • Japan is set to extend Covid restrictions in Tokyo and 12 prefectures by three weeks as the Omicron variant continued to spread. The country has been breaking daily records for coronavirus cases and deaths amid a surge in infections driven by Omicron.
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  • Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II has tested positive for coronavirus and is showing mild symptoms, the royal court said. The 81-year-old monarch received a third dose of the vaccine in November, the court said.
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Goodbye and summary

That’s it from me, Helen Livingstone, for now. Please join us a little later for a new live feed where we will continue to cover the coronavirus crisis.

You can also keep up with the top headlines here.

I leave you with a summary of the latest developments from the past 24 hours:

  • Prince Charles met the Queen two days before testing positive for Covid for the second time. A palace source said the monarch was not displaying any symptoms, but declined to say whether or not she had tested negative.

  • Elsewhere in the UK, Boris Johnson was condemned by former Conservatiove prime minister Sir John Major as a lawbreaker whose disregard for honesty and ministerial standards risks undermining the UK’s long-term democratic future, on another politically bruising day for the prime minister.
  • Brussels authorities have banned a pan-European “freedom convoy” of motorists protesting Covid restrictions from entering the Belgian capital, the regional government said in a statement. Reuters reports the convoy was expected to arrive at the home of European Union institutions and NATO on Monday. Authorities in Paris had earlier banned the convoy.
  • Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors. Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds.

  • New Zealand has hit a new record daily of community Covid cases, with 446 announced on Friday. That is an increase of 140 cases from the previous record, which was set the previous day.Cases are expected to climb steadily now that Omicron is spreading within New Zealand.
  • Novavax says its Covid vaccine has proved safe and effective in a study of 12- to 17-year-olds. Armed with the new data, Novavax plans to soon seek expanded use of its shots down to age 12. Later this year, it plans to begin testing in younger children.
  • The Dutch government has said it aims to drop most of its coronavirus restrictions by the end of the month, as record levels of infections in recent weeks have only had a limited effect on hospital numbers.
  • The Philippines welcomed back more than 200 foreign tourists on Thursday, becoming the latest south-east Asian nation to reopen in a bid to revive a battered tourism sector after its borders shut to visitors nearly two years ago due to the pandemic
  • The UK recorded another 66,638 Covid infections and a further 206 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data on the government’s coronavirus dashboard.
  • Coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly on the Pacific island of Tonga. Health minister, Saia Piukala, told reporters that 31 more people had tested positive for the virus, nearly doubling Tonga’s active cases for the second day in a row to a total of 64.
  • Covid passes are to be scrapped and the need to wear face coverings in certain venues removed later this month as coronavirus cases continue to fall, the Welsh government has announced. The changes will be confirmed on Friday during the first three-week review of Wales’s alert level zero measures.
  • The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been isolating since Saturday after contracting Covid, has tested negative, the state-owned Anadolu news agency cited his doctor as saying.
  • The Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado, tested positive for Covid-19, his office said. “He is doing well and will be in isolation at his home,” it added.
  • Africa is transitioning out of the pandemic phase of its Covid outbreak and moving towards a situation where it will be managing the virus long term, the World Health Organization’s regional head for Africa said. Dr Matshidiso Moeti also said the number of Covid infections in Africa could be seven times higher than official data suggested, and deaths from the virus two to three times higher.

Tess McClure

Tess McClure

New Zealand has hit a new record daily of community Covid cases, with 446 announced on Friday. That is an increase of 140 cases from the previous record, which was set the previous day.

Cases are expected to climb steadily now that Omicron is spreading within New Zealand.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement, “The increase in cases today is a reminder that, as expected, the Omicron variant is spreading in our communities as we have seen in other countries. The number of cases will continue to fluctuate from day to day, but our expectation is that cases will continue to increase in the coming weeks.”

The country is in the midst of rolling out booster shots and vaccines for children. Of those aged 12 and over, 95% have had two doses of the vaccine, and 56% have had a booster shot; 43% of children aged 5-11 have had a dose of the vaccine. Across the country, 23 people are hospitalised with Covid-19.

A man who wanted to join the protests in Canada’s capital over mask mandates called in a bomb threat so police would waste their time chasing it, authorities said, but he called the wrong Ottawaa village in Ohio.

The man, a 20-year-old from Akron, Ohio, called the Putnam county sheriff’s office twice Monday, said sheriff’s Capt Brad Brubaker.

The first time he made a bomb threat, and then in a second call he said he had been shot, Brubaker said. That’s when the man found out he was talking with someone in Ohio.

“He wasn’t paying attention and just called the first number he found,” Brubaker told The Lima News. “He said he was mad about mask mandates.”

More here:

Hello, this is Helen Livingstone taking over the blog again from my colleague, Tom Ambrose.

In the UK, Boris Johnson has been condemned by former Conservatiove prime minister Sir John Major as a lawbreaker whose disregard for honesty and ministerial standards risks undermining the UK’s long-term democratic future, on another politically bruising day for the prime minister.

While he now has a brief respite from the threat of a confidence vote by Tory MPs, with the Commons in recess for 10 days, Johnson faces the prospect of at least some staff being fined for breaking lockdown rules, with police saying this seems likely.

Major launched his attack on Johnson in a speech in London, saying the prime minister appeared to believe rules did not apply to him, viewed the truth as “optional”, and had tarnished the UK’s reputation overseas with populist-style “megaphone diplomacy”.

Saying MPs had a duty to act in the face of the threats to trust, the former Conservative prime minister said he was confident Johnson and his aides had broken lockdown laws, and their denial of this had left the government looking “distinctly shifty”.

“Brazen excuses were dreamed up,” Major said. “Day after day the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible – making themselves look gullible or foolish.

“No government can function properly if its every word is treated with suspicion … the lack of trust in the elected portion of our democracy cannot be brushed aside.”

Read more here:

Novavax announced on Thursday that its Covid vaccine proved safe and effective in a study of 12- to 17-year-olds.

Novavax makes a protein-based vaccine, a different type than the most widely used shots.

Its shots have been cleared for use in adults by regulators in Britain, Europe and elsewhere and by the World Health Organization, and are under review by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Armed with the new data, Novavax plans to soon seek expanded use of its shots down to age 12. Later this year, it plans to begin testing in younger children.

The latest study enrolled 2,247 US children ages 12 to 17 last summer and found the two-dose vaccine was 80% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid infection.

Covid passes are to be scrapped and the need to wear face coverings in certain venues removed later this month as coronavirus cases continue to fall, the Welsh government has announced.

The changes will be confirmed on Friday during the first three-week review of Wales’s alert level zero measures.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said vaccination levels and decreasing infection rates mean the country can “look forward to brighter times ahead”.

He signalled that face masks could be scrapped completely by the end of March should public health conditions continue to improve.

A plan will be published next month setting out how Wales will move beyond “the emergency footing on which we have been operating for nearly two years”, Drakeford said.

The First Minister said:

With increasing numbers of people vaccinated and boosted and thanks to the hard work and efforts of everyone across Wales, we are confident that coronavirus rates are falling and we can look forward to brighter times ahead.

We can start to gradually and carefully remove some of the remaining protections we have in place at alert level zero. But we are not removing all the measures at once because the pandemic is not over yet.

To keep Wales safe we need to remain cautious and do everything we can to reassure those who feel most at risk.

Hello. I’m Tom Ambrose and I’ll be bringing you all the latest Covid news from around the world over the next hour or so.

We start with the news that the Dutch government has said it aims to drop most of its coronavirus restrictions by the end of the month, as record levels of infections in recent weeks have only had a limited effect on hospital numbers.

Bars and restaurants will be allowed to stay open until 1am as of 18 February, instead of the current order to close at 10pm, health minister Ernst Kuipers said in a letter to parliament.

Social distancing measures will be dropped in public places by the end of the month, but visitors will need to show proof of either vaccination, a recent recovery from Covid or a negative coronavirus test.

This would also allow theatres and sporting events to reopen at full capacity, while nightclubs and festivals could get back in business with a testing requirement for all visitors.

Summary

Here is a quick recap of some of the main developments from today so far:

  • Prince Charles met the Queen two days before testing positive for Covid for the second time. A palace source said the monarch was not displaying any symptoms, but declined to say whether or not she had tested negative. The 95-year-old is believed to have spent time with Charles on Tuesday when her eldest son was carrying out an investiture on her behalf at her Windsor Castle home. She is understood to be fully vaccinated so will not be self isolating, although she will be advised to take daily lateral flow tests for a week. The Prince of Wales, who first tested positive for Covid in March 2020, is self-isolating, Clarence House said. He had attended a reception at the British Museum on Wednesday to celebrate the work of the British Asian Trust. The event had brought him into close contact with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the home secretary, Priti Patel, and scores of others. Story here.
  • Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors. The Spanish government first imposed obligatory mask-wearing outdoors in May 2020, but lifted it in June last year. Wearing a face covering was still required for indoor public spaces. However, Spain reimposed the measure just before Christmas as Covid cases exploded due to the Omicron variant. Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds. More here.

  • The UK recorded another 66,638 Covid infections and a further 206 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data on the government’s coronavirus dashboard.
  • The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been isolating since Saturday after contracting Covid, tested negative, the state-owned Anadolu news agency cited his doctor as saying. Erdoğan said on Saturday he had tested positive for the Omicron variant. “The PCR tests we have done over the past two days have come back negative,” his doctor, Serkan Topaloğlu, was quoted as saying on Thursday. “I think the president will go back to his routine programme very soon, even tomorrow.”
  • The Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado, tested positive for Covid-19, his office said. “He is doing well and will be in isolation at his home,” it added.
  • Africa is transitioning out of the pandemic phase of its Covid outbreak and moving towards a situation where it will be managing the virus long term, the World Health Organization’s regional head for Africa said. “The pandemic is moving into a different phase,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti said. “We think that we’re moving now, especially with the vaccination expected to increase, into what might become a kind of endemic living with the virus.” Moeti also said the number of Covid infections in Africa could be seven times higher than official data suggested, and deaths from the virus two to three times higher. “We’re very much aware that our surveillance systems problems that we had on the continent, with access to testing supplies, for example, have led to an underestimation of the cases,” Moeti told a briefing. Story here.

Spain drops mandatory use of face masks outdoors

Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors on Thursday, though many people kept them on in Madrid, with face coverings now an everyday staple, AFP reports.

Spain first imposed obligatory mask-wearing outdoors in May 2020, but lifted it in June last year.

Wearing a face covering was still required for indoor public spaces.

However, the government reimposed the measure just before Christmas as Covid cases exploded due to the Omicron variant.

Even as rules eased across the country on Thursday, in Madrid, some kept them on out of habit.

“I’m wearing one and I’ll keep on doing so even though the law says I can take it off,” said Alberto Diaz, a pensioner from the southern Andalusia region who was in the city for a concert.

Face masks have been embraced across Spain in all public spaces, both inside and out, and they have largely become ubiquitous like in many cities in Asia.

Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds.

Newlyweds Ricardo Alfredo Sanchez and Yvette Candero looked delighted as they had their photo taken in Puerta del Sol Square.

“It’s not the same having a souvenir photo taken with your face covered, you can’t see the person’s expression or how happy they are,” said the groom.

In another anticipated move, in the northeastern region of Catalonia, nightlife venues were set to open at the stroke of midnight.

In late December, the Catalan government put in place some of Spain’s most restrictive measures to fight Omicron, imposing a night curfew from 1am, closing nightlife venues and halving the capacity in bars and restaurants.

The bar and restaurant restrictions were eased last month, but nightlife venues had remained closed, until Friday – with most set to open just after midnight.

Despite high vaccination rates, Covid cases exploded in Spain over the Christmas holidays, giving it one of Europe’s highest incidence rates, although that has now fallen.

So far, Spain has registered some 10.5 million infections and more than 95,000 deaths.

Czech restaurant and hotel operators saw light at the end of the tunnel on Thursday as the government cancelled rules requiring vaccination certificates to enter restaurants and events as Omicron infections started to ebb.

Hotels and restaurants in Prague, a prime tourist destination, have suffered badly throughout the pandemic and now hope restrictions will not come back.

“The relaxation means guests can come without any restriction or persecution, that’s of course welcome … This has been long for everyone, not just us in gastronomy but the entire society,” Tomas Lachman, a manager at Oblaca Restaurant at Prague’s TV tower, told Reuters.

The Czech Republic is the latest European country to ease restrictions as the government hopes the peak of the Omicron wave is over. Sweden lifted most restrictions on Wednesday.

The country of 10.7 million has suffered one of the world’s highest death tolls per capita with 37,660 victims to date. Daily infections peaked at 57,232 on 1 February, falling to 29,059 on Wednesday.

Enforcement of the vaccination certificate requirement has been weak and many pubs did not require guests to show them. Some actively refused to follow the rules.

“We were in a perverse situation where those who followed the rules suffered while those who didn’t give a damn and even declared it openly were making money,” said Tomas Prouza, head of a lobby group for commerce and tourism, welcoming the end of the system. “The numbers are going down, hospitals are not full, this is a time when we have to start living normally.”

The number of people in hospital has still been going up, to 3,784 on Tuesday, but is far below peaks of over 9,000 in March last year. The number of patients in serious condition was at just over 10% of the peak.

The government maintained a mask mandate indoors and on public transport, as well as limits to the size of audiences at culture and sports events. Mandatory regular testing at schools and workplaces will end on 18 February. The prime minister Petr Fiala said on Wednesday that most remaining restrictions would be lifted from March.

Katerina Joklova, general manager at Vienna House Andel’s Prague Hotel, told Reuters it had an occupancy rate of 10-15% and any relaxation was welcome. “It is certainly a light at the end of the tunnel, a sign that we are getting back to normal life.”

UK records another 66,638 Covid cases and 206 deaths

The UK has recorded another 66,638 Covid infections and a further 206 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data on the government’s coronavirus dashboard.

That is compared with 68,214 cases and 276 fatalities recorded in the 24 hours prior.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been isolating since Saturday after contracting Covid, tested negative on Thursday, the state-owned Anadolu news agency cited his doctor as saying.

Erdoğan said on Saturday he had tested positive for the Omicron variant.

“The PCR tests we have done over the past two days have come back negative,” his doctor, Serkan Topaloğlu, was quoted as saying. “I think the president will go back to his routine programme very soon, even tomorrow.”

Costa Rican president tests positive for Covid

The Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado, has tested positive for Covid-19, his office said on Thursday.

“He is doing well and will be in isolation at his home,” it added.

Prince Charles met the Queen recently but monarch not displaying symptoms, reports say

The Prince of Wales, who has Covid for the second time, met the Queen recently but the monarch is not displaying any symptoms, a palace source has told the PA news agency.

It is not known when exactly the prince met the Queen. But he held an investiture on Tuesday at Windsor Castle, where the monarch is currently staying. People who develop coronavirus symptoms are asked to notify those they have been in contact with in the previous 48 hours.

The prince took a routine test and is not thought to be showing symptoms.

Charles usually greets his mother in public with both a kiss on the hand and a kiss on the cheek.

The Queen is understood to be fully vaccinated so will not need to self isolate, unless she tests positive.

But she will be advised to take rapid lateral flow tests, one a day for seven days.

Downing Street said Boris Johnson hoped the Prince of Wales would make a swift recovery after he tested positive for Covid-19.

A worker in protective gear collecting swab samples from tables and chairs for Covid testing at the main media centre of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
A worker in protective gear collecting swab samples from tables and chairs for Covid testing at the main media centre of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Africa transitioning out of pandemic phase of Covid, says WHO

Peter Beaumont

Peter Beaumont

Africa is transitioning out of the pandemic phase of its Covid-19 outbreak and moving towards a situation where it will be managing the virus long term, the World Health Organization’s regional head for Africa has said.

“The pandemic is moving into a different phase,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti said. “We think that we’re moving now, especially with the vaccination expected to increase, into what might become a kind of endemic living with the virus.”

Moeti also said the number of Covid infections in Africa could be seven times higher than official data suggested, and deaths from the virus two to three times higher.

“We’re very much aware that our surveillance systems problems that we had on the continent, with access to testing supplies, for example, have led to an underestimation of the cases,” Moeti told a briefing.

Moeti’s comments confirm what has increasingly been suspected by a number of researchers who have been working to understand the so-called “Africa paradox” – why official reporting from African countries had failed to capture the same distribution of infections and deaths as elsewhere in the world.

Some have suggested the much younger age profile across countries on the continent may have contributed, but a consensus is coalescing around significant undercounting in countries with weak health surveillance systems that have failed to pick up infections and deaths over the past two years.

According to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, recorded infections across Africa exceeded 11 million as of 10 February and deaths at 250,000. If the WHO’s estimates are correct the real figures could be nearer 70 million and 750,000 respectively.

Concern about undercounting have been driven by a number of studies and serological surveys – not least in South Africa, which has one of the continent’s most sophisticated disease surveillance – that suggest higher rates of infection than previously thought.

Africa is the latest region that the WHO has suggested may be transitioning out of the pandemic phase and moving towards a more stable situation.

The WHO’s European regional director, Hans Kluge, said last week that the continent could soon enter a “long period of tranquillity” that amounted to a “ceasefire” in the pandemic thanks to the less severe Omicron variant, high levels of immunity and the arrival of warmer spring weather.

His upbeat assessment said the 53-country region, which includes the UK, was in a position of higher protection that could “bring us enduring peace”, even if a new, more virulent variant than Omicron should emerge.

He said Europe had recorded 12 million new cases in a week. the highest single weekly total of the pandemic, with about 22% of all tests returning a positive result.

The story is here: Africa transitioning out of pandemic phase of Covid, WHO says

Here is my colleague Tobi Thomas’s story on Prince Charles self-isolating after testing positive for Covid for a second time.

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IL PRIMO ECOMMERCE SPECIALIZZATO IN DELIZIE AL TARTUFO E CAVIALE – CAVIAREAT.COM

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