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January 11, 2021

Merkel warns of ‘hardest weeks’; Swiss school closures cut Covid spread; Russia confirms new virus strain

World

 
January 11, 2021

Germany’s coronavirus deaths top 40,000

Ag AFP

BERLIN: The total number of Germany’s coronavirus deaths crossed 40,000 on Sunday, as Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the coming weeks would be "the hardest" yet.

Germany recorded 465 deaths over the past 24 hours, the Robert Koch Institute for disease control said, raising the toll since the start of the pandemic to 40,343.

More than 1.9 million people have been infected so far, with almost 17,000 new cases added since Saturday.

In her weekly video message on Saturday, Merkel said the full impact of socialising over the Christmas and New Year’s period was yet to show up in the statistics.

She warned Germans that "these next winter weeks will be the hardest phase of the pandemic" so far, with many doctors and medical staff working at their limits.

Germany fared better than many other European countries during the first Covid-19 wave in the spring but it has been hit hard by the second wave.

The nation of 83 million people, the bloc’s most populous, has imposed another round of restrictions to limit social contacts and help hospitals cope with a surge in patients.

More than 5,000 Covid-19 patients are currently in intensive care nationwide, with over 80 percent of intensive care beds occupied.

Germany has closed schools and non-essential shops, culture and leisure facilities until at least January 31 in hope of slowing the outbreak. Like other EU nations, it started vaccinating citizens against Covid-19 in late December using the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.

More than half a million people have received the jab so far. A second vaccine, developed by US firm Moderna, will join the rollout in the coming days.

Merkel acknowledged the vaccine campaign had got off to a slow start, "but the tempo will pick up", she said.

"What’s important is that we can say: we will have enough of the vaccine available for everyone in Germany," she added.

"Month after month we will inoculate more people and eventually we will be able to offer the vaccine to anyone who wants it."

Merkel said the vaccines allowed for "justified hope" that the world could conquer the pandemic.

But she urged Germans to stay patient and said she was "firmly convinced" the current tough curbs on public life are "absolutely necessary". A survey by the Kantar research group for Bild am Sonntag newspaper found that 56 percent of Germans agreed with the latest measures to stem the virus spread.

Another 25 percent of respondents said the restrictions did not go far enough.

Just 16 percent said the rules were too strict.

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s decision in the spring to shutter schools was one of the most effective measures in reducing mobility and thus also transmission of Covid-19, a study showed on Sunday.

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, ETH, determined that the closure of Swiss schools last March was responsible for cutting mobility by more than a fifth.

"School closures reduced mobility by 21.6 percent," Stefan Feuerriegel, an ETH professor of management information systems who headed the study, told AFP in an email.

"School closures reduce mobility, (which) then reduces new cases" of Covid-19, he said. His team analysed some 1.5 billion movements in Swiss telecommunication data between February 10 and April 26 last year to evaluate the impact on mobility as various anti-Covid measures were introduced.

In decentralised Switzerland, its 26 cantons introduced measures at different paces before a country-wide partial lockdown, including school closures, was ordered on March 16.

Schools across the country remained closed for about two months before gradually opening up again.

The study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, found school closures ranked third in terms of reducing mobility.

At the top of the list was a ban on gatherings of more than five people, which was seen slashing mobility by 24.9 percent, and the closure of restaurants, bars and non-essential shops, which caused people to move about 22.3 percent less, the study shows.

In a related development, Moscow on Sunday confirmed its first case of the new UK coronavirus strain, despite an earlier decision by officials to suspend flights from Britain to stop the mutation reaching Russia.

One person returning to Russia from the UK was found to have been infected with the new strain, the head of Russia’s health regulator Rospotrebnadzor told state-run television.

Watchdog head Anna Popova did not specify when the individual tested positive for coronavirus or any other circumstances surrounding the discovery. The B117 coronavirus strain is thought to have first emerged in southeastern England late last year, and has since been detected in dozens of countries around the world.

Officials in Moscow temporarily suspended flights to and from the UK in December, following a similar move by dozens of other countries in the wake of the emergence of the new strain. Russia has one of the highest infection rates in the world and officials on Sunday confirmed a total of nearly 3.5 million cases.