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Italian government totters as Conte and Renzi divide deepens

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (pictured) faces a showdown with his coalition partner and former premier Matteo Renzi this week that could bring down his government even as it struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, writes .

Long-strained relations between the two men have deteriorated markedly in recent weeks, with Renzi calling for radical changes to plans to reboot the economy while also demanding that Conte cede his control over the secret services.

The prime minister has resisted the pressure, saying last week he was prepared to confront Renzi in parliament, effectively challenging him to act on his recent threats and abandon the coalition, thereby triggering an ill-timed crisis.

Renzi told Il Messaggero newspaper at the weekend he would not back down and dismissed suggestions that Conte could persuade a limited number of opposition politicians to prop up the government if his small Italia Viva party walked away.

“If he has decided to go to parliament and see the numbers, we accept the challenge,” Renzi said. “If...he goes under, we have several different solutions that can be assessed by parliament and the head of state,” he added.

A political source said matters could come to a head at a cabinet meeting expected for Jan. 7, when Conte was expected to ask ministers to support his economic recovery plan. If Italia Viva’s two ministers refused, the prime minister would go to parliament and start work on trying to find a new consensus.

Conte’s two main coalition allies, the 5-Star Movement and centre-left Democratic Party (PD), have both urged restraint, but appeared resigned to an eventual face-off with Renzi, who is looking to carve out a strong identity for his group which is struggling in the opinion polls on around 3%.

“At this point, it is difficult to move ahead without a real clarification, in terms of the content and structure of the government,” Luigi Zanda, a senior PD senator, told Corriere della Sera on Sunday (3 January).

If the government falls, the coalition parties could seek to draw up a new pact and agree on a new team of ministers, with or without Conte as prime minister. Alternatively, the head of state could try to put together a government of national unity to confront the health and economic crisis.

If all else fails, national elections would have to be held some two years ahead of time, but such an outcome would appear highly unlikely given the COVID emergency in Italy, which has registered 74,985 COVID-19 deaths, the highest toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world.

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Coronavirus disinformation: Online platforms took more actions fighting vaccine disinformation

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Commission has published the new reports by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, TikTok and Mozilla, signatories of the Code of Practice on Disinformation. They provide an overview of the evolution of the measures taken in January 2021. Google expanded its search feature providing information and a list of authorised vaccines in user's location in response to related searches in 23 EU countries, and TikTok applied the COVID-19 vaccine tag to over five thousand videos in the European Union. Microsoft co-sponsored the #VaxFacts campaign launched by NewsGuard providing a free browser extension protecting from coronavirus vaccines misinformation. Additionally, Mozilla reported that curated authoritative content from its Pocket (read-it-later) application gathered more than 5.8 billion impressions across the EU.

Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “Online platforms need to take responsibility to prevent harmful and dangerous disinformation, both domestic and foreign, from undermining our common fight against the virus and the efforts towards vaccination. But platforms' efforts alone will not suffice. It is also crucial to strengthen co-operation with public authorities, media and civil society to provide reliable information.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “Disinformation poses a threat that needs to be taken seriously, and platforms' response must be diligent, robust and efficient. This is particularly crucial now, when we are acting to win the industrial battle for all Europeans to have a fast access to safe vaccines.”

The monthly reporting programme has been recently extended and will continue until June as the crisis still unfolds. It is a deliverable under the 10 June 2020 Joint Communication to ensure accountability towards the public and discussions are ongoing on how to further improve the process. You will find more information and the reports here.

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Merkel says COVID variants risk third virus wave, must proceed carefully

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New variants of COVID-19 risk a third wave of infections in Germany and the country must proceed with great care so that a new nationwide shutdown does not become necessary, Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, writes Paul Carrel.

The number of new daily infections has stagnated over the past week with the seven-day incidence rate hovering at around 60 cases per 100,000. On Wednesday (24 February), Germany reported 8,007 new infections and 422 further deaths.

“Because of (variants), we are entering a new phase of the pandemic, from which a third wave may emerge,” Merkel said. “So we must proceed wisely and carefully so that a third wave does not necessitate a new complete shutdown throughout Germany.”

Merkel and state premiers in Germany, Europe’s most populous country and largest economy, have agreed to extend restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus until 7 March.

Hair salons will be allowed to reopen from 1 March, but the threshold for a gradual reopening of the rest of the economy targets an infection rate of no more than 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

Vaccines and comprehensive testing could allow for “a more regionally differentiated approach”, Merkel said in the newspaper interview, published online on Wednesday.

“In a district with a stable incidence of 35, for example, it may be possible to open all schools without causing distortions in relation to other districts with a higher incidence and schools that are not yet open,” she added.

“An intelligent opening strategy is inextricably linked with comprehensive quick tests, as it were as free tests,” she said. “I cannot say exactly how long it will take to install such a system. But it will be in March.”

Merkel described Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which some essential workers have refused, as “a reliable vaccine, effective and safe.”

“As long as vaccines are as scarce as they are at the moment, you can’t choose what you want to be vaccinated with.”

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India warns of worsening COVID-19 situation, vaccinations to expand

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India announced an expansion of its vaccination programme on Wednesday (24 February) but warned that breaches of coronavirus protocols could worsen an infection surge in many states, write Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora.

Nearly a month after the health minister declared that COVID-19 had been contained, states such as Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south have reported a surge in cases, as reluctance grows over mask-wearing and social distancing.

India’s infections are the second highest in the world at 11.03 million, swelled in the past 24 hours by 13,742, health ministry data shows. Deaths rose by a two-week high of 104 to 156,567.

“Any laxity in implementing stringent measures to curb the spread, especially in view of new strains of virus ... could compound the situation,” the ministry said in a statement singling out nine states and a federal territory.

India has confirmed the long-time presence of two mutant variants - N440K and E484Q - in addition to those first detected in Brazil, Britain and South Africa.

The ministry said that while cases in the states of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, as well as the federal territory of Jammu and Kashmir, were rising, the proportion of high-accuracy RT-PCR tests in those places was falling. Cases have also risen in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

In the past week, a third of India’s 36 states and union territories have reported an average of more than 100 new cases each day, with Kerala and Maharashtra both reporting more than 4,000, in a trend experts link to the reopening of schools and suburban train services.

The government has also asked states to speed vaccinations for healthcare and frontline workers. Just about 11 million people have received one or two doses in a campaign that began on Jan. 16, versus a target of 300 million by August.

From March 1, India will start vaccinating people above 60 and those older than 45 with health conditions free of charge in about 10,000 government hospitals and for a fee in more than 20,000 private facilities, the government said.

Earlier on Wednesday, a regulatory panel sought more data from drugmaker Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories for emergency authorisation of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, a senior official with direct knowledge of the discussions said.

The Central Drugs Standard Control Organization did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for confirmation.

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