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Covid: Flights shut down as EU discusses UK virus threat

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EU officials are discussing a joint response to a new, more infectious Covid-19 variant in the UK, which has sparked travel bans by many countries.

Canada and India joined European states in blocking flights from the UK while Europe-bound train services via the Channel Tunnel have been halted.

The new variant is said to be up to 70% more transmissible, but there is no evidence that it is more deadly.

There is also no proof to suggest that it reacts differently to vaccines.

Two meetings are taking place in Brussels on Monday – one involving health ministers and another with the EU’s crisis response team. But no decision is expected until Tuesday, when EU ambassadors meet.

A French official told the BBC’s Gavin Lee that they were desperate to reopen the borders “as soon as safely possible”, with one option discussed being the requirement that UK travellers – including lorry drivers – prove they have had a recent negative Covid-19 test.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had an “excellent” conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron and was keen to find a solution “in a few hours”.

“I want to stress we in the UK fully understand our friends’ anxieties about the new variant. But it’s also true that the risks of transmission sitting alone in the cab is very low. So we hope to make progress,” he said.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier said the new variant was “out of control”, while Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands announced they had already detected it.

Following the discovery of case in Denmark, neighbouring Sweden banned all foreign travellers from there.

Also on Monday, the EU’s medicines regulator approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use in all 27 member states.

The vaccine is already being administered in the UK and in the US, and some European countries plan to begin administering doses from 27 December.

Which countries have acted and how?

France suspended all travel links, including freight lorries, with the UK for 48 hours from midnight (23:00 GMT) on Sunday. Thousands of lorries move between the countries every day.

Eurotunnel said it would suspend access to its Folkestone terminal for traffic heading to Calais. People booked to travel on Monday can get a refund. Trains will still run from Calais to Folkestone.

The ferry terminal at Dover is now closed for all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice because of the French restrictions. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a meeting of the emergency committee Cobra to discuss the issue on Monday.

Other countries took different action in response to the new virus variant:

  • Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Bulgaria, RomaniaMalta, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all suspended flights from the UK
  • One of the most popular holiday destinations for UK citizens, Spain, also suspended flights
  • Italy blocked all flights from the UK until 6 January, while the Netherlands banned all passenger flights from the UK until 1 January “at the latest”. Ferry passengers are also barred from arriving in the Netherlands from the UK, although freight can continue
  • Belgium halted flights and trains from the UK until the end of Tuesday
  • Greece extended its quarantine period for travellers from the UK from three days to seven
  • In the Republic of Ireland, flights arriving from Britain are banned for 48 hours at least from midnight on Sunday and people have been asked not to “travel to Ireland, by air or sea”. Ferry crossings for freight will continue.
  • Turkey has temporarily banned all flights from the UK, as have Norway and Switzerland
  • Canada has suspended entry of all passenger flights from the UK for 72 hours, effective from midnight (05:00 GMT). Passengers who arrived in Canada from the UK on Sunday would be “subject to secondary screening and enhanced measures, including increased scrutiny of quarantine plans”, it said.
  • Russia is suspending flights from the UK for one week
  • India is suspending flights from the UK from 23:59 (18:29 GMT) on Tuesday until 31 December
  • Hong Kong, IsraelIran, Croatia, Morocco and Kuwait brought in restrictions on UK travel
  • In Latin America, ArgentinaChileColombiaEcuadorEl Salvador and Peru all banned flights from the UK
  • Saudi ArabiaOman and Kuwait went even further, closing their borders completely for a week

The new variant was first detected in September. In November it made up around a quarter of cases in London. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.

Three things are coming together that mean it is attracting attention:

  • It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
  • It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important
  • Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells

All of these come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily. However, we do not have absolute certainty. New strains can become more common simply by being in the right place at the right time – such as London.

This variant is unusually highly mutated. The most likely explanation is it emerged in a patient with a weakened immune system that was unable to beat the virus.

There is no evidence yet to suggest the variant makes the infection more deadly, and at least for now the developed vaccines will almost certainly work against it.

However, if the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine, then “vaccine escape” happens, and this may be the most concerning element.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55391257

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Ukraine crisis: Why Russia-US talks may prove crucial

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Senior diplomats from the US and Russia are meeting in the Swiss city of Geneva for the first of a series of crunch talks aimed at defusing tension over Ukraine.

The stakes for these talks on Monday are high. But both sides hold wildly different expectations. The US and other Western powers want to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.

But Russia wants to talk about its maximalist demands for Nato to retreat from eastern Europe. It’s calling for Nato to pull its forces out of former Soviet countries, end any eastern expansion and rule out Ukraine joining the alliance.

Some US officials fear these demands are deliberately unrealistic, designed to be rejected and used as a pretext for military action. Other diplomats believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming high to squeeze concessions out of a Western alliance that is willing to give ground to avoid war.

They say the Russian president is effectively demanding an end to Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and the establishment of a Russian “sphere of influence”.

A high price

Given this, the US and Nato have dismissed most of Russia’s demands as “non-starters”. And the US has categorically denied reports it is considering possible troop reductions.

But American officials have said they are willing to look at curbs on military exercises and missile deployments.

One idea is a partial revival of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that the US abandoned in 2019 after Russia was accused of breaching its provisions. Other ideas are more measures to build confidence and greater transparency between Russia and the US.

The fear among some European allies is that even this would be too much of a reward for Russia, too high a price for trying to avoid conflict in Ukraine.

They fear the US might be willing to concede too much so it can focus more on China and domestic challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy.

The US is aware of these fears and repeatedly insists it will not agree anything about Ukraine or European security without those countries involved.

Either way, President Putin has already made some gains, winning a platform this week to air his grievances and force the US and Europe to engage with his agenda of Nato reform.

Both sides are playing down expectations of an immediate deal. But that does not mean this week’s talks are not important.

A crucial staging post

At best, the talks could shed more light on Mr Putin’s intentions and reveal if he is serious about engaging in diplomacy.

At worst, a breakdown could lead to war, allowing Mr Putin to claim to his domestic audience that the West was not willing to talk and agree to his demands, and he was thus forced to act to ensure Russia’s security.

Western diplomats say they are ready for what they see as this false narrative: hence the Nato Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, insisting the alliance is ready for any Russian military action, and the firm warnings from the US and Europe that any invasion would be met with massive economic sanctions.

So, this week’s talks could prove a crucial diplomatic staging post, with the fate of Ukraine and Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture in the balance.

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Russia fines Google over illegal content breach

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bbc– A Moscow court has fined Google 7.2bn roubles ($98m; £73m) for repeated failure to delete content deemed illegal in Russia.

Details of the offending content were not specified in the announcement by the court’s press service.

This is the first time in Russia that a technology giant has been hit with a fine based on their annual turnover.

Google told AFP news agency that it would study the court ruling before deciding on further steps.

Russian authorities have increased pressure on tech firms this year, accusing them of not moderating their content properly, and interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

Hours after the Google verdict was announced, a 2bn rouble fine was handed to Meta, the parent company of Facebook, for similar content-related offences.

Earlier this week, Twitter was also handed a 3m rouble fine for similar charges.

This is not Google’s first brush with Russian authorities over content laws. In May, Russia’s media watchdog threatened to slow down the speed of Google if it failed to delete 26,000 instances of unlawful content, which it said related to drugs, violence and extremism.

President Vladimir Putin has pushed for development of a so-called sovereign internet, which would give the government more control over what its citizens can access.

Critics have accused Russia of using the campaign to clamp down on free speech and online dissent.

The country’s media regulator has blocked dozens of websites linked to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose campaign groups have been labelled “extremist”.

Google and Apple were also forced to remove an app dedicated to Navalny’s “Smart Voting” campaign, which gave users advice on tactical voting to unseat Kremlin-aligned politicians.

Websites like LinkedIn and Dailymotion have already been blocked for refusing to co-operate with authorities, and six major providers of Virtual Personal Networks (VPNs) – which help users to conceal their online activities – have been banned.

Earlier this year, Russia also introduced a new law requiring all new smartphones, computers and smart devices sold in the country to be pre-installed with Russian-made software and apps.

The government said the move would help Russian tech firms compete with foreign rivals.

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Japanese billionaire returns to Earth from space trip

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dw- Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa returned to Earth on Monday after spending 12 days on board the International Space Station, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said.

Maezawa is a fashion tycoon who sold his online fashion business Zozo to SoftBank in 2019. Forbes estimates his worth as $1.9 (€1.69) billion.

What was the trip like?

Maezawa parachuted onto Kazakhstan’s steppe at around the planned time of 0313 GMT, along with his assistant and film producer Yozo Hirano, and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin.

The landing site was located 150 kilometers southeast of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan, where there was precipitation and sub-zero temperatures.

Maezawa made the trip in a Russian ‘Soyuz’ spacecraft and became the first space tourist to travel to the International Space Station in more than a decade.

The entrepreneur made a variety of posts on social media from his trip, including photos from space of his home prefecture of Chiba, and videos showing how to make tea in zero gravity and discussing his shortage of fresh underwear.

What did Maezawa say about the trip?

In a live interview from the orbiting space station, Maezawa said that “once you are in space, you realize how much it is worth it by having this amazing experience.”

When asked about claims that he had paid more than $80 million (€71 million) for the trip, Maezawa said he couldn’t disclose the exact sum but admitted that he paid “pretty much” that much.

Maezawa is currently searching for eight people to join him on a trip to the moon in 2023. Applicants are required to pass medical tests and an interview.

 

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