Coronavirus live news: EU rollout of Pfizer vaccine may be disrupted; Philippines to ban arrivals from US

India has asked China to allow two Indian cargo ships that have been stranded for months near two Chinese ports because of the pandemic to rapidly unload their cargoes or replace their 39 crew members.

“There is growing stress on the crew members on account of the long delay,” Indian external affairs ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said. “We expect that this assistance will be provided in an urgent, practical and timebound manner, given the grave humanitarian situation that is developing onboard the ships.”

The vessels are among ships from various countries waiting to unload their cargoes at Jintang and Caofeidian ports, he said, according to the Associated Press.

Chinese authorities have conveyed that a crew change is not permitted at the ports because of Covid-related restrictions. Beijing has suggested that the shipping company may apply for a crew rotation at Tianjin port, the spokesman said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said local authorities have been maintaining close communication with Indian officials and were providing assistance.

“Some Chinese ports allow crew changes under the premise of complying with the relevant epidemic prevention regulations, but Jintang port and Caofeidian port are not included in this list. It is up to the freighter to decide whether to adjust its operating arrangements,’’ Wang said last week.

The Indian cargo vessel MV Jag Anand of the Great Eastern Shipping Company has been at anchor near Jingtang in Hebei province since 13 June with 23 Indian crew members on board. Another vessel, MV Anastasia, with 16 Indian crew members, has been near Caofeidian since 20 September. Both are waiting to discharge their cargoes before leaving the ports.

The UK economy begins 2021 on the back foot as record numbers of coronavirus infections and tougher restrictions cloud the outlook for growth and limit the chances of a rapid recovery from the country’s worst recession in 300 years.

There had been hopes that the arrival of successful Covid vaccines could prompt a rebound in activity. But with new government controls to combat the rising infection rate, the outlook is deteriorating.

Global humanitarian figures and NGOs have urged world leaders to urgently make Covid-19 vaccinations available to millions of refugees and others displaced by war, as the pandemic continues to overwhelm some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The impact of the contagion has sharply intensified across the Middle East in recent weeks, matching soaring global numbers. It has been further amplified by drastically under-resourced medical responses that cannot cope with the numbers of dying or seriously ill people.

The Philippines is to ban visitors coming from the US from entering the country, a presidential spokesman said on Friday.

The ban will be in place from 3 to 15 January as an additional measure to contain the spread of the new, more contagious coronavirus variant.

The US is the 20th area to be included in the Philippines’ list of countries subjected to travel restrictions.

Passengers coming from the US, or that have passed through the US, who will arrive before Sunday are allowed to enter the country, but they are required to complete the 14-day facility-based quarantine regardless of their RT-PCR test result, CNN Philippines reports.

The US confirmed its first known case of the new coronavirus variant on 30 December. The patient, a man in his 20s, was found to have the new Covid-19 variant.

About 2,500 partygoers attended an illegal New Year’s Eve rave in an empty warehouse in north-west France, violently clashing with police who failed to stop it and sparking concern the underground event could spread coronavirus, authorities said on Friday.

The revellers had set up the illegal rave in Lieuron, south of Rennes in Brittany after skirmishes with police, said a statement from the local prefecture. Many were still on the site on Friday as a sanitary cordon was thrown up around it.

Local gendarmes tried to “prevent this event but faced fierce hostility from many partygoers” who set one of their cars of fire and threw bottles and stones, the statement said, adding that those present had come from across France and even abroad.

Such mass gatherings are strictly prohibited across France to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and an 8pm curfew – which was not lifted for New Year’s Eve – applies across the country.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the illegal organisation of a musical gathering and premeditated violence against persons in authority.

Vehicles registered from all over France were still parked at the site on Friday and many revellers were present as loud music continued, an AFP journalist said.

In the southern city of Marseille, security forces halted an illegal party of about 300 people, police said. More than 150 people were warned and the three suspected organisers have been arrested.

The interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, said that 132,000 police had been deployed across France for the new year celebrations to ensure security and that the curfew was respected.

France is to speed up its Covid-19 vaccination programme after the government was criticised for being overly cautious in favour of vaccine sceptics.

The health minister, Olivier Véran, announced on Thursday evening that the vaccine would be made available to health workers over the age of 50 from Monday.

Nursing and medical staff had not been expected to get the vaccination until the end February according to the government’s original timetable.

The announcement came after ministers and officials were accused of pandering to anti-vaxxers in rolling out the vaccine.

Five days after launching its vaccine programme, the last figures available suggest just 332 people in France have been inoculated. Germany reported having given about 130,000 people the Covid-19 vaccine in the same period, and Italy 8,300. Spain said it was on track to have administered 1.3m doses by Thursday evening.

My colleague Kim Willsher has more.

India’s drug regulator on Friday approved a coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University for emergency use, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

A representative of India’s Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), whose experts were meeting for the second time this week, declined to comment.

The approval paves the way for its rollout in the world’s second worst affected country.

The UK and Argentina have already authorised the vaccine for urgent public use.

India wants to start administering the shots soon. It is also considering emergency-use authorisation applications for vaccines made by Pfizer Inc with Germany’s BioNTech, and by India’s Bharat Biotech.

At more than 10 million, India has reported the second highest number of coronavirus cases after the US, though its rate of infection has come down significantly from a mid-September peak.

Covid-19 has killed at least 1,818,946 people worldwide since the outbreak emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by Agence France-Presse at 11am GMT on Friday.

At least 83,381,330 cases of coronavirus have been registered. Of these, at least 52,534,200 are now considered recovered.

These figures are based on daily tolls provided by health authorities in each country and exclude later re-evaluations by statistical organisations, as has happened in Russia, Spain and the UK.

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of tests conducted has greatly increased while testing and reporting techniques have improved, leading to a rise in reported cases.

The number of diagnosed cases, however, is only a part of the real total number of infections as a significant number of less serious or asymptomatic cases always remain undetected.

On Thursday, 13,629 new deaths and 728,621 new cases were recorded worldwide.

Based on latest reports, the countries with the most new deaths were the US with 3,426, followed by Brazil with 1,074 and the UK with 964.

In the early days of the pandemic, Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its civilians, tracking people’s cellphones in hopes of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

The government touted the technology, normally used to catch wanted Palestinian militants, as a breakthrough against the virus. But months later, the tool’s effectiveness is being called into question and critics say its use has come at an immeasurable cost to the country’s democratic principles, the Associated Press reports.

“The idea of a government watching its own citizens this closely should ring the alarm,” said Maya Fried, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has repeatedly challenged the use of the tool in court. “This is against the foundations of democracy. You can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis.”

Little is known about the technology. According to the Yediot Ahronot daily, the Shin Bet internal security service has used the tool for two decades, sweeping up metadata from anyone who uses telecom services in Israel.

Information collected includes the cellular device’s location, web browsing history and calls and texts received and made, but not their content. That has reportedly helped the agency track militants and halt attacks, although it is unclear what happens to all of the data.

Israel first brought the Shin Bet into its virus outbreak battle in March. By tracking the movements of infected people, it could determine who had come into contact with them and was at risk of infection, and order them into quarantine.

With the limited contact tracing capabilities of Israel’s health ministry, the Shin Bet was seen as the best option to pick up the slack, even though its own leaders were reluctant to deploy the tool. The Shin Bet declined to comment.

Officials say the technology has been a critical tool in keeping track of the outbreak and insist they have struck a balance between protecting individual rights and public health.

“We believe that the cost is certainly reasonable,” Yoav Kisch, the deputy health minister, told a parliamentary committee last month. “We haven’t seen this tool be used exploitatively. This tool saves lives.”

Initially, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used emergency regulations to approve the use of the tool. After the hasty deployment was challenged in court, the government was forced to legislate limits on its use in July, submitting it to some parliamentary oversight.

Critics say there is no proper oversight on how the Shin Bet data is gathered, stored, used or deleted.

Ireland correspondent

Surging Covid-19 infection rates in Northern Ireland have stretched hospitals and the ambulance service to breaking point.

Overall bed occupancy is at 100%, with just six beds left empty, and people in need of ambulances have been warned of lengthy delays in response times.

About 160 Northern Ireland ambulance service employees – a third to a quarter of frontline staff – are off work for pandemic-related reasons, the agency said in a statement. “This has put our service under even more pressure and we anticipate that callers to 999 may, at times, experience a delay in having their calls answered.”

Nigel Ruddell, the ambulance service medical director, put the crisis in starker terms. “It’s like fighting with one’s hand tied behind one’s back,” he told the BBC.

On Thursday there were 467 hospital inpatients who had tested positive for coronavirus, with 34 in intensive care units. The region recorded 11 deaths and 1,929 infections.

The health minister, Robin Swann, appealed to people to avoid socialising. “If you choose to meet others outside your household this new year you may well be inviting an unexpected guest to the party.”