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Coronavirus: Commission presents 'Staying safe from COVID-19 during winter' strategy

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Today (2 December), the Commission adopted a strategy for a sustainably managing the pandemic over the coming winter months, a period that can bring a risk of increased transmission of the virus owing to specific circumstances such as indoor gatherings. The strategy recommends continued vigilance and caution throughout the winter period and into 2021 when the roll out of safe and effective vaccines will occur.

The Commission will then provide further guidance on a gradual and coordinated lifting of containment measures. A coordinated EU wide approach is key to provide clarity to people and avoid a resurgence of the virus linked to the end of year holidays. Any relaxation of measures should take into account the evolution of the epidemiological situation and sufficient capacity for testing, contact tracing and treating patients.

Promoting the European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “In these extremely difficult times, guidance to Member States to promote a common approach to the winter season and in particular on how to manage the end of the year period, is of vital importance. We need to curtail future outbreaks of infection in the EU. It is only through such a sustained management of the pandemic, that we will avoid new lockdowns and severe restrictions and overcome together.”

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “Every 17 seconds a person loses their life due to COVID-19 in Europe. The situation may be stabilizing, but it remains delicate. Like everything else this year, end of the year festivities will be different. We cannot jeopardise the efforts made by us all in the recent weeks and months. This year, saving lives must come before celebrations. But with vaccines on the horizon, there is also hope. All member states must now be ready to start vaccination campaigns and roll-out vaccines as quickly as possible once a safe and effective vaccine is available.”

Recommended control measures

The staying safe from COVID-19 during winter strategy recommends measures to keep the pandemic under control until vaccines are widely available.

It focuses on:

Physical distancing and limiting social contacts, key for the winter months including the holiday period. Measures should be targeted and based on the local epidemiological situation to limit their social and economic impact and increase their acceptance by people.

Testing and contact tracing, essential for detecting clusters and breaking transmission. Most member states now have national contact tracing apps. The European Federated Gateway Server (EFGS) enables cross-border tracing.

Safe travel, with a possible increase in travel over the end-of-year holidays requiring a coordinated approach. Transport infrastructure must be prepared and quarantine requirements, which may take place when the epidemiological situation in the region of origin is worse than the destination, clearly communicated.

Healthcare capacity and personnel: Business continuity plans for healthcare settings should be put in place to make sure COVID-19 outbreaks can be managed, and access to other treatments maintained. Joint procurement can address shortages of medical equipment. Pandemic fatigue and mental health are natural responses to the current situation. Member states should follow the World Health Organisation European Region's guidance on reinvigorating public support to address pandemic fatigue. Psychosocial support should be stepped up too.

National vaccination strategies.

The Commission stands ready to support member states where necessary in the deployment of vaccines as per their deployment and vaccination plans. A common EU approach to vaccination certificates is likely to reinforce the public health response in Member States and the trust of citizens in the vaccination effort.

Background

Today's strategy builds on previous recommendations such as the April European road map on the careful phasing out of containment measures, the July Communication on short-term preparedness and the October Communication on additional COVID-19 response measures. The first wave of the pandemic in Europe was successfully contained through strict measures, but relaxing them too fast over the summer led to a resurgence in autumn.

As long as a safe and effective vaccine is not available and a large part of the population not immunised, EU member Sstates must continue their efforts to mitigate the pandemic by following a coordinated approach as called for by the European Council.

Further recommendations will be presented in early 2021, to design a comprehensive COVID-19 control framework based on the knowledge and experience so far and the latest available scientific guidelines.

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Dutch PM condemns lockdown riots as 'criminal violence'

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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (pictured) on Monday (25 January) condemned riots across the country at the weekend in which demonstrators attacked police and set fires to protest against a night-time curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus, calling them “criminal violence”, writes .

The police said hundreds of people had been detained after incidents that began on Saturday evening and lasted until the early hours of Monday, including some in which rioters threw rocks and in one case knives at police and burned down a COVID-19 testing station.

“This has nothing to do with protest, this is criminal violence and we will treat it as such,” Rutte told reporters outside his office in The Hague.

Schools and non-essential shops in the Netherlands have been shut since mid-December, following the closure of bars and restaurants two months earlier.

Rutte’s government added the curfew as an additional lockdown measure from Saturday over fears that the British variant of COVID-19 may soon lead to an increase in cases.

There have been 13,540 deaths in the Netherlands from COVID-19 and 944,000 infections.

The police trade union NPB said there could be more protests ahead, as people grow increasingly frustrated with the country’s months-long lockdown.

“We haven’t seen so much violence in 40 years,” union board member Koen Simmers said on television program Nieuwsuur.

Police used water cannon, dogs and officers on horseback to disperse a protest in central Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon. Nearly 200 people, some of them throwing stones and fireworks, were detained in the city.

In the southern city of Eindhoven, looters plundered stores at the train station and set cars and bikes on fire.

When police said the demonstrators were violating the country’s current lockdown rules “they took weapons out of their pockets and immediately attacked the police”, Eindhoven Mayor John Jorritsma said.

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Head of French health regulatory body: COVID situation is 'worrying'

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The COVID-19 situation in France is worrying, the head of the country’s Haute Autorite de Sante (HAS) health regulator told France Inter radio on Monday (25 January), as President Emmanuel Macron’s government considers a new lockdown, write Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon.

France has the world’s seventh-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 73,000 deaths.

“It is a worrying moment. We are looking at the figures, day by day. We need to take measures pretty quickly....but at the same time, not too hastily,” said HAS head Dominique Le Guludec.

Jean-François Delfraissy, head of the scientific council that advises the government on COVID-19, had said on Sunday that France probably needed a third national lockdown, perhaps as early as the February school holidays, because of the circulation of new variants of the virus.

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune, when asked about this on French radio on Monday, replied that no firm decision had been taken on the matter.

France is currently in a nationwide 18h to 6h curfew, in a bid to slow down the spread of the virus, but the average number of new infections has increased from 18,000 per day to more than 20,000.

Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, head of the MEDEF French business lobby group, said he would call on the government to keep as many businesses and schools open as possible in any new lockdown, to protect the economy and help children’s education.

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EU urges AstraZeneca to speed up vaccine deliveries amid 'supply shock'

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The European Union has urged AstraZeneca to find ways to swiftly deliver vaccines after the company announced a large cut in supplies of its COVID-19 shot to the bloc, as news emerged the drugmaker also faced supply problems elsewhere, write and

In a sign of the EU’s frustration - after Pfizer also announced supply delays earlier in January - a senior EU official told Reuters the bloc would in the coming days require pharmaceutical companies to register COVID-19 vaccine exports.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March, with an EU official involved in the talks telling Reuters that meant a 60% cut to 31 million doses.

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” an EU Commission spokesman said, adding the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen had a call earlier on Monday with AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot to remind him of the firm’s commitments.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said Soriot told von der Leyen the company was doing everything it could to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

News emerged on Monday that the company faces wider supply problems.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters AstraZeneca had advised the country it had experienced “a significant supply shock”, which would cut supplies in March below what was agreed. He did not provide figures.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said AstraZeneca would be supplying 150,000 doses instead of the 200,000 planned, and far less than the 1 million shots the country had initially requested.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on global supply issues.

The senior EU official said the bloc had a contractual right to check the company’s books to assess production and deliveries, a move that could imply the EU fears doses being diverted from Europe to other buyers outside the bloc.

AstraZeneca has received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($409 million) from the EU, another official told Reuters when the 27-nation bloc sealed a supply deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses - the first signed by the EU to secure COVID-19 shots..

Under advance purchase deals sealed during the pandemic, the EU makes down-payments to companies to secure doses, with the money expected to be mostly used to expand production capacity.

“Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” AstraZeneca said on Friday.

The site is a viral vectors factory in Belgium run by the drugmaker’s partner Novasep.

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that have to be nurtured in bioreactors. The complex procedure requires fine-tuning of various inputs and variables to arrive at consistently high yields.

“The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese, who is from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU called a meeting with AstraZeneca after Friday’s (22 January) announcement to seek further clarification. The meeting started at 1230 CET on Monday.

The EU official involved in the talks with AstraZeneca said expectations were not high for the meeting, in which the company will be asked to better explain the delays.

Earlier in January, Pfizer, which is currently the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, announced delays of nearly a month to its shipments, but hours later revised this to say the delays would last only a week.

EU contracts with vaccine makers are confidential, but the EU official involved in the talks did not rule out penalties for AstraZeneca, given the large revision to its commitments. However, the source did not elaborate on what could trigger the penalties. “We are not there yet,” the official added.

“AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK without delay,” Liese said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the EU on Jan. 29, with first deliveries expected from 15 February.

($1 = €0.8214)

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