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UK PM Boris Johnson postpones lockdown easing in England

The rethink follows new restrictions for people in parts of northern England, after a spike in virus cases.

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Boris Johnson

London, Aug 1 : The further easing of lockdown restrictions in England – due to come in this weekend – has been postponed for at least two weeks, amid concerns over an increase in coronavirus cases.

Casinos and bowling alleys will remain shut, with Boris Johnson saying it was time to “squeeze the brake pedal”, the BBC reported.

Wedding receptions of up to 30 people were meant to be allowed as part of the changes but cannot yet happen.

Face coverings will be mandatory in more indoor settings, such as cinemas.

People attending places of worship will also be required to wear face coverings, in a change that will be applied from next weekend.

But planned changes to guidance for those who have been shielding during the pandemic, and advice for employers, will still go ahead.

Johnson made the comments during a special Downing Street briefing, where he was joined by England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.

Prof Whitty warned that it might not be possible to ease the lockdown any further, explaining that the “idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control” is wrong.

Asked whether it was safe for England’s schools to open fully to all pupils in the autumn, he said it was a “difficult balancing act” but “we have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”.

The rethink follows new restrictions for people in parts of northern England, after a spike in virus cases.

The prime minister said progress against coronavirus continues, with the daily and weekly number of deaths falling, but warned that some European countries are “struggling” to control it. The UK must be ready to “react”, he said.

A further 120 people have died with the virus in the UK, according to the latest figures, and 880 new cases have been recorded.

Highlighting the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Johnson added: “The prevalence of the virus in the community, in England, is likely to be rising for the first time since May.”

He said that the reopening of society had always been “conditional” on “continued progress against the virus”, but with “numbers creeping up” it was time to “squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control”.

He urged people to “follow the rules, wash our hands, cover our faces, keep our distance – and get a test if we have symptoms”, summing the advice up with a new slogan: “Hands, face, space, get a test”.

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‘Horror show’: Massive explosion in Beirut kills dozens, wounds thousands in Lebanon’s capital

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Beirut Blast

BEIRUT : A huge explosion in a port warehouse district near the centre of Beirut killed more than 73 people, injured over 3,700 others and sent shockwaves across the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, shattering windows and causing apartment balconies to collapse.

Officials expected the death toll to rise sharply as emergency workers dug through rubble across a swathe of the city to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful blast to hit Beirut in years, making the ground tremble.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere – in all the streets and areas near and far from the explosion.”

Three hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

A security source said victims were being taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were already packed with wounded. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to cope with the huge casualty toll.

The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and, wounded, people walked through streets searching for relatives.

Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. The minister later told Al Jadeed TV ammonium nitrate had been in storage there since 2014.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast, sending a ball of white smoke and fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (more than a mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Lebanon’s health minister said more than 25 people had been killed and more than 2,500 were injured. Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.

DAY OF MOURNING

Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an emergency meeting of the country’s Supreme Defence Council, according to the presidency’s Twitter account. Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.

The explosion occurred three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people.

Hariri was killed in another huge blast on the waterfront, although on that occasion it was caused by a truck bomb.

It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday’s blaze that set off the blast.

Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations. An Israeli official said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with the blast.

The governor of Beirut port told Sky News that a team of firefighters at the scene had “disappeared” after the explosion.

“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” said a Reuters witness.

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east). In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast bangs. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.

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India’s Covid-19 testing rate lower than other nations, says WHO Chief Scientist

The Chief Scientist of WHO, Soumya Swaminathan, in an interactive session through video conference said,as of now about 28 vaccine candidates for Covid-19 are under clinical trial, of which five are entering Phase-II and over 150 candidates are in pre-clinical trials across the globe.

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Soumya Swaminathan

Noting that lockdown was a temporary measure to contain the spread of coronavirus, a senior official of the World Health Organisation on Tuesday said India has a low testing rate when compared to some of the countries that are successfully trying to curb it.

The Chief Scientist of WHO, Soumya Swaminathan, in an interactive session through video conference said,as of now about 28 vaccine candidates for Covid-19 are under clinical trial, of which five are entering Phase-II and over 150 candidates are in pre-clinical trials across the globe.

“India as a whole, the testing rates are much lower compared to some of the countries, who have done well like Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan.

Even the United States is testing a huge number of people. So we need to have some benchmark and every public health department needs to have benchmarks on what is the rate of testing per lakh or per million, what is the test positivity rate,” she said.

Without adequate number of tests, fighting the virus is like “fighting fire blindfolded,” she pointed out.

According to Swaminathan, the number of tests being conducted is not adequate if the Covid-19 test positivity rate is above five per cent.

Governments need to constantly monitor the availability of beds, quarantine facilities, ICUs and oxygen supplies in district hospitals.

“So there is a set of 8 to 10 indicators that the government needs to keep a close watch on. And you can ramp up or ramp down based on what you are seeing on the ground,” she said.

Observing that the scientists’ community was still studying the body’s immune response to coronavirus and the next 12 months were crucial to put in place the public health and social measures, she said the virus has spread to every country in the world and “established community transmission”.

“We know that lockdowns are temporary measures or a temporary measure which reduces the spread because it prevents people from getting closer together and the idea of the lockdown is to buy time for the government to put in place the system needed to tackle the virus,” the WHO official said.

On the ongoing vaccine trials, she said the WHO has issued guidelines on it and if the efficacy rate of the vaccine is 70 percent, then it is considered to be a good one.

On the COVAX facility, a mechanism designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, Swaminathan said by the end of 2021 it is aimed to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification.

All the 194 member countries of the WHO need to come together and take a decision on the way they want to proceed for the equitable and fair distribution of vaccine (once successfully comes out) and other products that are being developed for Covid-19, she opined.

Krishna Ella, Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Biotech, which is into developing Covaxin, a vaccine candidate for Covid-19,said the Centre needs to decetralise some of the regulating authorities such as Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO for faster approvals.

Telangana Minister for IT and Industries KT Rama Rao acted as a moderator for the session titled The Vaccine Race- Balancing Science and Urgency.

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Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan Tests Covid Positive, Hospitalised

Dharmendra Pradhan had last week met Home Minister Amit Shah, who was admitted to Medanta on Sunday after testing positive of coronavirus, sources said.

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Dharmendra Pradhan

Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has tested positive for the Coronavirus and has been admitted to the Medanta Hospital in Haryana’s Gurugram.

Pradhan has been admitted to the same hospital where Union Home Minister Amit Shah is being treated for Coronavirus.

Pradhan is the second Union Minister to have tested positive for the virus.

Pradhan, 51, had developed COVID-like symptoms on Monday and was tested on Tuesday.

“After seeing symptoms of COVID-19, I got tested. The report has come positive,” he tweeted. “On the advice of doctors, I have been admitted to hospital and I am healthy.”

Sources said Pradhan had last week met Home Minister Amit Shah, who was admitted to Medanta on Sunday after testing positive of coronavirus. His staff too had earlier tested positive and has been isolation since.

Pradhan is one of the several high-profile names to have tested positive.

Others include Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa and former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddharamaiah.

Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit has also been diagnosed with the infection and is being treated at privately-owned Kauvery Hospital

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