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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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Kosovo: Why is trouble flaring between Serbs and the Albanian-led government?

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Serbia and Kosovo have settled a dispute over the movement of citizens across their border, the EU said.

“We have a deal,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.

Under EU negotiations, Serbia agreed to abolish entry/exit documents for Kosovo ID holders, while Kosovo agreed not to introduce them for Serbian ID holders, he said.

But the two countries are yet to agree on the contested use of Serbian car number plates issued in north Kosovo.

In 2008, predominantly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, which never recognised the move and continues to treat Kosovo as part of its territory.

Relationships between the Albanian-dominated government and the Serb minority have been strained for years. Late last month, the tensions boiled over into civil disobedience.

Kosovo’s government wanted to introduce a new measure that would require ethnic Serbs to use Kosovo-issued car licence plates and for people entering the country via Serbia to receive special entry documents.

Some 50,000 people in these areas oppose having Kosovan number plates, because they refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence.

Ethnic Serbs in the northern region of Kosovo, which borders Serbia, barricaded roads and some men reportedly fired shots in protest.

Kosovo’s government postponed implementing the new rules for a month.

EU-facilitated talks have now led to an agreement over the ID documents, Mr Borrell said, after he “received guarantees” from Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

“Kosovo Serbs, as well as all other citizens, will be able to travel freely between Kosovo and Serbia using their ID cards,” he tweeted.

However, the car number plates issue remains unresolved.

Kosovo is a small, landlocked country in the Balkans, bordering Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Many Serbs consider it the birthplace of their own nation.

But of the 1.8 million people living in Kosovo, 92% are Albanian and only 6% Serbian.

 

After the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Kosovo – a province of the former country – sought its own autonomy and independence.

Serbia responded with a brutal crackdown against ethnic Albanians seeking independence.

This ended in 1999, with a Nato bombing campaign against Serbia between March and June.

Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo – but for many Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, the conflict has never been resolved.

The Nato-led Kosovo Force (KFor) is still based in Kosovo, with a current strength of 3,770.

A total of 99 out of 193 United Nations countries now recognise Kosovo’s independence, including the US, the UK and 22 out of 27 EU countries.

Read from: https://www.bbc.com/news/62382069

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Ursula von der Leyen offers speedy response to Ukraine’s bid to join EU

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European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the civilian deaths in the Ukrainian town of Bucha showed the “cruel face” of Russia’s army and pledged to try to speed Ukraine’s bid to become a member of the European Union.

During a visit to Bucha on Friday, where forensic investigators started to exhume bodies from a mass grave, Von der Leyen looked visibly moved by what she saw in the town northwest of Kyiv where Ukrainian officials say hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian forces.

Russia denies targeting civilians and has called the allegations that Russian forces executed civilians in Bucha while they occupied the town a “monstrous forgery”.

As EU officials were about to arrive in Kyiv, at least 50 people were killed and many more wounded in a missile strike at a railway station packed with civilians fleeing the threat of a major Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.

At a news conference, Von der Leyen condemned what she called “the cynical behaviour” of those who wrote “for our children” on the weapons found near the scene.

Saying the EU could never match the sacrifice of Ukraine, Von der Leyen offered it a speedier start to its bid for bloc membership.

Handing the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a questionnaire which will form a starting point for a decision on membership, she said: “It will not as usual be a matter of years to form this opinion but I think a matter of weeks.”

Zelenskiy told the same news conference he would come back with answers in a week.

“Russia will descend into economic, financial and technological decay, while Ukraine is marching towards the European future, this is what I see,” Von der Leyen said.

Earlier in Bucha, she told reporters: “The unthinkable has happened here. We have seen the cruel face of Putin’s army. We have seen the recklessness and the cold-heartedness with which they have been occupying the city.”

Von der Leyen’s trip to Kyiv was aimed at offering Zelenskiy moral and some financial support.

She pledged her support for Ukraine to “emerge from the war as a democratic country”, something, she said, the European Union and other donors would help with.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said he hoped the EU could allocate a further €500m (£420m) to Ukraine for arms purchases in a couple of days.

Zelenskiy has urged Brussels to do more to punish Russia, including banning purchases of Russian oil and gas, and has called on the EU to accept Ukraine as a full member.

Earlier, Borrell said oil sanctions were “a big elephant in the room“, with some concerns that a move to cut out Russian crude could cause a spike in prices that would be painful to European economies. He said a decision on exports would be raised on Monday in Brussels.

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Dutch officials drop case against Rijksmuseum over ‘racist’ word

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The director of the Rijksmuseum said he was “happy” as Dutch prosecutors announced they would not proceed with an investigation into complaints over a newly opened exhibition on Indonesian independence, the first of its kind in Europe.

The exhibition, Revolusi! Indonesia Independent, at the Netherlands’ national museum, has been a source a controversy since one of its curators, Bonnie Triyana, said the term “bersiap”, or stand by, would not be used in reference to the violent upheaval that followed a declaration of independence from the Dutch state.

Triyana claimed that use of the word, a battle cry for young Indonesians seeking independence, “takes on a strongly racist connotation” in the Netherlands today that “always portrays primitive, uncivilised Indonesians as perpetrators of the violence”. He said: “The team of curators has decided not to use the word bersiap as a common term referring to the violent period in Indonesia.”

In a sign of the ongoing sensitivity in Dutch society over the country’s colonial history, the comments drew a furious response in some quarters, with the head of the Federation of Dutch Indonesians, Hans Moll, accusing the Rijksmuseum of genocide denial by ignoring that “thousands of Dutch people were brutally tortured, raped and murdered by Indonesians because of their Dutch or European ethnicity”.

Complaints were made to the general prosecutor last month but Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s director, said he had learned on the eve of the exhibition’s opening on Thursday that the justice ministry would not be proceeding with the case.

“I’m happy and had expected the decision that the case is not viable,” he said. “But I think it is very good that there is discussion about these concepts. It is our duty to broaden our view of history.”

Dibbits said the exhibition did make reference to the term bersiap but put it in the context of violence endured by a large range of people, and that the show explored the entire period from 1945 to 27 December 1949 when the Dutch withdrew.

He said: “The term ‘bersiap’ is used in the Netherlands by different communities that had to flee Indonesia and were repatriated during the revolution. It marks a very specific moment in time in the four and a half years of the revolution, the moment of the fall of 1945, when Indonesia has just declared itself independent and groups of insurgents executed extreme violence against several groups: Indo-Europeans, Moluccans on the Dutch side, and Chinese and others they thought were on the Dutch side. It takes place in the chaos just after the declaration of independence.

“We explain the source of the word, which started to be used in the Netherlands in the 1980s, and give it a historical context, but also speak about the violence against other groups during the revolution. We speak about violence in a much broader sense.”

Dibbits said he felt it was a “pity” that complaints had been made to the prosectors before the exhibition had opened. A second complaint, which is also not being pursued, was filed with prosecutors after Dibbits clarified before the opening that the bersiap concept would be referenced.

Dibbits said: “One claimed that not using the term was against history and the second complaint said the using of the term was against history.”

Indonesia became a member of the United Nations in 1950 and today the country counts about 270 million inhabitants across more than 17,000 islands.

The exhibition explores the personal stories of independence fighters, artists, diplomats, politicians, journalists and those seeking to maintain Dutch hold over the territory by displaying more than 200 objects, including privately owned keepsakes and paintings.

Dibbits said among the most powerful artefacts was a bundle of baby clothes made out of book covers, belonging to a young woman called Julia Nelisse. She had given birth to a daughter, Merani, in a leper colony in Pelantungan, modern-day Java, on 6 September 1947.

Corpses of fighters and civilians were regularly washing up on the river shore, which Nelisse laid out on cloth shrouds. Due to the lack of remaining cloth, she had to take the covers from books in the abandoned colony library to make into clothes. On show is a vest, a pillow and a nappy. “It is very emotional to see and brings it very close,” Dibbits said.

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