Britain and France on Tuesday announced their intention to ease coronavirus restrictions in the run-up to Christmas, as a second wave of infections subsides following weeks of lockdowns in Europe.
In a televised evening address, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that shops could reopen this Saturday and that nationwide stay-at-home orders would be lifted from Dec 15.
“We will be able to travel without authorisation, including between regions, and spend Christmas with our families,” Macron said, while warning that some restrictions would stay in place to avoid a third wave.
A country-wide curfew from 9pm to 7am will start on Dec 15, while restaurants and bars will remain shut until January.
The British authorities also announced on Tuesday that restrictions on social mixing and travel would be eased across the UK over Christmas, with up to three families allowed to mix over the festive period.
“As 2020 draws to a close, we recognise it has been an incredibly difficult year for us all,” a joint statement form the governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said.
Germany’s 16 states have also agreed to slightly loosen limits on social contact over Christmas, according to a draft deal seen by AFP.
State leaders agreed to cap gatherings to 10 people over the Dec 23 to Jan 1 holiday – double the limit for the rest of December. These compromise measures reflected calls by some less-affected regions for lighter restrictions.
Care homes first in line
Hopes for an end to the pandemic also received a further boost on Tuesday when the Russian developers of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine said it had proved 95% effective in a second interim analysis of clinical trial data.
They said it can be stored at between two and eight degrees Celsius, instead of the temperatures below freezing required for some other vaccines.
They did not specify the number of cases used to make the calculation, however.
Western experts have in the past expressed concern over Russia’s vaccine, fearing that its development could have been rushed.
There are now several possible vaccines internationally that have undergone or are undergoing clinical trials, some already seeking US and EU approval for emergency use – Candidates by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford University are leading the pack.
Optimism sparked by the vaccines have given a boost to virus-weary citizens across the globe in recent days, as well as pushing up stock markets.
The Dow surged past 30,000 points for the first time ever Tuesday as receding US political uncertainty and hopes for virus vaccines offset worries over spiking Covid-19 cases.
Scramble for doses
In Brussels, the EU announced it was concluding a sixth contract to reserve doses – this time for up to 160 million from US giant Moderna.
“Every member state will receive it at the same time on a pro rata basis,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.
France’s Macron, in his address Tuesday, said he hoped that the first Covid vaccines would be available for use by the end of December or in early January.
Austria said it would acquire more than 16 million doses of the vaccine through the EU and could start a vaccination campaign in January.
The government in Spain, one of the worst-hit countries in Europe, also said vaccinations could start in January and care home residents would have priority, followed by medical workers.
Even once a vaccine becomes available, any return to normality for a global economy ravaged by the pandemic seems a long way off.
The boss of Australia’s Qantas airline, Alan Joyce, on Tuesday said proof of vaccination would likely become the only way people will be allowed to fly.
Aviation’s global industry body Iata said Tuesday it estimated that airline revenue this year would plunge 60%.
Easing rules for Christmas
Although governments in Europe and North America are keen to preserve end-of-year festive cheer, experts are worried about the contagion risk from the upcoming holidays.
The US – by far the worst-hit nation – celebrates Thanksgiving on Thursday, and many Americans plan to spend the holiday with extended family despite official warnings.
Nearly 258,000 people have died nationwide and the caseload is edging towards 12.4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Stopping short of issuing an outright ban, the US government’s health protection agency has for the first time called on Americans not to travel for the annual holiday, which sees families get together over turkey, yams and cranberry sauce.