LONDON — Tough new coronavirus restrictions have begun in the U.K. with Scotland and Northern Ireland under tighter measures to try to halt a new variant of the virus that is believed to spread more quickly.
Measures that were relaxed for Christmas day in Wales have also been re-imposed.
The number of people under the country’s top level of restrictions — Tier 4 — increased by 6 million on Saturday to 24 million people, around 43% of Britain’s population. No indoor mixing of households is allowed and only essential travel permitted. Gyms, pools, hairdressers and stores selling nonessential goods have been ordered to close.
A further 570 deaths from COVID-19 were reported in the last 24 hours, bringing the total death toll to 70.195. More than 32,700 new cases of the disease were reported on Christmas day.
In her annual Christmas address, Queen Elizabeth II, who has spent much of the year isolating at Windsor Castle with her husband Prince Philip, delivered a heartfelt message of hope praising the “indomitable spirit” of those who have risen “magnificently” to the challenges of the pandemic.
The queen’s address carried added poignancy given the great sadness and upheaval that many families have experienced in the U.K., which has Europe’s second-highest death toll behind Italy.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Belarus dissidents say authorities are deliberately allowing COVID-19 to flourish in the packed jail cells where they have detained thousands of opposition protesters
— Vaccine deliveries roll out across the European Union as the bloc’s 27 nations get ready to kick off their first shots
— After early success in the pandemic, South Korea sleepwalks into a virus crisis
— Black doctor dies of COVID after racist treatment complaints
— Around 1,000 British soldiers are spending Christmas weekend trying to clear a huge backlog of truck drivers stranded at the border in southeast England
— South Africa’ s normally joyful Christmas celebrations are dampened by a spike in new cases and deaths driven by the country’s COVID-19 variant
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
MOSCOW — Russia’s Health Ministry has allowed a domestically designed coronavirus vaccine to be given to people older than 60.
Until Saturday’s announcement by Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, the Sputnik V vaccine was cleared for use for people aged 18-60.
Russia has been widely criticized for giving Sputnik V regulatory approval in August after it was tested only on a few dozen people and then rushing to offer it to people in risk groups — such as medical workers and teachers — within weeks of approval. Authorities said this week that more than 300,000 people have received the vaccine even as the advanced studies among tens of thousands of people are continuing.
Sputnik V’s developers have said data suggests the vaccine was 91% effective, a conclusion based on 78 coronavirus infections among nearly 23,000 participants. That’s far fewer cases than Western drugmakers have accumulated during final testing before analyzing how well their vaccine candidates worked.
BERLIN — The first shipments of coronavirus vaccines have arrived in nations across the European Union as authorities prepared to administer the first shots to the most vulnerable people in a coordinated effort on Sunday.
The vaccines developed by BioNTech and Pfizer arrived by truck in warehouses across the continent on Friday and early Saturday after being sent from a manufacturing center in Belgium before Christmas.
The rollout marks a moment of hope for a region that includes some of the world’s earliest and worst-hit virus hot spots, including Italy and Spain, and others, like the Czech Republic, that were spared the worst early on only to see their health care systems near their breaking points in the fall.
Altogether, the 27 EU member states have seen at least 16 million cases of the coronavirus and more than 336,000 deaths.
“It’s here, the good news at Christmas,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a news conference Saturday. “At this moment, trucks are underway across Europe, across Germany and its regions, to deliver the first vaccine. More deliveries will follow the day after tomorrow. This vaccine is the decisive key to end this pandemic.”
MADRID — Health authorities in Spain have confirmed the first cases of the new variant of the coronavirus that was recently detected in the United Kingdom, causing several European countries to restrict traffic with the British island.
Health authorities for the region of Madrid said Saturday that they have confirmed four cases of the new version of the virus. All four of the infected people are in good health, authorities said.
Regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said that the new strain had arrived when an infected person flew into Madrid’s airport.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis says he is forgoing his public appearances at a window from a Vatican palazzo overlooking St. Peter’s Square to do his part in minimizing crowding during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dec. 26 is a holiday at the Vatican and in Italy in honor of St. Stephen, the Catholic church’s first martyr. The day after Christmas would usually find thousands of people flocking to the square to catch the pope’s noontime appearance and admire the Vatican’s towering holiday tree.
Instead, on Saturday, Francis delivered his blessing and remarks from the library of the Apostolic Palace, then acknowledged that the faithful had to resort to television to follow him.
“We have to do it this way to avoid having people coming to the square,” Francis said. Eliminating the occasion for crowding “will help us all emerge from this pandemic.”
Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, when all of Italy was put under severe lockdown, Francis lamented that he felt like he “was in a cage” because he couldn’t meet the public.
But lately, as Italy struggles to tamp down a second surge that has claimed more lives than the initial one last spring, Francis has been urging people to comply with government restrictions.
TOKYO — Tokyo has confirmed 949 new cases of the coronavirus, a new high for the Japanese capital, as the country struggles with an upsurge that is spreading nationwide.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government said Saturday that the additional cases bring the prefectural total to 55,851. Japan had 3,823 new cases Friday for a national total of 213,547, with 3,155 deaths, the health ministry said.
Japan has not been able to slow the infections despite government requests for the people to avoid going out for dinner and parties before and during the holiday season.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has ordered bars to close early and urged residents to avoid nonessential outings. But many people have continued commuting on crowded trains and going out for dinner and drinks.
CAIRO — Egypt has reported over 1,000 new coronavirus cases, its highest total in months, as authorities appeal to people to stick to preventive measures to avoid a lockdown.
The Health Ministry on Saturday reported 1,113 new cases, as well as 49 deaths.
The new numbers have brought the county’s official tally to more than 130,126 cases, including at least 7,309 deaths.
However, the actual numbers of cases in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous county with over 100 million people, are thought to be far higher, in part due to limited testing.
Authorities have been urging people to stick to preventive measures, particularly wearing face masks and practicing social distancing, to avoid a lockdown that would leave devastating economic consequences.
BEIJING — China’s capital has urged residents not to leave the city during the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays, implementing fresh restrictions after several coronavirus infections last week.
Two domestic cases were reported on Friday, a convenience store worker and a Hewlett Packard Enterprise employee. Another two asymptomatic cases were discovered in Beijing earlier in the week. Beijing is conducting testing on a limited scale in the neighborhoods and workplaces where the cases were found.
China has canceled big gatherings such as sports events and temple fairs. Cinemas, libraries and museums operate at 75% capacity. The government is also discouraging business trips.
Lunar New Year is Feb. 12.
Separately, officials in the northeastern port city of Dalian said they had tested over 4.75 million people for the coronavirus after 24 confirmed infections this month. Authorities have shut schools and all public spaces in five neighborhoods in Dalian, and only essential workers can leave their compounds.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported another 1,132 coronavirus cases as the resurgence worsened over the Christmas week, putting pressure on the government to enforce stricter distancing controls.
The figures released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Saturday brought the country’s caseload to 55,902. The country added 1,241 cases on Christmas Day, its largest daily increase. Total fatalities stood at 793 after more than 220 COVID-19 patients died in the past 15 days alone as the surge left hospital capacities and medical staff stretched thin.
Around 780 of the new cases were from the greater Seoul area, home to 26 million people. Health workers discovered a large virus cluster in a huge prison with more than 500 inmates and workers. Transmissions in recent weeks have also been tied to hospitals, nursing homes, churches, restaurants and army units.
Government officials restored some social distancing restrictions in recent weeks and are now clamping down on private social gatherings, shutting down ski resorts, restricting hotel occupancy and setting fines for restaurants if they accept large groups.
Officials plan to meet Sunday to determine whether to possibly shutter hundreds of thousands of nonessential businesses.
PARIS — French health authorities have confirmed the country’s first case of the virus variant that prompted strict new lockdown measures in Britain and global travel restrictions.
A French man living in England arrived in France on Dec. 19 and tested positive for the new variant Friday, the French public health agency said. He had no symptoms and was isolating in his home in the central city of Tours.
Authorities were tracing the person’s contacts and laboratories were analyzing tests from several other people who may have the new variant, the statement said.
Some other European countries have also reported cases of the new variant, which British authorities said appears more contagious and was spreading fast. The British announcement Dec. 19 prompted countries around the world to suspend flights from the U.K. France banned all passengers and cargo from Britain for two days, causing massive traffic problems around the British port of Dover.
France reopened the border but now requires anyone entering from Britain to have a test showing they do not have the new variant.
A second partial lockdown sharply curbed France’s infections, but they have been again on the rise over the past two weeks.
DALLAS — Coronavirus hospitalizations in Texas on Friday approached a peak equaling the summer’s surge even as health officials warned that holiday gatherings and travel are likely to further spread the virus and pressure health care services.
The state health department reported 10,868 patients hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state on Christmas, less than 30 behind the record high set in July. Intensive care units in several parts of Texas were full or nearly full, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Texas on Friday reported 200 more death from COVID-19. There were 3,123 newly confirmed cases of the virus and another 973 probable cases, according to the health department.
ATHENS — The first vaccines against the coronavirus have arrived in Greece.
The first 9,750 doses arrived overland, crossing from the Bulgarian border in the north Friday evening, with the van carrying them escorted by six police cars, a video taken at the border shows.
Vaccinations will begin at five Athens hospitals Sunday, with health personnel and elderly residents of nursing homes.
Greece’s president, prime minister and 42 government, military and police officials deemed essential to the functioning of the state, as well as opposition leaders, will also be vaccinated in the first days.
Health authorities announced Friday 617 new infections over the past 24 hours, alongside 50 deaths.
ROME — For a fourth straight day, Italy’s daily new caseload of confirmed coronavirus infections has climbed higher.
Adding 19,037 COVID-19 cases on Friday, the nation raised its overall tally of confirmed infections in the pandemic to 2,028,354.
The figures from the Health Ministry on Christmas Day included 459 deaths registered since Thursday. That brings the number of known pandemic dead in Italy to 71,359.
As it has had most recently, the northeast Veneto region reported the highest daily caseload, with just over 5,000 confirmed infections registered on Friday.
That’s nearly double the day’s caseload in neighboring Lombardy, the populous region which has suffered the most deaths and has had the most COVID-19 cases.
TOKYO — Japan’s Health Ministry has confirmed the country’s first cases of infection with the new variant of the coronavirus that was identified in Britain.
The five people arrived between Dec. 18 and Dec. 21, before Japan stepped up border control on Friday for entrants from Britain. A man in his 60s developed fatigue, but the other four were without symptoms.
Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said the five were sent to quarantine straight from the airports.
After they tested positive for the virus, further analysis conducted at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases determined they had the British variant that is 70% more transmissible, the ministry said in a statement.
Shigeru Omi, head of the government task force, called for tighter border control to prevent new variants.
MOSCOW — Russian authorities have ordered those arriving from the U.K. to quarantine for two weeks.
Earlier this week, Russia suspended direct flights from the U.K. after a variant of the coronavirus that is 70% more transmissible has spread across London and parts of England.
The order from the Rospotrebnadzor safety agency posted Friday obliges all those traveling from the U.K. to remain in isolation for 14 days after their arrival in Russia.
Dozens of countries have barred flights from the U.K. or announced travel restrictions. The United States will require airline passengers from Britain to get a negative COVID-19 test before their flight starting Monday.