Israel restricts travel due to new virus strain


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the country has further tightened restrictions on incoming air travel in response to the new strain of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu said Monday that Israel will not allow foreign nationals to enter the country, and any Israelis who return from abroad, starting Wednesday, will go into quarantine at state-designated hotels. Currently, returning Israelis are allowed to quarantine at home. The restrictions will remain in effect for 10 days.

Israel has already barred most foreign visitors since the start of the pandemic, but made exceptions for certain groups like religious seminary students. Israeli officials say almost all loopholes will now be closed.

On Sunday, Netanyahu also said Israel was banning incoming flights from the U.K., Denmark and South Africa — saying those are the countries where the new mutation of the coronavirus had been detected. He said the ban could be extended to other countries if the strain spreads.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

A new COVID-19 relief bill shaping up in Congress includes individual payments reaching $600 for most Americans and an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits. Votes on the bill in the House and Senate are expected Monday. Among those getting help are hard-hit businesses, schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction. Also, President-elect Joe Biden will receive his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on live television as part of a growing effort to convince the American public the inoculations are safe.

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has suspended flights to the United Kingdom for two weeks over fears of a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus.

In response to a request from Iranian health authorities, the transport ministry decided on Monday to halt round-trip flights to Britain, which is grappling with an outbreak of what officials have described as a more contagious strain of the virus.

Plane tickets were abruptly canceled and all Iranian planes were ordered to return to Iran from the U.K. without passengers.

Iran has struggled to contain the worst outbreak in the Middle East, which has killed over 53,800 people.

The new strains in the UK and South Africa appear to be more infectious than the original virus.

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HOUGHTON LAKE, Mich. — A popular northern Michigan festival is switching to a February weekend because of coronavirus restrictions.

Tip-Up Town USA in Houghton Lake promotes itself as Michigan’s longest-running winter festival, with a polar bear dip, snowmobile drag racing, ice fishing contest and more in Roscommon County. The local Chamber of Commerce said it began in 1950.

WWTV–WWUP-TV reported that the Jan. 16-17 dates have been switched to Feb. 27-28 because of restrictions on attendance at outdoor events. Outdoor events are limited to 25 people through Jan. 15.

Organizers said if there are conflicts with the new dates, Tip-Up Town probably will be canceled.

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WOONSOCKET, R.I. — CVS Health has expanded its COVID-19 vaccination program for residents and staff of long-term care facilities into 12 states.

The drugstore chain said Monday it will add another 36 states on Dec. 28 and start vaccinations in Puerto Rico on Jan. 4.

Vaccinations began around the country last week, mostly for health care workers. CVS Health and rival Walgreens also started providing shots at some long-term care locations in Connecticut and Ohio.

Both companies said they would expand their programs in 12 states starting this week. CVS Health said Monday that those states include Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Vermont.

Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS Health plans to make three visits to each site in order to give residents and staff their initial shoot and then a booster. The company said it expects that most residents will be fully vaccinated three to four weeks after the initial visit, and it will complete its program in about three months.

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CAIRO — Sudan on Monday banned travelers arriving from the UK, The Netherlands and South Africa from entering the county amid concerns over new coronavirus variants detected in those countries.

The civil aviation authority said the ban would go into effect starting from Wednesday and would last till January 5.

Sudan has reported more than 22,963 confirmed cases, including 1,450 deaths, as of Friday. The actual COVID-19 tally, however, is believed to be higher given the country’s limited testing.

The decision by Sudanese authorities followed similar measures by several western countries that have imposed temporary bans on certain travel from the United Kingdom, following the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus.

The new strains in the UK and South Africa appear to be more infectious than the original virus.

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PARIS — A croaky-voiced French President Emmanuel Macron held a cabinet meeting Monday via video, in which he indicated the French could enforce “systematic tests” as a condition for French nationals returning from Britain to France for the holidays.

Macron, in stable condition, has been working from home at the Elysee Palace as he recovers from his COVID-19 infection.

Macron said that the “problematic virus mutation” identified in southern England caused the U.K. “to take exceptional decisions on Saturday and accelerate the measure of closures and constraint.” It brought France to suspend all travel and freight from the U.K. until Wednesday.

French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told reporters after the Cabinet meeting that “a certain number of strains viral are being analyzed constantly” by French scientists.

He defended France’s decision to close its border with the U.K., saying the idea behind the 48-hour freeze was to give enough time for Europe-wide negotiations.

Attal said vaccinations in France are expected to begin by Sunday.

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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican says it’s “morally acceptable” for faithful to receive COVID-19 vaccines whose research used cell lines from tissue obtained from abortions.

The Vatican office on doctrinal orthodoxy on Monday noted in a statement that bishops and Catholic groups have made conflicting pronouncements on the matter. The statement says “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetus” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available to the public.

Pope Francis ordered the publication of the statement, which also stressed that the licit use of such vaccines “does not and should not in any way imply” moral endorsement of such cell line use.

The statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cited the circumstance of citizens not being allowed by health authorities to choose which vaccine to be inoculated with. It also noted that vaccination “is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and therefore must be voluntary. Still, the Vatican cited the “duty to pursue the common good” by protecting the weakest and most exposed to the virus through vaccination.

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BERLIN — A top German virologist is hinting at some skepticism about how much more infectious a new coronavirus strain detected in England really is, though he says it’s right for politicians to take precautions.

Christian Drosten, a professor of virology at Berlin’s Charite hospital, told Deutschlandfunk radio Monday he is “not so very worried at the moment.” He pointed to “incomplete” information and said British scientists say they need to wait until this week to be able to conclude preliminary analyses that could confirm the suspicions, or not.

British officials say the new variant is up to 70% more transmissible than existing strains. They have tightened restrictions in southeast England, and a string of European countries on Sunday halted flights from Britain.

Drosten said it’s important to see what British scientists conclude in the coming days. But he said: “of course you have to act out of caution as a politician, particularly as there’s an extremely heated news situation coming from England — you have to react somehow.”

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MOSCOW — Russia is suspending air traffic with the U.K. for one week starting from Tuesday due to concerns over a new strain of the coronavirus detected in Britain, Russia’s government coronavirus task force said Monday. The U.K. is one of 16 countries Russia has resumed flights with after closing the borders in March in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Russia, which has so far registered more than 2.8 million confirmed cases of the virus and over 51,000 deaths in the pandemic, has been swept by a rapid resurgence of the outbreak this fall, with numbers of infections and deaths significantly exceeding those reported in the spring.

Earlier this month, mass vaccinations started in Russia with Sputnik V — a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine that is yet to complete advanced studies among tens of thousands of people needed to ensure its safety and effectiveness. Kirill Dmitriyev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled Sputnik V’s development, assured Monday that the shots were “highly effective against the mutation of the virus detected in Europe.”

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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has announced that a new variant of the COVID-19 virus is driving the country’s resurgence of the disease, with higher numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

According to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy, the new variant, known as 501.V2, is dominant among new confirmed infections in South Africa’s current wave.

The new strain, different from the one in Britain, appears to be more infectious than the original virus. South African scientists are studying if the vaccines against COVID-19 will also offer protection against the new strain.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairman of the government’s Ministerial Advisory Committee, said in a briefing to journalists that the preliminary data suggests that the new strain of the virus is now dominating South Africa’s new wave which is spreading faster than the first.

South Africa currently has more than 8,500 people hospitalized with COVID-19, surpassing the previous high of 8,300 recorded in August.

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BERLIN — The German government said Monday that it hopes European countries can coordinate their decisions on travel from the U.K., after several countries including Germany decided to take immediate action over the weekend amid concerns over a new variant of the coronavirus detected in Britain.

Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said indications that the variant could spread faster meant the first goal had to be “to keep the mutation (…) out of Germany and continental Europe.”

Health Ministry spokesman Hanno Kautz said the decree banning flights was based on the British government’s claim that the virus variant found there is 70% more transmissible.

Andrea Sasse, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry, said EU officials are meeting Monday in Brussels to discuss a joint response.

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BERLIN — Switzerland has banned foreign nationals arriving from the U.K. and South Africa from entering the Alpine country and ordered those who arrived since Dec. 14 to go into quarantine amid concerns over a new coronavirus variant detected in those countries.

The Swiss government said Monday that the decision was taken “to prevent the further spread of this new virus strain.”

The decision by the non-European Union country bans air travel between Switzerland and the U.K. and South Africa.

The government said it is considering a temporary exemption for flights that would allow people currently in Switzerland but resident in the U.K. or South Africa to return home, and vice versa.

Switzerland said it gave the U.K. and South Africa prior notice of the measures.

No cases of the new strain have so far been identified in Switzerland, the Swiss government said.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Persian Gulf state of Oman says it’s temporarily suspending all entry to the country by foreigners and halting international passenger flights over worries about a fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus.

Oman said the one-week closure of all official ports of entry would begin on Tuesday “to protect community members from the severity of infection and the speed of spread.”

The sultanate’s decision to impose an international travel ban followed an announcement by its neighbor Saudi Arabia late Sunday that it would shut its borders for a week or until clearer details emerged about the more contagious variant of the virus that has prompted countries to bar travelers from the United Kingdom.

Oman’s trade routes will remain open, with cargo flights exempted from the restrictions.

The sultanate has struggled to contain a major outbreak that has infected over 127,900 people, although cases have declined in recent months.

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