Virus cases up in Norway, Germany, Brazil

·4-min read

A rise in coronavirus cases in Norway, the Netherlands and Germany has prompted local authorities to step up restrictions while the World Health Organisation called a surge in infections in Brazil dangerous.

Norway is introducing new measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak, including a ban on the public serving of alcohol, and will postpone the introduction of a plan to reopen society, Health Minister Bent Hoeie said on Tuesday.

The government had originally planned to present a plan in late March for the gradual unwinding of its COVID-19 restrictions.

Norway has had some of Europe's lowest rates of infections and deaths since the start of the pandemic early last year but is now registering a rapid increase in hospitalisations led by more contagious variants of the virus.

"The situation in Norway is unstable, with rising infection rates in recent weeks," Hoeie told a news conference.

"We're worried by the potential consequences if many people travel and meet others during the Easter holiday," he said.

Norwegian schools are due to go on Easter break from March 27-April 6.

Anyone returning from a holiday abroad will be forced to undergo 10 days of quarantine at a designated hotel, stricter than the current rule that allows holiday-makers to leave quarantine facilities after three days if they test negative.

Norwegians should also begin keeping a two-metre distance to anyone not living in their own household, double the current recommendation, and have no more than two guests at home, Hoeie said.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Tuesday that the government will extend lockdown measures by three weeks until April 20 due to rising numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions.

Rutte also said that a recommendation that people not travel abroad was being extended until May 15.

The German government's decision to extend its lockdown until April 18 and tighten measures over Easter came under fire from the opposition and industry on Tuesday, with many arguing the steps will not break a third wave of infections.

The Easter shutdown, which starts on April 1, is "too little, too late" in stopping an exponential rise in new cases, said Janosch Dahmen, a health expert and Greens MP.

"In the period from today until Easter, many more people will be infected," he said.

"Comprehensive rapid tests, accelerated vaccination and consistent, digital contact-tracing are urgently required in order to finally be able to use smarter methods than shutdown."

Economists and industry associations also criticised the government's strategy.

The Easter lockdown showed that "the opening strategy of the last few weeks has failed," Clemens Fuest of the Ifo economic research institute told the Handelsblatt business daily, referring to steps to allow some businesses to reopen from the beginning of March.

The comments come just hours after Chancellor Angela Merkel and the head of Germany's 16 states hammered out an agreement to extend the current lockdown and to toughen existing measures for a five-day period, during talks that stretched from Monday afternoon to Tuesday morning.

Public and private life are to come to a virtual standstill during the long Easter holiday weekend, from April 1 through 5.

Shops are to remain closed throughout, except for grocery stores and supermarkets which will be allowed to be open on Saturday, April 3.

Public gatherings are also banned during that time but COVID-19 testing and vaccination centres will remain open.

Markus Soeder, the powerful premier of the southern state of Bavaria, criticised the way the talks had been conducted.

"Talks that last 15 hours - during which the essential decisions are made between 1 and 3 o'clock in the morning - carry the risk of leaving details unclarified and communication becomes more difficult, especially when it comes to sensitive questions," he said.

WHO regional director for the Americas Carissa Etienne warned on Tuesday that the coronavirus is surging "dangerously" across Brazil, urging people to adopt preventive measures to stop the spread.

"Unfortunately, the dire situation in Brazil is also affecting neighbouring countries," Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), said in a briefing.

Cases have risen in Venezuela's Bolivar and Amazonas states as well as in border regions of Peru and Bolivia, she said.

"The COVID-19 virus is not receding, nor is the pandemic starting to go away," Etienne said.

Cases continue to spike in Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, according to PAHO.