Covid-19 wrap | Global death toll at 978 000, while Israel toughens second lockdown as cases surge

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King Philip of Belgium visits the medical component of the Belgian army in Marche-en-Famenne.
King Philip of Belgium visits the medical component of the Belgian army in Marche-en-Famenne.
Philip Reynaers / Photonews via Getty Images

Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis:

Iran's coronavirus death toll rises above 25 000 - health ministry

Iran's death toll from the novel coronavirus rose by 175 to 25 015 on Thursday, the highest in the Middle East, with the total number of identified cases spiking to 436 319 in the country, according to health ministry.

Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari told state TV that 3 521 new cases were identified in the last 24 hours in Iran.

- Reuters 

UK unveils new six-month virus jobs support scheme

British finance minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday launched a new coronavirus jobs protection scheme that will support wages of staff keeping at least one third of their usual working hours.

Beginning in November, it does not go as far as the current furlough scheme due to end next month that has paid out billions of pounds to support wages of almost ten million workers.

"As I've said throughout this crisis, I cannot save every business," Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak told parliament as he unveiled the new scheme.

"I cannot save every job. No chancellor could. But what we can and must do is deal with the real problems businesses and employees are facing now," Sunak added.

Under the new jobs protection scheme, employers will pay a third of salaries earned by workers on reduced hours.

The government and employers will top up wages to cover the remaining lost pay.

To keep the UK economy alive and keep people in jobs during the pandemic, the government's furlough scheme has paid the bulk of wages for millions of workers.

Analysts warn that Britain faces soaring unemployment despite the new support as many businesses cannot afford to keep staff, even on reduced hours.

Sunak's update comes on the day Britons began facing new restrictive measures - including early closing times for pubs and restaurants.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week called on Britons to work from home as the country faces a spike in virus cases, hurting city-centre services.

His call comes as businesses were just starting to get back on their feet after a three-month nationwide lockdown earlier this year.

'Fact of life' 

"It is now clear, as the prime minister and his science advisers have said, that for at least the next six months the virus and restrictions are going to be a fact of our lives," Sunak added Thursday.

"Our economy is now likey to undergo a more permanent adjustment," he warned.

British gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by a fifth in the second quarter, more than any European neighbour, after the 23 March lockdown plunged the country into its deepest recession on record.

While retailers, hospitality and travel groups have been at the forefront of slashing tens of thousands of jobs during the pandemic and despite furlough support, supermarkets have created lots of new ones to meet a surge in online food demand.

Britain on Wednesday meanwhile recorded 6 178 new virus cases - the highest daily increase since 1 May.

The government's top medical advisers had warned that the country could see up to 50 000 coronavirus cases a day by mid-October, and a month later exceed 200 deaths every day if nothing was done.

Almost 42 000 people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Britain, the worst death toll in Europe.


Coronavirus latest developments

More than 978 000 deaths 

The virus has killed at least 978 448 people since the outbreak emerged in China late last year, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1100 GMT on Thursday.

More than 31.9 million cases have been confirmed.

The United States is the worst-hit country with 201 910 deaths, followed by Brazil with 138 977, India with 91 149, Mexico with 74 949 and the United Kingdom with 41 862.

EU must act

The European Commission urges EU members states to better explain and enforce social distancing and hygiene rules to halt a dangerous new wave of infections.

"In some member states, the situation is now even worse than during the peak in March. This is a real cause for concern," says Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides.

Worry trends

Seven EU countries including Spain are of "high concern" because rising virus death rates, the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention warns.

A new assessment report by the Stockholm-based EU agency says these countries have "an increased proportion of hospitalised and severe cases" among older people, and "increasing or high death notification rates are already observed ... or may be observed soon."

The countries outlined are Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Malta.

Rising in Moscow 

New cases in Moscow hit 1 050, the highest level since late June, raising fears of a new wave in the world's fourth most affected country.

The caseload increase had remained relatively stable in the Russian capital at around 700 per day for several months, but the numbers began to climb again from 15 September.

Israel tightens second lockdown

Israel toughens its measures as a second nationwide lockdown now nearing its second week fails to bring down the world's highest infection rate.

The new rules will close the vast majority of workplaces, shutter markets and further limit prayers and demonstrations.


Israel toughens second lockdown as virus cases surge

Israel toughened its coronavirus measures on Thursday as a second nationwide lockdown failed to bring down the world's highest infection rate a week after it was imposed.

The new rules will close the vast majority of workplaces, shutter markets and further limit prayers and demonstrations.

"Over the past two days, we've heard from experts that if we don't take immediate and harsh measures, we'll reach an abyss," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Wednesday, at the start of a cabinet meeting to thrash out the new measures.

The government's latest move comes as Israel is poised to enter the second week of a three-week lockdown imposed last Friday, which included the closure of schools and restrictions on work and leisure.

Under the new measures set to be approved in parliament later Thursday, synagogues will only be allowed to open on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday which begins Sunday afternoon.

At other times, only outdoor prayer will be allowed with a maximum of 20 people attending. The same restrictions have been applied to demonstrations.

"To save the lives of Israel's citizens we need to impose a full lockdown now for two weeks," Netanyahu said.

"This is also necessary for the economy. Whoever thinks we can work with a raging pandemic, with death and infections rising, without it affecting the economy, is wrong."

A decision on whether to close Ben Gurion international airport outside Tel Aviv would be made later on Thursday, the government said.

Israel has the world's highest coronavirus infection rate as a proportion of its population, according to an AFP tally of the past fortnight.

More than 200 000 coronavirus cases have been recorded, with 1 335 deaths, out of a population of nine million.

'Massive destruction'

Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said Netanyahu's rush to ease the lockdown set in place during the first wave caused the current crisis.

"Once the rates went lower, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the public to go and have a good time," said Levine, an epidemiologist who is part of the country's anti-coronavirus taskforce.

"This is a wrong concept. Dealing with the current pandemic is like a marathon, and in a marathon you need to keep pace all the time," he said.

Levine also accused Netanyahu of basing his pandemic decisions on "political" rather than "professional reasoning", which had a damaging effect.

"When there is no plan, no logic, the public loses its trust," he said.

The health expert warned that allowing synagogues to open during Yom Kippur would cause the virus to spread on a large scale.

"We are going to have massive destruction," he said.

Netanyahu has also faced fierce criticism from opposition politicians, who accuse him of tightening the rules to put an end to weeks of protests outside his Jerusalem residence.

Ayelet Shaked, a lawmaker with the far-right Yamina party, said the new rules were "destructive and unreasonable".

"Because of the demonstrations, they're pushing hundreds of thousands of people to unemployment and crushing the economy," she said in a statement.

Shaked said she would push to change the measures when they come before a parliamentary committee for approval later on Thursday.

Israel's health ministry registered 6 808 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, out of 54 364 tests processed.

Some hospitals have reached capacity and are having to turn people away, with some patients forced to wait for hours in ambulances, according to the emergency medical service Magen David Adom.


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