Israel shut its borders to all foreigners and brought back phone-tracking late on Saturday in a bid to crack down on the Covid super-mutant Omicron.
Anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated in the Hague after the government introduced new Covid-19 restrictions under a ‘light’ lockdown – and banned new years eve fireworks to prevent excess hospitalisations as doctors in the Netherlands focus on treating virus patients.
And Germany, Italy and the UK became the latest states to detect cases of the highly transmissible and potentially vaccine resistant Omicron strain, which was discovered in South Africa this week.
Omicron, dubbed a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other strains.
The discovery of the variant has sparked global concern, a wave of travel bans from southern Africa and fears over low vaccination rates. The new variant has also emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in Covid-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread.
Anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated in the Hague after the government banned fireworks to prevent excess hospitalisations as doctors in the Netherlands focus on treating Covid-19 patients
Germany, (pictured) Italy and the UK on Saturday became the latest states to detect cases of the highly transmissible and potentially vaccine resistant Omicron strain, which was discovered in South Africa this week
Israel shut its borders to all foreigners and brought back phone-tracking late on Saturday in a bid to crack down on the Covid super-mutant Omicron (pictured, arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport, Israel)
Israel said it would ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Israelis entering the country, including those who are vaccinated, will be required to quarantine.
The ban will come into effect at midnight between Sunday and Monday. A travel ban on foreigners coming from most African states was imposed on Friday.
‘Our working hypotheses are that the variant is already in nearly every country,’ Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked told N12’s ‘Meet the Press,’ ‘and that the vaccine is effective, although we don’t yet know to what degree.’
The Shin Bet counter-terrorism agency’s phone-tracking technology will be used to locate carriers of the new variant in order to curb its transmission to others, Bennett said.
Used on and off since March 2020, the surveillance technology matched virus carriers’ locations against other mobile phones nearby to determine with whom they had come into contact.
Israel’s Supreme Court this year limited the scope of its use after civil rights groups mounted challenges over privacy concerns.
Israel has so far confirmed one case of Omicron, with seven suspected cases. The Health Ministry has not said whether the confirmed case was vaccinated.
Three of the seven suspected cases were fully vaccinated, the ministry said on Saturday, and three had not returned from travel abroad recently.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that Israel would ban foreigners from entering the country for 14 days in a bid to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant
Anti-lockdown protesters gathered in the Hague on Saturday night to demonstrate against Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ‘light’ restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The Netherlands lifted most restrictions in September, but was forced to reintroduce them as cases reached record levels. Protests erupted in The Hague during the prime minister’s last two Covid press conferences, with police using water cannon to disperse demonstrators.
And new restrictions risk inflaming a tense situation after four nights of unrest across the country, particularly in the port city of Rotterdam where five rioters were shot by police.
Announced on Friday evening, Mr Rutte said the Netherlands would shut at night for three weeks from Sunday. Non-essential shops, restaurants, bars and culture venues will shut from 5pm until 5am while supermarkets must close at 8pm.
On Saturday, demonstrators set off flares to protest the government’s decision to ban fireworks for the New Years celebration to prevent unnecessary hospitalisations as doctors focus on treating Covid-19 patients.
Anti-lockdown protesters gathered in the Hague on Saturday night to demonstrate against Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ‘light’ restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19
On Saturday, demonstrators set off flares to protest the government’s decision to ban fireworks for the New Years celebration to prevent unnecessary hospitalisations as doctors focus on treating Covid-19 patients
The Netherlands lifted most restrictions in September, but was forced to reintroduce them as cases reached record levels. Protests erupted in The Hague during the prime minister’s last two Covid press conferences, with police using water cannon to disperse demonstrators
Meanwhile, Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.
Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens returning from there.
Japan and Britain said they were extending travel kerbs to more African countries, while South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Kuwait and Hungary announced new travel restrictions.
South Africa is worried that the kerbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the foreign ministry said on Saturday, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.
The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant.
The two people entered Germany at Munich airport on November 24, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, said the ministry, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had travelled from South Africa.
In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.
Meanwhile Dutch authorities said 61 of around 600 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant.
One passenger who arrived from South Africa on Friday, Dutch photographer Paula Zimmerman, said she tested negative but was anxious for the days to come.
‘I’ve been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It’s a little scary the idea that you’ve been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive,’ she said.
Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport, the Netherlands, yesterday
The variant was first discovered in South Africa and had also since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
It could take weeks for scientists to understand fully the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it.
Although epidemiologists say travel kerbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world – including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations – announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa on Friday.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State Department added on Saturday to Washington’s previously announced travel restrictions, advising against travel to eight southern African countries.
US Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters on Saturday that the administration will take it ‘one step at a time,’ when asked about additional travel restrictions.
‘For now we’ve done what we think is necessary,’ Harris said.
The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world’s population is vaccinated.
Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than seven per cent of people in low-income countries have received their first Covid-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.
Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.
‘While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,’ he said in a statement to Reuters.
‘We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts.’