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AFP
February 2, 2021

S Arabia warns of virus curbs as infections rise

World

AFP
February 2, 2021

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s health minister warned on Monday that new coronavirus restrictions could be imposed amid an uptick in infections, as the kingdom slows the rollout of vaccines due to supply delays.

"We have seen in recent days a noticeable and continuous rise in coronavirus infections," Tawfiq al-Rabiah said in a video message, blaming "gatherings and lax enforcement of preventative measures".

"The lack of compliance will undoubtedly force us to introduce measures to protect society," he added, without elaborating. Saudi Arabia has reported more than 368,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 6,400 deaths, the highest among Gulf Arab states.

But the kingdom has also reported a high rate of recoveries, while daily infections dipped below 100 in early January from a peak of nearly 5,000 last June. However, new daily infections have been steadily climbing in recent weeks, with 261 cases reported by the health ministry on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign on December 17 after receiving the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The health ministry said the programme would roll out in three phases, starting with people over 65 and those with chronic ailments or at high risk of infection.

But earlier this month the ministry said it was forced to slow the rollout due to a delay in vaccine deliveries. Saudi Arabia had said it would end travel restrictions for its citizens and reopen its borders on March 31.

But on Friday the interior ministry said it had pushed back the date to May 17 due to vaccine delays, in a bid to avoid a second coronavirus wave.

Meanwhile, French border police turned away some passengers bound for non-EU destinations on Monday as new rules came into force banning flights to and from countries outside the bloc.

Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the measure on Friday as part of new efforts to contain Covid-19 infections and avoid another nationwide lockdown. Travellers must also present proof of a recent negative Covid test.

Only urgent reasons for travel are accepted and border police require written proof before allowing passengers to board, as Toure, a Malian national, found out when he tried to leave France for Bamako without the necessary document. "I said that my mother, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, was ill but they told me I needed proof," Toure, who withheld his last name, told AFP in the 2E terminal at Paris’s main airport Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle.

After being turned away Toure, who works for a French public works foundation, managed to get hold of his mother’s doctor in Bamako who sent him a barely legible note by WhatsApp. He tried again, and this time was waved through.

By curbing international travel, the government hopes to get a better grip on the circulation of the coronavirus and its recent variants, which have been spreading at a fearsome pace. "The idea is to limit the outbound-inbound loops between France and abroad," Julien Gentile, head of the border police for the Roissy and Le Bourget airports, told AFP.

Passengers must first show the required documentation at airline counters during check-in, and then again at the border controls, where agents were no longer allowing automated passport scanning but instead checking each document, as passenger queues grew longer.

The time needed per passenger can easily reach five or 10 minutes, compared with just seconds usually, as agents try to determine what is an "urgent" motive and what isn’t. "If you want to visit the grave of somebody who didn’t die recently you can’t go, even if that may seem cruel," said Cecile Aerdeman, head of the airports’ border service. "You will have to wait until the health situation changes."

President Emmanuel Macron has decided, for now, not to impose a third national lockdown, choosing a different path than France’s neighbours such as Britain and Germany. Health Minister Olivier Veran said Sunday that the number of new coronavirus cases had barely increased over the past week, while other indicators -- such as traces of the virus detected in waste water -- were also reassuring.

The French government put in place a strict nighttime curfew after a second lockdown ended in December, while deaths of around 250 a day are currently less than a quarter of the number in Britain or Germany.

In a related development, health officials said late on Monday, they will urgently increase testing in eight areas across England where nearly a dozen South African Covid-19 variant cases have been identified in the last week.

The 11 cases, detected in genomic sequencing carried out on random samples of positive coronavirus results, cannot be traced back to international travel, prompting concerns of localised transmission.

The move in the areas -- home to around 80,000 people and including parts of London and the southeast, as well as the West Midlands, eastern and northwest England -- will see mobile and door-to-door testing capacity rolled out. In a break with usual procedures, even those not showing virus symptoms can get tested in the affected places.

"If you live in one of these postcodes where we’re sending in enhanced testing, it’s imperative that you stay at home and that you get a test even if you don’t have symptoms," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at a Downing Street press conference.

"This is a stark reminder that the fight against this virus isn’t over yet," he said, after noting overall infections were falling across Britain weeks into a third lockdown. The highly transmissible variant first identified in South Africa is spreading rapidly around the world, and was last week detected for the first time in the United States.