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WHO denies China pressured it to delay coronavirus alert


The World Health Organisation has dismissed as “false allegations” a German media report that it withheld information about the coronavirus following pressure from the Chinese government.

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The UN agency said in a statement that Der Spiegel’s report about a telephone conversation between WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 21 was “unfounded and untrue”.

Der Spiegel reported that Xi asked Tedros during the call to hold back information about human-to-human transmission of the virus, and delay declaring a pandemic.

The magazine quoted Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, BND, which declined to comment on Sunday.

Der Spiegel also claimed that the BND concluded up to six weeks of time to fight the outbreak had been lost due to China’s information policy.

The UN agency said Tedros and Xi “have never spoken by phone” and added that “such inaccurate reports distract and detract from WHO’s and the world’s efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic”.

It said that China confirmed human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus on January 20.

WHO officials issued a statement two days later, saying there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan but more investigation was necessary.

WHO did not declare COVID-19 a pandemic until February 11.

German, South Korea infections surge after restrictions eased

New coronavirus infections are accelerating again in Germany just days after its leaders loosened social restrictions, raising concerns that the pandemic could once again slip out of control.

The Robert Koch Institute for disease control says in a daily bulletin the number of people each sick person now infects – known as the reproduction rate, or R – had risen to 1.1. When it goes above 1, it means the number of infections is growing.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, bowing to pressure from leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states to restart social life and revive the economy, announced on Wednesday measures that included more shop openings and a gradual return to school.

At the same time, she launched an “emergency brake” to allow for the reimposition of restrictions if infections pick up again.

The Robert Koch Institute said on Sunday the confirmed number of new coronavirus cases had increased by a daily 667 to 169,218, while the daily death toll had risen by 26 to 7395.

It came as South Korea warned of a second wave of the new coronavirus as infections rebounded to a one-month high just as the authorities were starting to ease some pandemic restrictions.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” President Moon Jae-in told the nation on Sunday, saying a new cluster shows the virus can spread widely at any time, and warning of a second wave late this year.

The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 34 new infections, the highest since April 9, after a small outbreak emerged around a slew of nightclubs, prompting the authorities to temporary close all nightly entertainment facilities around the capital.

The death toll remained at 256.

The fresh outbreak comes just as the government was easing some social distancing restrictions and moving to fully reopen schools and businesses, in a transition from intensive social distancing to “distancing in daily life”.

“We must never lower our guard regarding epidemic prevention,” Moon said in a televised speech marking the third anniversary of his inauguration. “We are in a prolonged war. I ask everyone to comply with safety precautions and rules until the situation is over even after resuming daily lives.”

UK to ease restrictions

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the coronavirus lockdown will not end yet, urging people to “stay alert” to the risks as he outlined plans to begin slowly easing measures that have closed down much of the economy for nearly seven weeks.

Johnson announced a limited easing of restrictions, including allowing people to exercise outside more often and encouraging those who cannot work from home to return to their jobs.

“This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week,” he said in a televised address.

“Instead we are taking the first careful steps to modify our measures.”

Britain’s coronavirus death toll – 31,855 – is the second highest in the world, behind only the United States.

The UK’s death toll rose by 269 on Sunday, the Department of Health said.

The government’s decision to replace its “stay at home” slogan, drummed into the public for weeks, was criticised by opposition parties who called the new “stay alert” message too ambiguous.

Johnson earlier tweeted a new government poster with rules including “stay at home as much as possible”, “limit contact with other people” and “keep your distance if you go out”.

In his address, Johnson said people should continue to work from home if they could, but from Monday those who cannot, such as those working in construction and manufacturing, should be “actively encouraged to go to work”.

From Wednesday, people will be allowed to to take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise, he said, and can sit in the sun in their local park, drive to other destinations and play sports with members of their own household.

Until now, people have been expected to exercise outdoors once a day, do so locally, and – despite recent spells of warm weather – told not to go to parks to sit in the sun.

Social distancing rules must still be obeyed, Johnson said, adding that fines would be increased for those who break them.

He detailed an alert system ranging from level 1, where the virus is no longer present, to level 5, the most critical, that will allow the government to flag risks in different parts of England and to decrease or increase restrictions where necessary.

Johnson said that at the earliest by June 1, the government might be in a position to begin the phased re-opening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages.

At the earliest by July, and if the infection rates support it, there could be the re-opening of at least some of the hospitality industry and other public places, provided they are safe and enforce social distancing, he added.

With both the death rate and hospital admissions falling, Johnson said it would be “madness” to allow a second spike in infections.

Changes will be closely monitored at a local, regional and national level and the government would “not hesitate to put on the brakes” if there are outbreaks, he said.

While Johnson’s government was giving directions for England, it wants the United Kingdom’s other constituent nations – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – to take the same approach.

But there were immediate divisions, with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying she was sticking with the existing “stay at home” message.

Italy toll

Deaths from the COVID-19 epidemic in Italy have risen by 165 against 194 the day before, the Civil Protection Agency says as the daily tally of new cases fell to 802 from 1083 on the prior day.

The total death toll since the outbreak came to light on February 21 now stands at 30,560 the agency said on Sunday, the third highest in the world after those of the United States and Britain.

For the first time since early March new cases were under 1000 with the total number of confirmed cases amounting to 219,070, the third highest global tally behind those of the United States and Spain.

People registered as currently carrying the illness fell to 83,324 from 84,842 the day before.

There were 1027 people in intensive care on Sunday, edging down from 1034 on Saturday, maintaining a long-running decline.

Of those originally infected, 105,186 were declared recovered against 103,031 a day earlier.

The agency said 1.676 million people had been tested for the virus against 1.645 million on Saturday, out of a population of about 60 million.

On Monday, Italy started to gradually lift draconian restrictions the government had imposed in early March to contain the outbreak, allowing people to leave their homes more freely and companies to reopen.

France registered 70 new deaths from the coronavirus pandemic in the past 24 hours, the country’s lowest daily toll since the imposition of a strict lockdown in mid-March.

The last time France’s reported daily death toll was lower than Sunday’s figure was on March 17, the day the lockdown was introduced, when 27 deaths were confirmed.

At that time, however, deaths in care homes were not included in the count.

A total of 26,380 people have died in hospitals and nursing homes since the epidemic began.

Restrictions on public life in France are due to be gradually eased for the first time from Monday.

“The epidemic is still active and evolving, and we must continue our efforts to contain it as much as possible,” the ministry warned.

-with AAP

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