Even though there is much uncertainty about the variant spreading in Britain, countries are barring travelers from the U.K., and Saudi Arabia has banned international travel all together.

Britain, struggling to contain an outbreak of what officials said was a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, found itself increasingly isolated on Monday as nations raced to ban travelers from the country, suspending flights and cutting off trade routes.

France imposed a 48-hour suspension of freight transit across the English Channel, leaving thousands of truck drivers stranded in their vehicles on Monday as the roads leading to England’s ports were turned into parking lots. About a quarter of all food eaten in Britain is produced in the European Union. Stocks slid on the news.

The rapid series of events and escalating number of countries that suddenly closed their borders was reminiscent of the early frenzied days of the pandemic, when international travel ground to a halt. While most countries directed their restrictions on Britain, Saudi Arabia went even further in trying to halt the variant from gaining traction, announcing a one week ban on all international travel, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

European Union leaders planned to meet on Monday to devise a “common doctrine” for dealing with the variant’s threat. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was planning to convene the government’s emergency committee.

The French transportation minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, said on Twitter on Monday that France was working to “set up a robust health protocol” enabling traffic leaving Britain to resume but that it was unclear how soon such a solution could be found.

The disruption comes at a time of heightened uncertainty, with traffic at the ports already swelling before the Dec. 31 Brexit deadline. With time running out for a trade deal, Mr. Johnson and his European counterparts continue to engage in frantic last-minute negotiations.

The swift action taken by France and other nations reflected the alarm sparked by the British government’s announcement that a new variant of the virus was spreading out of control in London and surrounding areas.

Mr. Johnson, speaking to the nation on Saturday night as he announced draconian restrictions on movement, said that the variant had been shown to be 70 percent more contagious than other variants.

Viral mutations are not uncommon, and British officials said this variant had been detected in a handful of other countries. The estimate of greater transmissibility for the variant is based on modeling and has not been confirmed by lab experiments, said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government.

“Over all, I think we need to have a little bit more experimental data,” she said. “We can’t entirely rule out the fact that some of this transmissibility data might be related to human behavior.”

British officials said there was no reason to believe that the new variant caused more serious illness.

Even with so much about the variant uncertain — including how widely it was already circulating around the world — nations wasted no time in seeking to essentially quarantine England.

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands all announced restrictions on travel within hours of Mr. Johnson’s speech. Poland said it would suspend flights between the two countries starting Monday night.

Beyond the European Union, Canada, India, Iran, Israel and Russia were among the places issuing their own restrictions.

Hong Kong on Monday also closed its borders to travelers from Britain, saying all passenger flights from the country would be barred starting at midnight. The ban will be extended for the first time to Hong Kong residents, as well as transit passengers who spent more than two hours in Britain over the past two weeks.

Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s health secretary, acknowledged that the travel ban comes as many students are returning to Hong Kong for the holidays. “We have never imposed such severe restrictions on any region in the past, but the variant in Britain is spreading so rapidly that it is necessary to block the spread of this mutation from its source,” she said at a news conference.

In addition, anyone who arrived in Hong Kong from Britain in the past three weeks will be required to quarantine for an additional week and submit further samples for testing.

In the United States, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York urged the federal government to take action, saying that “right now, this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to J.F.K.,” while also acknowledging that it may be too late. The State Department said that its travel advisory for Britain remained unchanged at Level 3.

The European Union’s drug authority, the European Medicines Agency, granted authorization on Monday for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, was expected to rubber-stamp the decision later in the day, paving the way for millions of doses to be transferred by Pfizer to all 27 European Union member states. Immunization is expected to begin in most countries over the next few days and gather speed in early January, the authorities have said.

The regulator’s decision comes weeks after Britain granted emergency approval to the vaccine and began its rollout, quickly followed by the United States. The swifter authorization by the British and U.S. authorities created pressure for the European Union to expedite its own process, and the regulator changed its date for the decision, moving it to Monday from Dec. 29. The delay had been criticized, especially in Germany, where BioNTech is based and where the vaccine was developed.

The agency is expected to give its decision on the Moderna vaccine authorization request on Jan. 6.

Pfizer declined to provide logistical details for its plans to transport the vaccines across the 27 E.U. countries, but said it was ready to begin distribution as soon as it got the green light from the European Commission. The shots that will be distributed in Europe are manufactured in Pfizer factories in Puurs, Belgium, and in Mainz, Germany.

A week after planes and trucks carried the first Covid-19 vaccine across the United States, inching a weary public toward hope, the second was shipped to sites around the country. The Moderna vaccine, like Pfizer’s, requires two shots, spaced weeks apart. The Food and Drug Administration authorized its emergency use on Friday.

The rollout comes as the virus shows no signs of abating in the United States — parts of California are down to their last I.C.U. beds and some hospitals in other states are at or over capacity — or around the world, as a new mutation prompted chaotic lockdowns in Britain and bans on travel from the United Kingdom in many countries.

The numbers are still as high and alarming as they have ever been: At least 317,800 people have died in the United States, more than anywhere in the world.

Many of the first vaccine shots went to health care workers. Joining them Monday will be residents and staff members of hard-hit nursing homes, set to begin inoculating their residents through Walgreens or CVS this week, part of a deal struck with the federal government. These facilities have felt the brunt of the pandemic: At least a third of the nation’s deaths have been reported in nursing homes and long-term-care facilities, and many residents have been isolated from loved ones for much of the year.

The two vaccines, from Moderna and from Pfizer and BioNTech, were developed and approved on a historic timeline and promised to nations around the world. Britain has already begun vaccinations, starting several days before the United States. The European Union’s drug authority, the European Medicines Agency, granted authorization on Monday for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, was expected to rubber-stamp the decision later in the day, paving the way for millions of doses to be transferred by Pfizer to all 27 European Union member states.

At the same time, a large portion of people in the United States have said they will not get vaccinated. In part to persuade the public of the safety of the vaccines, some world leaders have broadcast themselves getting the injections.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is the latest, scheduled to get vaccinated on Monday. He and his wife, Jill Biden, will receive their shots during a live television event in Delaware. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will get vaccinated after Christmas, a spokeswoman said. Doctors recommended Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris stagger their first shots rather than receive them together.

Financial markets reeled on Monday, as a new, fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus led to the suspension of some trade and travel ties with Britain and a new lockdown in London.

Stocks in Europe were sharply lower, along with energy prices and the British pound. On Wall Street, the decline was tempered slightly by the news that lawmakers reached a deal on a $900 billion stimulus package, which is expected to include $600 stimulus payments to millions of Americans and strengthen unemployment benefits, and could pass both houses of Congress as soon as Monday.

The S&P 500 fell about 1 percent in early trading, with shares of cruise lines, airlines, and other companies whose businesses have been hardest hit by travel restrictions and virus-containment efforts faring particularly poorly.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index fell 2.7 percent, with economically sensitive financial and energy shares leading the decline. The FTSE 100 in Britain fell 2.7 percent, while the FTSE 250, which includes companies that are more oriented to the British economy, declined 3.6 percent. Energy prices fell, with crude oil futures down about 4 percent.

Over the weekend, nearby countries shut their borders to travelers from Britain — and some cases, British freight — as London and the surrounding area were put into a lockdown after the government’s health secretary said a new strain of the coronavirus was “out of control.”

The British pound fell against all other major currencies. It declined 1.8 percent against the dollar, the sharpest one-day fall in nine months. The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and France were among countries to ban travelers from Britain. France also stopped freight imports from Britain, a move that will worsen border disruptions and has raised concerns about the supply of fresh food.

The more contagious variant of the virus is expected to mean social restrictions will last longer in Britain, possibly many months while the vaccine is being rolled out. Analysts at Berenberg, a private bank, cut their forecast for the British economy early next year, saying it was likely to grow only 3 percent in the first quarter, down from 5.5 percent.

Still, traders focused on the United States had some good news to consider. The congressional spending package is expected to include most of the elements that economists have long said were crucial to avoiding further calamity and aiding a recovery. It extends unemployment benefits for millions at risk of losing them, and adds money to their checks to help pay their bills. It revives the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept many small businesses afloat last spring.

China is preparing to vaccinate 50 million people against the coronavirus before Feb. 15, the Lunar New Year holiday when hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel, according to a Chinese vaccine expert.

China’s National Health Commission set the ambitious target with provincial officials in a teleconference with them on Dec. 15, Tao Lina, a vaccine expert based in Shanghai and a former immunologist with the city’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a telephone interview. He cited information given to him from officials who were on the call and minutes of the meeting that were provided to him. The National Health Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Tao said the 50 million figure was an estimate based on an initial assessment of the “key population targets” that would be first in line for the vaccines. He added that the provinces were in the process of tallying the total number of people. This month, the government said that it was prioritizing health care professionals, pilots, people who work in the food import industry and others at an elevated risk for contracting the virus.

China has not disclosed safety and efficacy data for any of its five vaccines that are in late-stage testing, but officials say several are on track for authorization. The state-run company Sinopharm, which has two vaccines in late-stage trials, has applied to China’s regulators for approval. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recently approved a vaccine made by Sinopharm after an early analysis found that it was effective.

The rapid rollout in China could cause some discontent among people who are reluctant to be vaccinated. Mr. Tao said he knew of several medical workers who were not eager to be inoculated because they were worried about the novel shots. Some of them are also less afraid of contracting Covid-19 because the pandemic appears to have been mostly stamped out in China, he said.

Gatherings of more than five people will be banned in South Korea’s capital region as an elevated step to suppress what the authorities call an “explosive” surge in coronavirus infections, The Associated Press reported. The region around the capital, Seoul, is home to half of South Korea’s 51 million people and has been at the center of a recent viral resurgence. . The acting mayor of Seoul, Seo Jung-hyup, said on Monday that the ban would apply to any type of gathering, including year-end parties, office dinners, birthday celebrations and picnics. Only weddings and funerals can follow the current rule of no more than 50 people.

After congressional leaders struck a long-sought agreement on a $900 billion pandemic relief package, lawmakers in both chambers on Monday will race to finalize legislative text and send the measure to President Trump’s desk before government funding lapses.

An agreement in principle was reached late Sunday afternoon, hours before a midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown. With additional time needed to transform their agreement into legislative text, both chambers had to approve a one-day stopgap spending bill, giving them an additional 24 hours to finalize the deal.

Lawmakers will have just a few hours to review the hundreds of pages of text that will encompass about $2.3 trillion in relief legislation and a catchall omnibus to keep the government funded for the remainder of the fiscal year. But after months of gridlock and debate, both chambers are expected to approve the spending measures on Monday and send them to the president for his signature.

The $900 billion agreement is set to provide $600 stimulus payments to millions of American adults earning up to $75,000. It would revive lapsed supplemental federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week for 11 weeks — setting both at half the amount provided by the first pandemic relief package in March.

The final proposal will also include $69 billion for the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine and more than $22 billion for states to conduct testing, tracing and coronavirus mitigation programs.

Continue and expand benefits for gig workers and freelancers, and extend federal payments for people whose regular benefits have expired.

Provide more than $284 billion for businesses and revive the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular federal loan program for small businesses that lapsed over the summer.

Expand eligibility under that program for nonprofit organizations, local newspapers and radio and TV broadcasters and allocate $15 billion for performance venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions devastated by the restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the virus.

Provide $82 billion for colleges and schools, $13 billion in increased nutrition assistance, $7 billion for broadband access and $25 billion in rental assistance.

When the coronavirus pandemic first reached Afghanistan in March, the government struggled to shut down cities and persuade Afghans to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing. The measures were haphazardly enforced for several weeks before citizens began to chafe under the restrictions.

Today, even as public health officials confirm a second deadly virus wave, Covid-19 is an afterthought. Afghans have embraced a culture of denial, where personal priorities triumph over public health experts whose pleas are drowned out by public apathy, skepticism and an enduring belief that Allah determines a believer’s fate.

“The mentality that Trump and his supporters have, it’s exactly the same for the Afghan people,” said Dr. Tariq Ahmad Akbari, until recently the head physician at Kabul’s only infectious disease hospital. “They think Covid is Western propaganda.”

But unlike in the United States, there is no political party or anti-government movement playing down the virus by spreading misinformation. Even the Taliban have distributed personal protection equipment and run public health information programs. They have allowed government health workers into areas they control, the health ministry said.

In cities across the country, people go about their daily lives as if the coronavirus never existed. Afghans cram into buses and taxis, eat shoulder to shoulder indoors in restaurants, pray in mosques, embrace in traditional Afghan greetings and cluster in sprawling bazaars.

On crowded city streets, few people wear masks. Ubiquitous public health posters warning of Covid-19 are routinely mocked as relics of a not-so-distant past when the coronavirus seemed terrifying and indomitable.

Afghans continue to contract the virus and die, but the scale of the epidemic is nearly impossible to measure. The Health Ministry’s reported coronavirus death toll is 2,074, with 50,677 positive cases, but Afghanistan’s testing capacity is severely limited — it has conducted just 180,000 tests since March. Its beleaguered health system cannot always distinguish Covid-19 from other causes of death in a country where disease and violence are endemic.

As Americans celebrate the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine, many of the doctors and nurses first in line for inoculation say a victory lap is premature.

They fear that the optimism stirred by the vaccine will overshadow a crisis that has drawn scant public attention in recent months: the alarming shortage of personal protective equipment, or P.P.E., that has led frontline medical workers to ration their use of the disposable gloves, gowns and N95 respirator masks that reduce the spread of infection.

At St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, Minn., health care workers who treat Covid-19 patients are required to reuse their tightfitting respirator masks up to six times before throwing them away. Although soiled N95s are sterilized each day with ultraviolet light, Chris Rubesch, 32, a cardiac nurse, says the masks invariably sag after two or three shifts, leaving gaps that can allow the virus to seep through.

“Our days are filled with fear and doubt,” Mr. Rubesch said. “It’s like driving a car without seatbelts.”

Many of the shortages are the result of skyrocketing global demand, but supply chain experts and health care providers say the Trump administration’s largely hands-off approach to the production and distribution of protective gear over the past nine months has worsened the problem. That has left states and hospitals to compete for limited supplies. Price gouging has become the norm, and scores of desperate institutions have been duped into buying counterfeit products.

President Trump has made only sparing use of the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law that allows federal agencies to coordinate the distribution of scarce goods and force companies to prioritize government orders. The D.P.A. can also provide grants to companies that need help ramping up production.

With the White House largely disengaged from the crisis, medical workers, supply chain specialists and public health experts are urging President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to make good on his campaign promises to use the Defense Production Act to increase domestic manufacturing of personal protective equipment, test kits, vaccines and the medical supplies needed to immunize hundreds of millions of Americans. They are also hoping the incoming administration will take over the distribution of scarce goods and put an end to profiteering and the mad scramble for P.P.E. that has pitted states and deep-pocketed hospital chains against nursing homes and small rural hospitals.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and the incoming first lady, Jill Biden, are set to receive the coronavirus vaccine on live television on Monday in Delaware, sending a message to Americans across the country that the vaccine is safe to take.

Since March, Mr. Biden’s team has been taking public health guidelines about social distancing and masks seriously, as President Trump and his aides have willfully disregarded them. But even Mr. Biden’s more careful circle has been infiltrated by the virus. Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana and one of Mr. Biden’s closest advisers, tested positive for the coronavirus last week, the transition team announced.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is expected to receive her vaccine after Christmas, a spokeswoman said, following advice from doctors who recommended Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris stagger their first shots rather than receive them together.

Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, all received the first dose of the vaccine on Friday.

Mr. Trump, however, has neither participated in nor supported the public health campaign to reassure vaccine skeptics worried about its dangers.

On Friday, he did nothing to promote Mr. Pence taking the vaccine, an event held at the White House that officials asked all of the television networks to carry live on TV for maximum exposure. Instead, Mr. Trump was tweeting out anti-mask claims minutes after Mr. Pence received his vaccine.

Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have defended his decision to put off his own vaccination, arguing that he still has the protective effects of the monoclonal antibody cocktail that was used to treat him for the virus in October.

But doctors have said it would set a good example to Americans who have recovered from Covid-19 that they still should receive the vaccine.

“We know that infection doesn’t induce a very strong immune response and it wanes over time,” Moncef Slaoui, the chief adviser of Operation Warp Speed, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “So I think, as a clear precaution, it is appropriate to be vaccinated because it’s safe. I think people should be vaccinated, indeed.”

Citing poor pay, lack of medical insurance and inadequate protective equipment, doctors across Kenya went on strike on Monday, setting off a public health crisis as coronavirus cases continued to rise nationwide.

The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union, which represents all Kenyan doctors, began the 21-day strike after eight months of negotiations with the government failed. A similar strike in November was suspended to continue deliberations.

For several months, medical practitioners have been asking the government to provide them with comprehensive medical insurance coverage, pay their salaries, enlist 2,000 doctors on “permanent and pensionable terms” and provide a dedicated facility to treat those who contract the coronavirus. But they accused the government of pressuring them to return to work or be fired rather than listening to their demands.

The latest strike comes just months after doctors in several counties, including the capital, Nairobi, put down their tools just as a local television investigation exposed the theft from government coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars of funds allocated to fight the pandemic.

Kenya has so far recorded 94,500 coronavirus infections and 1,639 deaths. The East African nation has seen a rise in cases since easing restrictions in October, raising fears that the country was experiencing a second wave.

More than a dozen Kenyan doctors have died of Covid-19. Among them was Dr. Stephen Mogusu, a 28-year-old who at the time of his death in early December had no insurance and had not received a paycheck for five months.

A 63-year-old coronavirus patient has been arrested in Hong Kong after his escape from a hospital isolation ward set off a frantic manhunt across the city.

Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory that is currently battling a fourth wave of infections, has strict quarantine and isolation requirements for people who contract the virus and their close contacts. Those who test positive, whether they are symptomatic or not, are sent to a hospital for treatment and monitoring until they test negative, while their close contacts are sent to quarantine camps for up to two weeks. Unbidden departures from quarantine and isolation facilities are illegal and can result in a two-month prison sentence and $645 fine.

The patient, Li Wan-keung, slipped away on Friday while doctors and nurses were occupied with other patients, the health authorities said. He evaded detection for 54 hours, even after the police released his name and photograph on their social media accounts.

Mr. Li was arrested on Sunday night and taken back to the hospital. A police representative said on Monday that the force received a tip about Mr. Li’s whereabouts and dispatched officers to arrest him.

Hong Kong courts have, as of Dec. 1, imprisoned or fined 76 people found guilty of violating quarantine orders. Government officials say that the prison sentences are intended to clearly signal their position of zero tolerance.

Hong Kong, a city of about 7.5 million people, has reported a total of 8,237 coronavirus cases and 130 deaths since the outbreak began.

With Germany in its first week of full lockdown, animal rights activists are drawing attention plight of city-dwelling pigeons, which have a harder time finding food scraps in empty city centers.

“We can’t allow pigeons to starve miserably in this acute emergency situation,” said Lea Schmitz, the spokeswoman for the German Animal Welfare Federation, an umbrella organization for smaller local animal welfare associations, said in an interview.

“We not saying private citizens should run out to feed the pigeons,” Ms. Schmitz said. “We’re asking for expert-led initiatives to get special permission to provide appropriate and controlled feedings.”

Under Germany’s new lockdown measures, shops that sell nonessential items are closed, meaning that shopping districts — long the favorite hunting grounds for feral pigeons — are deserted.

Because pigeons generally stay in one place and cannot find food in surrounding fields or forest, as they might do in summer, they are at risk of starvation, unless longstanding city bans on feeding are temporarily suspended, Ms. Schmitz said.

More than a million travelers a day passed through airport security checkpoints on each of the last three days in the United States.

With Christmas on Friday, the numbers show that, despite warnings from the C.D.C., people are on the move. On Friday, 1,066,747 people traveled through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, according to the agency. On Saturday, the figure was 1,073,563 and on Sunday, it was 1,064,619.

The last time passenger figures topped one million was around the Thanksgiving holiday: On Nov. 25, a Wednesday, 1,070,967 people passed through checkpoints, and on Nov. 29, a Sunday, there were 1,176,091 passengers. The numbers were less than half of what they had been for the same days in 2019, when more than two million people passed through airport security checkpoints.

The spikes in holiday travel this year come despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has urged people not to travel as Covid-19 cases continue to rise. The agency issued an advisory this month that “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.” It added, “you and your travel companions (including children) may feel well and not have any symptoms, but you can still spread Covid-19 to family, friends, and community after travel.”

The C.D.C. encourages anyone who decides to travel to get a flu shot, keep a distance of six feet at the checkpoint, wear a mask throughout the trip, bring extra hand sanitizer and wash their hands regularly.

United Airlines said on Friday that it was working with health officials to contact passengers who may have been exposed to the coronavirus by a man who died on a recent flight. Four flight attendants who responded to the emergency onboard the flight, United 591, went into quarantine for 14 days after the plane reached Los Angeles, the flight attendants’ union said.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/12/21/world/covid-19-coronavirus/

News – Covid-19 Live Updates: New Variant Causes Alarm Around the World