WHO deploys surge team to South Africa to tackle Omicron variant

Germany has imposed restrictions on unvaccinated amid Covid surge

 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is deploying a surge team to South Africa’s Gauteng province, the epicentre of the outbreak of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, to help with surveillance and contact tracing, it said on Thursday.

The WHO’s regional emergency director for Africa, Salam Gueye, also said it was providing technical assistance to boost the production and distribution of medical oxygen in Botswana, where Omicron has also been detected.

One case of the Omicron variant has been identified in the Republic so far. The case involved a person who travelled to Ireland from a country in southern Africa before restrictions on that area were in place.

Meanwhile, in Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel has said that people who are not vaccinated will be excluded from non-essential shops, cultural and recreational venues, and that parliament will consider a general vaccine mandate, as part of efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus.

She made the announcement as more than 70,000 newly confirmed infections were reported in the country in a 24-hour period.

Speaking after a meeting with federal and state leaders, Dr Merkel said the measures were necessary in light of concerns that hospitals in Germany could become overloaded with people suffering Covid-19 infections, which were more likely to be serious in those who had not been vaccinated.

“The situation in our country is serious,” Dr Merkel told reporters in Berlin, calling the measure an “act of national solidarity”. She said officials had also agreed to require masks in schools, impose new limits on private meetings and aim for 30 million vaccinations by the end of the year.

Dr Merkel also said that parliament would debate the possibility of imposing a general vaccine mandate that would come into force as early as February.About 68.7 per cent of the population in Germany is fully vaccinated, below the minimum of 75 per cent the government is aiming for.

Finance minister Olaf Scholz, who is expected to be elected chancellor by a centre-left coalition next week, said on Tuesday that he backed a general vaccine mandate, but favoured letting politicians vote according to their personal conscience rather than along party lines on the matter.

The rise in Covid-19 cases over the past several weeks and the arrival of the new Omicron variant have prompted warnings from scientists and doctors that medical services in the country could become overstretched in the coming weeks unless drastic action is taken.

Some hospitals in the south and east of the country have already transferred patients to other parts of Germany because of a shortage of intensive care beds.

Agreeing what measures to take has been complicated by Germany’s political structure – with the 16 states responsible for many of the regulations – and the ongoing transition at the federal level.

Germany’s disease control agency reported 73,209 newly confirmed cases on Thursday. The Robert Koch Institute also reported 388 new deaths from Covid-19, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 102,178. – PA/Reuters