Coronavirus | Delta variant forces new lockdowns

Australia’s largest city Sydney entered a two-week lockdown on Saturday to contain a sudden coronavirus surge and Russia’s Saint Petersburg announced a record death toll, as several European nations lifted restrictions despite the global spread of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant.

While vaccination drives have brought down infections in numerous — mostly wealthy — countries, the rise of the Delta variant has stoked fears of new waves of a virus that has already killed nearly four million people.

Bangladesh announced that it would impose a new national lockdown from Monday over the variant, with offices shut for a week and only medical-related transport allowed.

Sydney’s normally bustling harbourside centre was nearly deserted after people were ordered to stay home except for essential trips.

New Zealand, citing “multiple outbreaks” in Australia, announced a three-day suspension of its quarantine-free travel arrangement with its larger neighbour.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the suspension would give officials time to consider measures “to make the bubble safer, such as pre-departure testing for all flights” between the two countries.

Sydney’s new restrictions apply to some five million people, along with hundreds of thousands of others living in nearby towns.

Many are reeling from the shock of the sudden outbreak, in a city that had returned to relative normality after months with very few cases.

“We’ve been struggling to get back from the lockdowns of last year,” said Chris Kriketos, 32, who works at a bakery in central Sydney.

“Today just feels like another kick while you’re slowly getting up.”

Highest Russian city toll

Globally, the pandemic is still slowing down, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting the lowest number of new cases worldwide since February and decreasing deaths attributed to Covid-19.

But concerns over the Delta variant have prompted new restrictions in countries that had previously managed to bring the virus under control.

“There is currently a lot of concern about the Delta variant,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a Friday press conference.

“Delta is the most transmissible of the variants identified so far, has been identified in at least 85 countries and is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations.”

Russia’s Euro 2020 host Saint Petersburg on Saturday reported the country’s highest daily Covid-19 death toll for a city since the start of the pandemic.

Official figures said the city, which has already hosted six Euro 2020 matches and is due to host a quarter-final next Friday, recorded 107 virus deaths over the last 24 hours.

Russia has seen an explosion of new cases since mid-June, driven by the Delta variant, which has now spread to Europe.

Meanwhile in Europe, Spain nonetheless brought an end to mandatory outdoor mask-wearing on Saturday, a year after the rule was first introduced during Europe’s devastating first wave of the virus.

The Netherlands also ended its rules on outdoor mask-wearing.

Israel, which has one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, has seen infections linked to the variant surge.

Infections are also surging at an alarming rate in at least 12 countries in Africa, with the Delta variant fuelling unprecedented hospitalisations in the continent.

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