Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall
Netherlands’ outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte and outgoing Health Minister Hugo de Jonge give a press conference on Friday in The Hague to announce further easing of anti-Covid restrictions. (AFP)
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Updated 18 June 2021

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall
  • Most limits on group sizes will be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 metres apart
  • No new limits will be set on the number of guests allowed in stores, bars and restaurants

AMSTERDAM: Face masks will mostly no longer be required across the Netherlands and other restrictions will ease from next week, after a drop in COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday.
Most limits on group sizes will also be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 meters (5 ft) apart, he told a news conference.
“This is a special moment,” Rutte said. “Many times I have stood here to tell you what you can’t do. But now we can focus on what is possible.”
No new limits will be set on the number of guests allowed in stores, bars and restaurants, Rutte said, as long as they keep their distance, or show that they have been vaccinated or have a negative test.
“We can expect a beautiful summer,” Rutte said. “But we need to remain cautious. There are many uncertainties toward the autumn. You can always be stabbed in the back by a new variant.”
People will still need to wear masks on public transport and in airports, where distancing is not possible.
Coronavirus infections in the Netherlands have dropped to their lowest levels in nine months in recent weeks as the rollout of vaccinations has gathered pace.
Earlier this month authorities let bars and restaurants reopen.
Around 13 vaccinations have been administered in the country of 17.5 million people as of Friday. The government has said it is aiming to offer each Dutch adult at least one shot by mid-July.
Almost 1.7 million coronavirus infections have been confirmed in the Netherlands, and more than 27,000 deaths.


Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs

Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs
Updated 03 August 2021

Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs

Sydney’s ticket out of COVID-19 lockdown? Six million vaccine jabs
  • A lifting of restrictions in the country’s most populous city and its surrounds in New South Wales state would be a boost for Prime Minister Scott Morrison

CANBERRA: Australian authorities said they could ease a COVID-19 lockdown that demands Sydney’s five million people stay home until the end of August if half the population is vaccinated, even as new infections linger near a 16-month high.
A lifting of restrictions in the country’s most populous city and its surrounds in New South Wales state would be a boost for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under intense pressure for his government’s handling of the vaccine rollout, with the threat of a second economic recession in as many years looming.
New South Wales, which accounts for a third of all activity in Australia’s A$2 trillion ($1.47 trillion) economy, has struggled to contain a surge of cases of the highly infectious Delta variant in Sydney despite the lockdown, currently due to be lifted on Aug. 29.
While the state on Tuesday reported another 199 locally acquired COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours — near a 16-month high of 239 infections recorded in one day last week — Premier Gladys Berejiklian said curbs could be eased if six million people in New South Wales are vaccinated by the time the lockdown is due to end.
“Six million jabs is roughly half the population with at least one or two doses,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. “That gives us additional options as to what life looks like on 29 August.”
Berejiklian didn’t say exactly how many in New South Wales were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, but said the state is on course to meet its vaccination target. She cautioned the number of people in the community while infectious would also need to come down.
Although Australia has largely kept its COVID-19 numbers relatively low, with just over 34,500 cases and 925 deaths, its national vaccination rollout has hit several roadblocks due to changing medical advice on AstraZeneca doses over blood clot concerns and supply constraints for Pfizer inoculation.
The target in New South Wales comes just days after national premier Morrison promised lockdowns would be “less likely” once the country inoculates 70 percent of its population above 16 years of age — a long way from the current 19 percent level. Morrison expects to hit the 70 percent mark by the end of the year.
On Tuesday Morrison rejected the idea of offering people financial incentives to boost vaccination rates.
“If do have hesitancy about vaccine, I am not going to pay them off,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
The PM also released the modeling behind the national strategy which showed Australia would need to vaccinate seven in 10 people to control the spread of the virus without economically damaging lockdowns.
The modelling, by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, also called for younger Australians to be the next focus of the vaccine campaign.
Once vulnerable Australians were inoculated, “uptake by young adults (aged 16 and over) will strongly influence the impact of vaccination on overall transmission,” notes published alongside the modelling said.
The lockdown of Sydney is expected to see the Australian economy shrink in the current quarter, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has warned the length of the stay-at-home orders will determine whether a recession can be avoided.
Despite the ongoing threat to the economy, the Reserve Bank of Australia on Tuesday said it would stick with its plan to taper bond buying from September, contravening marketing expectations.
Meanwhile, Queensland state said on Tuesday it has reported 16 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, the highest daily number of new cases in a year.


‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN

‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN
Updated 03 August 2021

‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN

‘Indiscriminate’ Afghan fighting hurting civilians the most, says UN
  • In Herat, another city under siege, hundreds of residents chanted from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taliban assault

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: Afghan forces battled the Taliban for control of a key provincial capital Tuesday, as the United Nations warned “indiscriminate” gunfire and air strikes were hurting civilians the most.
Officials said insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah — capital of Helmand province and the scene of days of fierce fighting — leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.
In Herat, another city under siege, hundreds of residents chanted from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taliban assault.
The hard-line Islamist group has seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May, but are meeting resistance as they try to take provincial capitals.
That urban fighting, however, is taking its toll on civilians.
“Taliban ground offensive & ANA air strikes causing most harm,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted Tuesday, referring to the Afghan national army.
“Deep concerns about indiscriminate shooting & damage to/occupation of health facilities & civilian homes.”
“Fighting was intense this morning,” said Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in Helmand’s capital, whose station was captured by the Taliban.
“We stopped broadcasting two days ago because the Taliban captured the building of our station.”
Afghan officials said Tuesday that 11 radio and four television stations in the city had been seized by the Taliban.
“Terrorists do not want the media to publish the facts and expose their injustices,” the Ministry of Information and Culture said.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
In Herat, Afghan officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas of the city — including near the airport, which is vital for resupplies.
“Afghan security forces plus resistance forces launched a big operation in west of the city,” Jailani Farhad, spokesman for Herat’s governor, said.


COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount

COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount
Updated 03 August 2021

COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount

COVID-19 returns to China’s Wuhan as global Delta variant woes mount
  • A resurgent virus has returned with a vengeance, buoyed by stalling vaccination rates and deadly new mutations

BEIJING: Authorities in China’s Wuhan said Tuesday they would test the city’s entire population for COVID-19, as the virus returned to the place where it first emerged and the highly contagious Delta variant drove tightening lockdowns worldwide.
A resurgent virus has returned with a vengeance, buoyed by stalling vaccination rates and deadly new mutations even in places which had long touted their successes in overcoming the worst of the pandemic.
China brought domestic cases down to virtually zero after the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, allowing the economy to rebound and life to return largely to normal.
But a fresh outbreak has thrown that record into jeopardy, as the fast-spreading Delta variant reaches dozens of cities after infections among airport cleaners in Nanjing sparked a chain of cases that have been reported across the country.
In Wuhan — where the virus first emerged in December 2019 and which faced a grueling lockdown in the early months of the pandemic — authorities said they were launching a mass-testing program for all 11 million residents.
And across China, authorities have confined the residents of entire cities to their homes, cut domestic transport links and rolled out mass testing in recent days as the country battles its largest coronavirus outbreak in months.
Millions are also still under movement restrictions in Australia, where troops Monday hit the streets of the country’s largest city of Sydney and surrounding areas, which are entering the sixth week of a lockdown set to run until the end of August.
Authorities have been struggling to stop the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in the city — and to ensure that residents follow containment rules — with more than 3,600 cases recorded since mid-June.
With about 15 percent of Australia’s 25 million people fully vaccinated, authorities are still relying on lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus.


Philippine police arrest mole identified as Abu Sayyaf Group member

Philippine police arrest mole identified as Abu Sayyaf Group member
Updated 03 August 2021

Philippine police arrest mole identified as Abu Sayyaf Group member

Philippine police arrest mole identified as Abu Sayyaf Group member
  • Patarasa was brother-in-law of slain terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon

MANILA: Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar ordered an “intensified cleansing” of police ranks on Monday after a civilian personnel member was identified as a key member of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

In a statement, Eleazar said that police intelligence operatives arrested Masckur Adoh Patarasa, also known as “Makong” and “Omair Sali Taib,” on Friday in Jolo, Sulu.

According to the PNP chief, Patasar is the brother-in-law of the slain Daesh leader in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon, and an alleged finance and logistics officer of the ASG, considered the most violent militant group in the southern Philippines.

“Patarasa is an active non-uniformed personnel (NUP) of the PNP presently assigned at the Banguingui municipal police station, Sulu PPO, but was also a finance and logistics liaison officer of Dawlah Islamiyah and ASG and was included in the martial law arrest order no. 1 during the Marawi siege in 2017,” Eleazar said.

“Patarasa was arrested in Barangay Asturias, Jolo, Sulu at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, July 30, during an intelligence-driven police operation ... He is the subject of arrest warrants ... as an accused in seven separate cases of kidnapping and serious illegal detention,” he added.

Intelligence information on the suspect showed that “in May 2017, Patarasa, together with an unidentified individual linked with the ASG, planned to transact the sending of funds to Abu Sayyaf members fighting in Marawi City through his brother-in-law Isnilon Hapilon.”

Hapilon, also known as Abu Abdullah Al-Filipini, and named on the US’ most wanted list, was killed during the Marawi siege.

At that time, he was reported to be the Daesh emir or commander in the Philippines.

Eleazar said that Patarasa joined the ASG in 2001 under Khadaffy Janjalani in Basilan and later worked for ASG senior leader Radullan Sahiron in Sulu.

He was also reported to have direct contact with Malaysian terrorist Amin Baco, alias “Abu Jihad,” who was among those touted to have replaced Hapilon as the Daesh leader in the region.

“Deeper background investigation also disclosed that Patarasa received funds from Almaida Salvin, a designated terrorist included in the US Treasury’s sanctions list ... through (one) Merhama Sawari,” the PNP chief said without providing more details.

Salvin was arrested in Zamboanga City in April 2019 for the illegal possession of explosives, while Sawari was among four militants killed in a shootout with police in Paranaque City on June 20 last year.

Eleazar said that they were not discounting the possibility that Patarasa may have leaked information to the ASG, resulting in the failure of some police operations in Sulu.

“I am glad that our personnel were able to arrest the subject person; this still forms part of the intensified cleanliness policy that we are implementing. Cleanliness of the ranks should be maintained to regain the trust and confidence of the people in our organization,” Eleazar said.

He also ordered the PNP Internal Affairs Service (IAS) to fast-track dismissal proceedings against the suspect.

Further investigations are also being conducted to determine if other PNP personnel have links to the ASG or are involved in criminal or terroristic activities.

“We would also like to find out how Patarasa managed to enter the PNP despite having a string of cases and warrants of arrest under his name in connection with his being a member of the ASG,” Eleazar said, noting that intelligence information showed the suspect continued to carry out his role in the ASG while employed with the PNP.

Citing Patarasa’s case, Eleazar stressed the importance of cleansing the police ranks at the start or during the recruitment process. “This is one of the reasons why we thoroughly have to screen those who want to join the PNP, whether as a policeman or as a civilian employee.”

Eleazar commended police officers involved in Patarasa’s arrest, saying, “Your action is a reflection of our campaign to keep the organization free from persons with ill motives.”

He also urged all PNP members “to join hands in keeping the police organization respectable and true to its mandate to serve and protect the people.”


EU to aid Lithuania amid swelling migrant flows

Ylva Johansson. (Supplied)
Ylva Johansson. (Supplied)
Updated 03 August 2021

EU to aid Lithuania amid swelling migrant flows

Ylva Johansson. (Supplied)
  • Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing the border crossings

LONDON: EU officials have pledged millions of euros to Lithuania to help it tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on the government of neighboring Belarus and its President Alexander Lukashenko.
Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner of Home Affairs arrived in Lithuania on Sunday, a day on which a record 287 people walked into the EU territory from neighboring Belarus — more than three times as many as in the whole of last year.
“This is a provocation of the Lukashenko regime. We must show that there is no free access to EU territory,” Johansson said.
“Lithuania, the EU, the Schengen states must prevent illegal access to this area. That is why we, the whole EU, support Lithuania to defend our common external border with Belarus,” said Johansson.
So far this year, 3,832 migrants have been detained in Lithuania. That compares with 81 for the whole of 2020. More than two-thirds of the arrivals are Iraqi citizens.
Iraqi airlines have increased flights from Baghdad to Minsk from two to four a week from this month and are also starting flights from Basra, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing the border crossings.
It says the influx is an act of retaliation by Lukashenko.

This is a provocation of the Lukashenko regime. We must show that there is no free access to EU territory.

Ylva Johansson

Since his election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the West denounced as rigged, he has cracked down on opposition protests in his country, and his main election challenger fled to Lithuania.
The Lithuanian state border guard service announced on Monday that its capacity to accommodate new immigrants has reached its limit and urged the government to relocate people to other facilities.
“We have managed this until now, but I must admit we have reached the limit of our possibilities” said director of the service Rustamas Liubajevas.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte expressed hope the European Commission will be able to handle the rapidly deteriorating situation.
“The first task is to reduce the potential of the flow itself. The biggest expectation here is for the EU to be able to use its negotiating position with the Iraqi government” said Simonyte.
Johansson promised Lithuania would not be left alone.
“I will send a delegation that will spend a few days here to discuss in detail the possibility of funding a good border protection system that includes monitoring and protection against illegal migrants,” she said, adding that €20-30 million will be allocated to this purpose by 2022.
The Lithuania government wants to build a physical barrier with Belarus, which it estimates will cost more than €100 million.
EU funding is not usually permitted to finance the building of border barriers or fences.
“We will eventually build it no matter how much aid is sent by the EU. The border must be protected” Simonyte said.