In this file photo taken on Aug 2, 2021, a traveller walks past a sign directing the public to a COVID-19 testing centre at Terminal 5 in west London as quarantine restrictions ease. (TOLGA AKMEN / AFP)
BRASILIA / OTTAWA / COPENHAGEN / LJUBLJANA / COPENHAGEN / NAIROBI / TUNIS / LONDON / MOSCOW / BRUSSELS - After an uncomfortable but relatively brief return to coronavirus restrictions triggered by the Omicron variant, England is going back to "Plan A" - learning to live with a disease that is probably here to stay.
Work-from-home guidance ended last week, and measures such as mask mandates and COVID-19 passes, also introduced in England last month, lapsed on Thursday, returning the rules to where they were last July
The bet is that booster jabs, antiviral pills and Omicron's lower severity will enable the government to manage outbreaks of a virus that cannot be shut out. Other countries equally keen to unshackle business and personal freedom will be watching.
Work-from-home guidance ended last week, and measures such as mask mandates and COVID-19 passes, also introduced in England last month, lapsed on Thursday, returning the rules to where they were last July.
The UK Health Security Agency is preparing to switch focus to supporting vulnerable individuals rather than imposing national rules, according to a draft policy seen by Reuters.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has presided over a death toll of 150,000 that ranks seventh in the world, was forced in December to introduce the "Plan B" restrictions, angering some of his own lawmakers. He now has a strong political imperative to scrap them.
As police investigate gatherings at his offices during COVID-19 lockdowns, in apparent violation of laws he had himself imposed, he faces the biggest crisis of his career, while many of his members of parliament are determined that he must return life to near-normal.
Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen told Reuters that further COVID-19 restrictions were "unlikely, unnecessary and politically impossible".
Johnson himself told lawmakers last week: "As COVID becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance."
A relentless focus on managing COVID-19, rather than preventing infections, also has unwanted side-effects.
Because National Health Service resources have been diverted towards vaccination boosters, thousands of other appointments have been postponed, adding to a vast backlog of elective care in the state-run system. At the same time, high infection rates among staff and patients continue to weigh heavily on hospitals.
A health worker poses with a syringe with dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Museum of Tomorrow where adults and children between the ages of five and eleven are being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, in Rio de Janeiro on Jan 18, 2022. (CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)
New cases of COVID-19 in the Americas in the past week have been the highest since the pandemic began in 2020 and the very contagious Omicron variant has clearly become the predominant strain, the Pan American Health Organization said on Wednesday.
There were more than 8 million new cases, 32 percent higher than the previous week, while fatalities throughout the region also increased by 37 percent, with 18,000 new deaths caused by COVID-19
There were more than 8 million new cases, 32 percent higher than the previous week, while fatalities throughout the region also increased by 37 percent, with 18,000 new deaths caused by COVID-19.
The United States continues to have the highest number of new infections, although cases decreased by nearly 1 million over the last week, the regional health agency said.
Mexico's southern states have seen new infections triple and Brazil has seen new cases surge 193 percent over the last seven days, PAHO said in weekly briefing.
Children in the Americas are facing the worst educational crisis ever seen in the region, with millions of children yet to return to classes, according to PAHO, which recommended that countries try to get them safely back to school to protect their social, mental and physical wellbeing.
It urged parents to get their children vaccinated.
Many countries have already authorized and are safely administering COVID-19 vaccines to adolescents, PAHO said.
Last week, the WHO’s expert group on immunization authorized the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc for children aged 5 to 12 years, offering a roadmap for countries to roll out vaccines for them, the regional agency said.
Around seven percent of the 111,000 deaths recorded in Belgium in 2021 could be attributed to COVID- 19, said a new report published by the Sciensano public health institute on Wednesday.
For the whole of 2021, Belgium registered 8,532 coronavirus deaths, compared to 19,819 a year earlier.
A child, age 8, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children in Montreal, Quebec on Nov 24, 2021. (ANDREJ IVANOV / AFP)
Canada has found 51 cases of a new Omicron subvariant known as BA2 mainly from international travelers, according to local media CTV on Wednesday.
BA2 is a descendant of the highly transmissible Omicron variant and has been found in at least 40 countries as of Wednesday. It was first detected in November.
CTV quoted the Public Health Agency of Canada as reporting that it is monitoring BA2, as it does with all new COVID-19 variants.
Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen waits to make a national statement on the second day of the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow on Nov 2, 2021. (ADRIAN DENNIS / POOL / AFP)
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced on Wednesday that most restrictions introduced to combat COVID-19 will be lifted from Feb 1.
"We are through the critical phase," Frederiksen said at a press conference on Wednesday evening, after meeting with the Epidemic Committee in the Parliament. "Today we can say that we are ready to step out of the shadow of corona. We can say goodbye to restrictions and hello to the life we knew before coronavirus."
As of next Tuesday, it will no longer be required to wear a mask when entering a supermarket or taking public transport, and customers in restaurants and bars will not have to present a corona passport unless the establishment specifically requests it.
Although the first month of 2022 saw record-breaking daily infection rates in the country, Frederiksen said that Wednesday's decision meant "coronavirus should no longer be considered a socially critical disease."
Dozens of people queue outside a pharmacy for a COVID-19 antigenic test on Jan19, 2022 in Savenay, western France, as COVID-19 cases soar in Europe. (LOIC VENANCE / AFP)
Denmark and Austria on Wednesday became the latest countries to ease COVID-19 restrictions, following similar moves by Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, while other countries in Europe planned new measures to battle record numbers of infections.
The European region as a whole no longer accounts for half or more than half of global deaths and infections according to Reuters COVID-19 data, but the numbers remain high, with particular concern in countries with lower vaccination rates.
Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech republic, Bulgaria and Romania all reported record daily infection totals on Wednesday and the German parliament prepared to debate proposals to either require or robustly encourage residents to be vaccinated.
Poland will move older school students to remote learning from Thursday and Sweden said it would extend its current pandemic measures by another two weeks after seeing the Omicron variant spreading at record speed.
Austria, which had imposed a lockdown on those unvaccinated, said that was no longer justifiable given there were now fewer people in hospital due to COVID-19, although the unvaccinated would still be barred from a range of leisure activities.
With more than 10 million new cases, infections in Europe rose 13 percent last week compared to the one before, according to data from the World Health Organization, with France, Italy and Germany logging the highest numbers.
Weekly deaths in the region, however, decreased by 5 percent.
Denmark aims to scrap all remaining domestic COVID-19 restrictions next week. If the move gets parliamentary approval, Danish nightclubs will be able to reopen, while restaurants will be allowed to serve alcohol after 10 pm, and customers will not need to present vaccine passes upon entry.
The moves follow similar announcements in the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands made in the past week. Among reasons given were case numbers dropping below peaks and lower numbers of hospitalizations than feared.
While Danish infections and hospitalization numbers have hovered around record highs over the past week, authorities have said there is no longer a correlation between increasing infections and hospitalizations.
Also, health authorities estimate between 30-40 percent of those currently in hospital with a positive coronavirus test are there for other reasons than COVID-19.
The World Health Organization said on Jan 12 that Omicron causes less serious illness than earlier variants of the coronavirus but that it remained a "dangerous virus", especially for the unvaccinated.
Eastern Europe has some of the continent's lowest vaccination rates, particularly Romania and Bulgaria, and saw some of the highest COVID-related death rates towards the end of 2021.
In this file photo taken on Dec 14, 2021, a pedestrian wearing a face mask walks along a street in central Moscow. (YURI KADOBNOV / AFP)
Russia's daily COVID-19 cases surged to 88,816 on Thursday, a new record high for the seventh consecutive day as the Omicron variant was identified in new regions, officials said.
The number of new infections was a significant jump from the 74,692 reported on Wednesday. Officials also said that 665 people had died in the last 24 hours.
Slovenia logged a new daily record of 17,491 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, up from a previous record of 14,165 cases reached last Saturday, the National Institute of Public Health said.
The institute said that the cumulative number of active COVID-19 cases in the country of 2.1 million people was 136,355.
A worker sanitises the goal posts ahead of the the Group F Africa Cup of Nations 2021 football match between Tunisia and Mali at Limbe Omnisport Stadium in Limbe on Jan12, 2022. (ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP)
Tunisian government announced on Wednesday that the nationwide curfew in the country has been extended for additional two weeks to curb the spread of COVID-19.
On Jan. 13, the Tunisian government imposed a two-week curfew across the country from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to contain the new wave of the pandemic.
Tunisia reported 9,706 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, raising the tally of infections in the country to 866,445, according to the latest figures released by the health ministry.
The death toll from the virus in the North African country rose by 17 to 26,051, while the total number of recoveries reached 731,135, the ministry said.
The United Nations children's fund on Wednesday kicked off an eight-week campaign to help boost COVID-19 vaccinations across Africa.
UNICEF said the first ever U-Report Challenge which comes a week after COVAX delivered its billionth dose in Rwanda, calls on all 13.3 million U-Reporters in Africa to help get vaccines to the unvaccinated.
"Through improving access and confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, the #GiveItAShot challenge aims to activate young people in motivating those eligible in their community to get vaccinated," it said in a statement issued in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
U-Report is a messaging tool that empowers young people around the world to engage with and speak out on issues that matter to them.
The U-Report is currently active in 88 countries worldwide, with 19.3 million U-Reporters all over the world, and works with SMS, Facebook Messenger, Viber, Telegram, and WhatsApp.
According to UNICEF, COVID-19 information and advocacy messages have been packaged and disseminated via SMS, Facebook Messenger and other communication channels.
HONG KONG NEWS