A fresh Covid outbreak in China has spread to more locations, raising concerns over the country’s vulnerability to the highly contagious Delta variant.
More than 300 cases have been detected within a span of 10 days.
Chinese media is dominated by news on the outbreak, and the country’s top respiratory diseases specialist has reportedly expressed grave concern.
The government has imposed fresh travel restrictions and is testing millions.
It is unclear how many in China are fully vaccinated, although authorities say more than 1.6 billion doses have been administered so far.
A total of 15 provinces have now confirmed cases. Cases in 12 of the provinces are connected to an outbreak that began in Nanjing in eastern Jiangsu province. Authorities have attributed the spread to the Delta variant and the domestic tourism season.
In Zhuzhou, in central Hunan province, more than a million people have been told not to leave home for three days while mass testing and a vaccination drive is organised. The regional government described the situation there as “grim and complicated”. In other cities entire communities are being placed under emergency lockdown as cases of the Delta variant emerge.
The outbreak is the largest in China for months. The country was largely successful in controlling the virus within its borders last year.
Cases of the variant first emerged in July in Nanjing airport, among workers who had cleaned a plane that arrived from Russia.
Authorities promptly tested 9.2 million residents of Nanjing and imposed lockdown on hundreds of thousands of people.
But over the weekend the spotlight turned to popular tourist destination Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, where many of the latest cases have emerged. Travellers from Nanjing were thought to have visited the city recently.
Health officials have zeroed in on a theatre in Zhangjiajie, and are now trying to track down about 5,000 people who attended performances and then travelled back to their home cities.
One performance alone had hosted about 2,000 people, according to reports.
All attractions in Zhangjiajie have been closed and tourists are being asked to take a Covid test before leaving the city, local media reported.
“Zhangjiajie has now become the new ground zero for China’s epidemic spread,” Zhong Nanshan, China’s leading respiratory disease expert, told reporters.
The new outbreak has reached Beijing too, with the city reporting several locally transmitted infections.
All of Beijing’s air, bus and travel links to areas with positive cases have been cut. All tourists have also been banned from entering the capital, and officials are only allowing “essential travellers” with negative Covid tests to enter.
The virus has also reached Wuhan, in Hubei province, the Chinese city where Covid-19 first emerged, with seven people testing positive for the virus. According to Chinese state media, the city had seen zero locally transmitted infections since June 2020.
China is also battling a rise in cases in Zhengzhou in northern Henan province, which saw devastating floods just last month, as well as Hainan island to the south of the mainland.
The Global Times newspaper has called the outbreak the “most serious since Wuhan”, and in a separate editorial criticised “glaring loopholes” in Covid prevention measures.
“It is absolutely worrying if a single flaw can affect many provinces and regions across the country… it shows that our systematic progress in fighting the epidemic needs to be strengthened,” it said.
The outbreak has raised concerns about vaccines, as it emerged that some of those infected had been vaccinated.
Shao Yiming, a researcher with China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Saturday that breakthrough infections in vaccinated people “are expected”.
The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines – two of the most commonly used jabs in China – have been shown to be 50% to 79% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid infection in clinical trials around the world, but are highly effective in preventing hospitalisations or deaths.
EU fines banks including Barclays, NatWest and HSBC £293m for currency ‘cartel’
The EU has fined banks, including Barclays, NatWest and HSBC, a total of €344m (£293m) for roles in an alleged foreign exchange spot trading cartel.
The European Commission said the UK-based banks agreed to settle the case, alongside UBS which avoided a penalty because it had blown the whistle on the activity.
HSBC’s fine was the largest at €174.3m (£148m) while its Canary Wharf-headquartered neighbour Barclays was to pay €54.3m (£46m).
NatWest – which was known by its former RBS Group name at the time – faces a €32.5m (£28m) bill.
Credit Suisse was the other bank to be handed a fine – of €83m (£71m).Advertisement
The EU’s competition regulator said the cartel had focused on forex spot trading of G10 currencies, which include the US dollar, euro and UK pound.
The Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, said: “Today we complete our sixth cartel investigation in the financial sector since 2013 and conclude the third leg of our investigation into the foreign exchange spot trading market.
“Our cartel decisions to fine UBS, Barclays, RBS, HSBC and Credit Suisse send a clear message that the Commission remains committed to ensure a sound and competitive financial sector that is essential for investment and growth.
“Foreign exchange spot trading activities are one of the largest financial markets in the world. The collusive behaviour of the five banks undermined the integrity of the financial sector at the expense of the European economy and consumers”.
The fines are the latest to hit banks, which have received billions of pounds worth of penalties worldwide since the financial crisis of 2008 for the rigging of benchmarks used in many day-to-day financial transactions.
MI6: China becomes single greatest focus for intelligence service as country accused of large-scale espionage operations against UK
The MI6 chief’s most pointed language was reserved for the threat posed by China – one of what he described as the “big four” priorities alongside Russia, Iran, and international terrorism.
China has for the first time become the single greatest focus for MI6, with its chief warning the risk “is real” of a miscalculation by Beijing through underestimating western resolve to push back.
Pointing to Taiwan, Richard Moore said a desire by the ruling Chinese Communist Party – backed by an increasingly powerful military – to resolve a dispute over the territory’s sovereignty by force if necessary was a “serious challenge to global stability and peace”.
He also accused China of conducting “large-scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies” and he said countries globally should be “clear-eyed” when dealing with Beijing because of the potential to fall into a debt trap or to have data on their population exploited.
It is very unusual for such a senior security figure to speak in such stark terms about China.
In his first public speech as head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), Mr Moore covered other threats and challenges as well, warning:Advertisement
• Hostile actions by President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, such as undermining stability in the Western Balkans, are “on an upward trend”
• The threat to the West from al Qaeda and Islamic State in Afghanistan will “likely increase” now that US-led forces have left and countering it “is an extremely difficult task”
• His top-secret agency must become more open and partner with technology firms to compete in a world where digital threats are “growing exponentially”
He made a recruitment pitch, stressing the need to increase diversity in his workforce and attract people who might never have previously thought about becoming a spy.
“Come and join!” he said at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.
“There is no more important or – I believe – more exciting time to work for MI6.”
While there has yet to be a female head of SIS, it is understood that three of the top four posts underneath Mr Moore are currently held by women.
They comprise the deputy chief as well as two of three director generals.
The spymaster’s most pointed language was reserved for the threat posed by China – one of what he described as the “big four” priorities alongside Russia, Iran, and international terrorism.
“The tectonic plates are shifting as China’s power, and its willingness to assert it, grows,” he said
He revealed that resources focused by MI6 on China have this year surpassed the previous top priority of combatting terrorism in the wake of the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States.
“Adapting to a world affected by the rise of China is the single greatest priority for MI6,” the spy chief said. “We are deepening our understanding of China across the UK intelligence community and widening the options available to the government in managing the systemic challenges that it poses.”
This does not only mean gaining intelligence on what President Xi Jinping and his inner circle are thinking, it is also about how MI6 officers and the agents they run can operate undetected in a world where technology is making it harder for anyone to hide and for communications to stay secret.
He described the Chinese Intelligence Services as “highly capable”.
Mr Moore also voiced concern about efforts by the Chinese government “to distort public discourse and political decision making across the globe”.
The MI6 boss said the days of China hiding its strength and biding its time are over.
“Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washington’s resolve. The risk of Chinese miscalculation through over-confidence is real,” he said.
Mr Moore talked about the less obvious threat to a country of agreeing to Chinese loans to build infrastructure, such as ports or railway lines, only to become indebted.
Or the risk of accepting a Chinese technological solution to a problem only to find a backdoor built into the system that enables China to access data on a population.
It is still rare for a head of MI6 to speak publicly.
In fact, the first public speech by a serving chief only happened in 2010.
But they could start to happen more often as Mr Moore said this is a way to be more accountable, inspire people to join, and to be more open.
COVID-19 around the world: Japan bans foreigners as other nations tighten restrictions on travellers
As cases of the new Omicron variant emerge across Europe, many countries are imposing travel bans or increasing quarantine requirements.
Japan will close to all foreign travellers from Tuesday, in a bid to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.
It means the country will restore border controls it had only eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.
First detected by researchers in southern Africa, much is still not known about B.1.1.529 but there are fears it could be more contagious than other variants – and more resistant to vaccines.
Global concern about the new strain is growing, with countries confirming cases for the first time and travel restrictions being imposed once again.Advertisement
Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has limited effect, the World Health Organisation called for frontiers to remain open.
Here are the latest COVID-19 developments around the world.
The Japanese government has announced it will close its borders to all foreigners from Tuesday.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said: “We are responding to the Omicron variant with a strong sense of urgency.”
Over the weekend, Japan had tightened entry restrictions for people arriving from South Africa and eight other countries, requiring them to undergo a 10-day quarantine period.
On Saturday, Israel unveiled plans to ban all foreigners from entering the country, having already identified cases on home soil.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban would last for 14 days, if the proposals are approved.
So far, Israel has one confirmed case of the Omicron variant and seven suspected cases.
Phone-tracking technology is going to be used to locate carriers of the new variant, in an attempt to stop it being transmitted to others.
From Monday, the US is going to restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region.
American citizens and permanent US residents – along with spouses and close friends – will be exempt.
No cases linked to Omicron have been detected in the country so far.
But Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease specialist, told NBC that he wouldn’t be surprised if the variant is already in the States, adding: “When you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility… it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”
In separate developments, New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued a COVID-19 “disaster emergency” declaration on Friday, with infections and hospitalisations increasing in the state.
France’s health ministry said on Sunday that it had detected eight possible cases of the Omicron variant, with the government saying it would tighten restrictions to contain its spread.
Canada has detected two cases of the Omicron variant in Ontario, authorities announced on Sunday.
Health officials Christine Elliott and Kieran Moore said in a joint statement that the cases were found in two people who had recently been in Nigeria.
Ontario has focused rapid COVID-19 testing on travellers who have been to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
On Saturday, health officials confirmed that a case of the Omicron variant had been detected in Italy.
The business traveller had flown from Mozambique, landing in Rome on 11 November and returning to his home in Naples.
Five of his family members, including two children, have also tested positive. All are now isolating and have light symptoms.
The Omicron variant has also been detected in three travellers who arrived on a flight from South Africa on 24 November.
Two cases were detected in the southern state of Bavaria, the other in Hesse in the west of the country.
Germany, like other parts of Europe, was suffering under a new wave of cases before Omicron was detected.
Dutch health officials have detected 61 COVID-19 cases among people who flew from South Africa – 13 of which are confirmed to be Omicron.
The Dutch health minister said it was possible that there were more cases of the new COVID variant in the country.
The KLM airline expressed surprise at the high number of cases because all passengers had either tested negative or shown proof of vaccination before boarding flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Authorities in the country are now attempting to contact 5,000 passengers who have travelled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe since Monday.
The first case of the variant has been discovered in Switzerland, the government announced late on Sunday as the country tightened its entry restrictions. The case relates to a person who returned from South Africa around a week ago.
Quarantine requirements have been widened to a greater number of travellers in an attempt to stem the spread of the Omicron variant.
Those arriving from 19 countries, including the UK, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Egypt and Malawi must prevent a negative COVID-19 test and isolate for 10 days on arrival.
Direct flights have already been banned from South Africa and the surrounding region.
Despite cases being detected in Italy and Germany, both neighbours of Switzerland, travel restrictions have not been imposed on any countries it shares borders with.
From next month, British tourists will only be able to enter Spain if they can show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
Until now, unvaccinated travellers were allowed into the country if they could present a negative PCR test that was taken 72 hours before their arrival.
“The appearance of new variants causing (coronavirus) obliges an increase in restrictions,” the government said.
Spain’s Industry, Trade and Tourism department said approximately 300,000 British people who are resident in Spain will not be affected by the new measures.
All travellers arriving in the country will need to quarantine for at least seven days – with those arriving from southern Africa and Hong Kong having to self isolate for 14 days.
Indonesia is due to take over the presidency of the G20 on 1 December, and has said that delegates attending will not be affected by the restrictions.
Two cases of Omicron have been identified in Denmark in two travellers who arrived from South Africa.
Henrik Ullum, director of the State Serum Institute, said: “This was to be expected, and our strategy is therefore to continue intensive monitoring of the infection in the country.”
The pair have been put in isolation, and contacts are being traced.
Two cases of Omicron have also been found in Australia, in the state of New South Wales.
Again, the pair involved were on a flight from southern Africa, both had been vaccinated and were asymptomatic. They are now isolating, and 260 other people on the flight are also in isolation.
Anyone arriving in the state from southern African countries, and the Seychelles, have been told they must isolate for 14 days.
Still, the nation plans to press ahead with plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from 1 December.
New Zealand has announced it is restricting travel from nine southern African countries.
Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travellers, has also announced a ban on visitors from eight African countries.
The country’s foreign ministry said it is suspending all incoming air travel from around the world from Monday for two weeks.
In a tweet, it said the move had been taken to “preserve the achievements realised by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens”.