Talks were underway among European Union member states over whether or not to extend border closures beyond Easter in order to tackle the coronavirus crisis, according to the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
“We are in consultation with member states on how to proceed beyond Easter,” she told Europe 1 radio.
Von Der Leyen also reiterated that the next EU budget should take the form of a new “Marshall Plan” to drive Europe’s recovery from the coronavirus outbreak, and that she felt Europe would emerge from the coronavirus crisis in a stronger state.
Eurozone states that need aid from the bloc’s bailout fund to tackle the coronavirus should get it quickly and not be first subjected to visits from officials proposing policies like during the euro zone crisis, Germany’s finance minister said last night.
Olaf Scholz told the broadcaster ARD that he was convinced the European Stability Mechanism – a bailout fund with 400 billion euros ($433.88 billion) in firepower – had instruments suitable for use during the coronavirus outbreak, which has hit euro zone countries like Italy and Spain hard.
The comments by Von der Leyen and Scholz come amid rising tensions – EU flags have been burned in Italy where polls show an uptick in unhappiness with the union – and proposals by France for a coronavirus ‘rescue fund’ for states.
Iraq bans Reuters over coronavirus reports
Iraq has banned the Reuters news agency from operating in Iraq for three months for reporting that the number of coronavirus cases in the country is much higher than acknowledged by officials.
The agency reported that the actual number of those suffering from the virus could be thousands higher than the official tally of 772 and that the scale of the outbreak has been downplayed to avoid public panic.
The report adds impetus to concerns reported in the Guardian this week that state figures of suspected Covid 19 patients in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon may be substantially lower than real numbers. Hezbollah, has said it is opening treatment centres in southern Lebanon that supplement the state’s health system. However there are fears that a parallel state structure could obscure real numbers of those infected with the virus.
All three countries have links to Iran, the epicentre of a pandemic in the region which has taken root among religious pilgrims and merchants who had travelled back to Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, many since returning to communities outside the capitals.
Police in Israel have surrounded the city of Bnei Brak with barricades and begun evacuating around 4,500 elderly people after the densely-populated area saw an explosion of Covid-19 cases.
Predominately populated with ultra-Orthodox Jewish people, Bnei Brak is near the commercial capital of Tel Aviv but is poor and congested.
Some ultra-orthodox rabbis – long distrustful of the Israeli state’s authority over their way of life – had also initially rejected stringent coronavirus measures, playing down the risk and refusing to close synagogues and packed religious seminaries.
Medical experts estimate up to 38% of Bnei Brak’s roughly 200,000 inhabitants could be infected, significantly higher the national average.
Israel’s cabinet declared the city a “restricted zone” on Thursday night, with measures imposed early on Friday. Around 1,000 police officers had been dispatched. Residents will not be allowed to leave the city except under special circumstances.
Police in Pakistan will today enforce a strict lockdown to prevent people from going to mosques to offer Friday prayers and fuel a rise in coronavirus infection, officials have said, after failing to prevent large congregations last week.
Health experts have warned of an epidemic in South Asia, home to a fifth of the world’s population, that could easily overwhelm its weak public health systems.
But authorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, another Muslim majority nation, and even India have struggled to persuade conservative religious groups to maintain social distancing in order to curb the spread of the virus.
The government in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh, home to the country’s largest city, Karachi, will enforce a “curfew-like” lockdown for three hours beginning 12 noon Friday to deter people from coming out of their homes for prayers, Reuters reported.
Concern is growing that a woefully inadequate health system will leave Malawi unable to cope when Covid-19 arrives.
In Malawi only 20 people a day can be tested for the virus, and there are just 25 intensive care unit beds and seven ventilators in the country of more than 18 million people, John Vidal reports in this piece for the Guardian.
Since February, however, the government has been racing to curb Covid’s arrival.
It has wheeled out a £24m preparedness plan, suspended international flights, banned weddings and gatherings of more than 100 people, closed schools and universities, and is making anyone arriving from Europe, China, or the US self-isolate.
According to the ministry of health, 4,603 people who have entered the country in the past few weeks are “under surveillance”.
UK peak likely to come slightly sooner – health minster
Britain’s ‘peak’ for coronavirus infections will be slightly sooner than previously thought and will be in the next few weeks, the UK’s health minster has said, but it is very very sensitive to how many people continue to follow the social distancing guidelines.
Hancock went on to say he was open to people and companies contacting him with ideas for how to resolve the problems and questions which his department was attempting to solve.
“I saw what happened with the ventilators when we got non ventilator companies in to build companies side by side with the smaller but expert ventilation companies,” he added.
UK still searching for reliable antibody test – Health Minister
The UK still does not currently have a reliable home test at the moment to carry out home blood tests that would enable people to know if they have had coronavirus, Britain’s health secretary has said.
Matt Hancock has been pressed in morning interviews on how many of the new UK target of 100,000 tests a day – up from much lower figures – would be composed of the blood, or antibody test.
Hundreds of formulas and details for proposed ways of doing the antibody tests had been sent in to the government by experts but a good enough one has not been found.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “We haven’t yet found one that works to be good enough to use. I get pressure on this. I get people saying ‘oh come on it may not be perfectly accurate but can’t we just use it.’ The test problems is that with a test that is not of high quality you end up giving false assurance.”
People could go into harm’s way when they may have immunity to the virus in those circumstances, he added.
In another interview, Hancock described having coronavirus as a “pretty unpleasant experience” and said he had lost half a stone during the illness and said it was “like having glass in my throat”.
He said: “For me it was short-lived and I was able to come back to work yesterday and I’m in full health. But it is worrying. I’ve lost half a stone, it’s quite a serious impact directly. But thankfully for me I could get through it.”
China advises foreign diplomats to stop coming to Beijing
China’s foreign ministry is advising foreign diplomats to stop coming to Beijing, after the country temporarily banned most foreigners from entering to prevent a resurgence of a coronavirus epidemic, a spokeswoman said on Friday.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters during a daily briefing that the ministry was aware of confirmed coronavirus cases among foreign diplomats in China.
The Hong Kong government has accused a media organisation of “breaching the One-China principle” after a reporter asked a senior World Health Organization (WHO) adviser a question about Taiwan during an interview.
RTHK’s Yvonne Tong asked WHO adviser Bruce Aylward whether the organisation would reconsider Taiwan’s membership, long objected to by Beijing. Aylward appeared not to hear Tong, and then either hung up on her or was disconnected.
On Thursday, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, Edward Yau, accused RTHK of breaching its charter obligations, which include “promoting understanding of the concept of ‘one country, two systems’.”
UK supermarket chain removes customer purchase limits
The British supermarket group Sainsbury’s has said it would start to remove the customer purchasing limits it imposed as a response to increased demand during the coronavirus emergency.
“As stock continues to build, we have been reviewing whether we still need to limit the number of items people buy. I am pleased to tell you that we will start to remove limits from Sunday,” Chief Executive Mike Coupe said in a letter to customers.
Limits will remain in place on the most popular items which include UHT milk, pasta and tinned tomatoes, he said. Here’s a link on the company’s website.
British parliamentarians have called for strict curbs on gambling during the Covid-19 lockdown, including a moratorium on advertising, calling the betting industry’s own proposals “very weak”.
An industry body, the Betting & Gaming Council (BGC) issued a 10-point pledge last week, promising extra steps to ensure firms do not exploit vulnerable people and addicts who may be at increased risk due to the inertia inherent in staying at home for long periods.
But in a letter to the government – and the BGC – 22 MPs, two lords and one of the UK’s foremost gambling addiction experts said the measures put forward by the trade body were either weak, vague or already formed part of requirements of their licence to operate.
In the UK, the government is to follow through today on its attempt to regain the initiative around plans for mass testing after announcing last night it is to move from 10,000 tests a day to a new target of 100,000 a day by the end of the month.
It comes as the new Nightingale hospital opens in London at the ExCeL conference centre. Other field hospitals in England have been announced in Bristol and Harrogate while there are temporary hospitals for Birmingham and Manchester. Similar initiatives are being rolled out in Glasgow and Cardiff.
Heathrow airport has also announced it is to operate with just one runway from next Monday. While there are significantly fewer flights, it said it needed to remain open for vital foot and medical supplies.
The airport has two runways and will alternate which one they keep open on a weekly basis, a spokesman said. In 2018, Heathrow served 80.1 million passengers,
This is Ben Quinn in London picking up the blog now.
Here’s a summary of the main events so far today.
- There are more than 1,002,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide and more than 51,400 deaths.
- In the UK, there are more than 34,000 cases after a sharp rise in the number of confirmed cases on Thursday, and more than 2,900 deaths. A temporary hospital, built in nine days, will open in London on Friday.
- The US, which has the largest number of cases of any country, has more than 236,000 confirmed cases and more than 5,600 deaths.
- President Trump tested negative to the virus on Thursday, and 6.7 million Americans joined unemployment queues over the past week.
- In the US, the Zaandam cruise liner, on which four people have died, has docked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after previously being denied entry. Dozens of other passengers are sick with flu-like symptoms on the vessel. It’s sister ship, the Rotterdam, also docked in Florida.
- Residents of Wuhan were warned to stay indoors and strengthen protection measures, a few days before travel restrictions on the city at the centre of the pandemic are scheduled to be lifted.
- China will hold a national day of mourning on Saturday for “martyrs” who died in the fight against the epidemic, the official Xinhua news agency says. China recorded 31 new cases on Friday, 29 of which were imported.
- New Zealand’s health minister has apologised to the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, after he was photographed mountain-biking, apparently flouting the government’s own advice to exercise safely and locally during a countrywide lockdown.
- Australia’s chief medical officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, has said worldwide cases of Covid-19 could be “five to 10 times” higher than the one million known currently. Murphy says the only numbers he has total faith in are the Australian numbers, because “we have the highest testing rate in the world” (Trump has also claimed this mantle).
- A row has erupted in the US over the sacking of the commander of the US Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, which is docked in Guam. Capt Brett Crozier had written a scathing letter asking for stronger measures to control a coronavirus outbreak onboard his warship, which was subsequently leaked to the media.
- Hong Kong’s airline, Cathay Pacific, carried just 582 passengers one day this week, with a load factor of 18.3%, Reuters reports, quoting an internal memo. Its CEO and chairman have agreed to take a 30% base salary cut until December.
- Also in Hong Kong, pubs and bars were ordered to close for two weeks from 6pm on Friday as the financial hub steps up social distancing restrictions and joins cities around the world in the battle to halt the spread of coronavirus.
- Governments in the Middle East need to act fast to limit the spread of the coronavirus after the number of cases rose to nearly 60,000, almost double their level a week earlier, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.
Here’s a look at some of today’s front pages in the UK.
Prince Charles to open new Covid-19 hospital
Prince Charles will open the new NHS Nightingale hospital at the ExCeL conference centre in London Docklands on Friday, which will eventually be capable of providing support for up to 4,000 coronavirus patients if required.
Charles, recently recovered from a mild case of Covid-19, will conduct the ceremony via videolink from his Scottish residence at Birkhall, where he self-isolated for seven days last week.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, also recently out of self-isolation following a positive test for coronavirus, and Prof Charles Knight, chief executive of NHS Nightingale, will join a small group representing medical staff, the Ministry of Defence, contractors and volunteers at the new hospital.
It comes as the NHS announced two further NHS Nightingale hospitals will be built in Bristol and Harrogate to provide hundreds of extra beds if local services need them during the peak of coronavirus, in addition to the one at the ExCeL.
The NHS England chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, will confirm on Friday that the extra sites in south-west England and Yorkshire – which will have up to 1,500 beds if needed – have joined Manchester and Birmingham as the latest locations for major new facilities outside of London. Each of the five Nightingale hospitals will serve the wider regions in which they are located.
The new hospital in east London is the first to open and will initially provide up to 500 beds equipped with ventilators and oxygen. The capacity will then increase, potentially up to several thousands beds should it be required.
Constructed within nine days, the conversion of the ExCeL conference centre into a field hospital has been cited as perhaps the most ambitious medical project Britain has seen since the end of the second world war, and will dwarf all other hospitals in the UK.
Planning has involved soldiers with experience from Afghanistan and the west African Ebola crisis working in support of health service staff. Up to 200 soldiers a day have been working alongside NHS staff and civilian contractors.
Charles is expected to pay tribute to those who have worked tirelessly to create the new medical facility, and to the people across the UK who are delivering frontline care to those affected by the coronavirus crisis.
Natalie Grey, head of nursing at NHS Nightingale, will unveil a plaque on behalf of Charles marking the occasion.
Stevens said: “It’s nothing short of extraordinary that this new hospital in London has been established from scratch in less than a fortnight … Now we are gearing up to repeat that feat at another four sites across the country to add to the surge capacity in current NHS hospitals.
“We’re giving the go ahead to these additional sites, hoping they may not be needed but preparing in case they are. But that will partly depend on continuing public support for measures to reduce growth in the infection rate by staying at home to save lives.”
The new hospital in Manchester will be built at the city’s Manchester Central complex while the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham will take care of patients as needed in the West Midlands, the region second hardest hit by the virus.
Each of these new services will initially have up to 500 beds, potentially offering as many as 3,000 more between them if cases escalate.