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In reversal, UK says it will make masks mandatory in shops

July 14, 2020

LONDON (AP) — The British government decided Monday to require people to wear face coverings in shops, joining a long list of countries that have made masks mandatory under some circumstances in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

After weeks of prevarication and days of confused messaging, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said that masks will be required in stores starting July 24. Johnson’s office said “growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from coronavirus.”

Those who flout the law can be fined up to 100 pounds ($125) by the police under public health laws. Many European nations, including Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece, already require masks to be worn in enclosed spaces, but Britain had only made masks obligatory on public transit.

Johnson’s government until now recommended – but did not require – mask-wearing in stores. The prime minister, who in the spring spent a week in the hospital being treated for COVID-19, was not seen in public in a mask until Friday, when he suggested that the government was considering “stricter” rules for mask use.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove suggested Sunday that no government order was required, saying he trusted people to use “common sense.” The opposition Labour Party questioned Monday why the new mask measure would not come into force for 11 days. Labour health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said the government “has been slow and muddled again over face coverings.”

The new requirement only applies to in England. Scotland already made masks mandatory in stores. Scientific opinion has been divided on the value of face coverings, but a growing body of evidence suggests it brings some benefit in preventing the spread of the virus.

Serbia’s leader not worried about losing power amid protests

July 10, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president said Friday he’s not worried about losing political power amid large protests against his handling of the coronavirus crisis and hard-line rule, but instead expressed his fear about the spread of the virus by the demonstrators.

“It is so irresponsible to call upon people to gather and demonstrate when we are faced with the most horrific numbers of infections from the coronavirus,” President Aleksandar Vucic told reporters during his state visit to France.

“I beg people, please let’s keep our health safe. Nobody is going to take power by force. Power is taken at the elections. You can protest as much as you want when the epidemic is over,” Vucic said. “If you don’t understand this, and you want to bring some tycoons to power — let me tell you — this is not going to happen.”

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Friday announced the highest daily number of deaths, 18, since the start of the pandemic in the Balkan country. She also recorded 386 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours. That makes over 17,300 confirmed cases and 352 deaths since March.

Brnabic said that in three to four days, “the consequences of the protests will have to be seen.” After two nights of violent protests and clashes with police, peaceful demonstrations were held in the capital of Belgrade and several other Serbian towns on Thursday. A few people wore face masks.

Defying a ban on mass gatherings passed by the government on Thursday, many protesters wore white T-shirts with the inscription, “Sit Down, Don’t Be Set Up” — referring to widespread reports that the violence the previous nights that played into the government’s hands was staged by far-right groups close to the authorities.

The opposition Alliance for Serbia coalition said in a statement that Vucic’s regime on Thursday apparently “gave hooligans a night off’’ while he attended a summit in Paris that is focusing on peace talks between Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo.

“With the peaceful protests last night, people showed in what kind of a country they want to live,” the statement said. “We had an almost normal day when Vucic was not in town, without him playing around with the protests, the pandemic and our lives.”

Vucic denied that “hooligans,” who were seen beating up the protesters, are under his control, claiming they were brought in by the opposition. The spontaneous protests started on Tuesday when Vucic announced that Belgrade would be placed under a new three-day lockdown following a second wave of confirmed coronavirus infections.

The protests then mushroomed into wider frustration with Vucic’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The unrest, considered the most intense since the overthrow of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2,000, continued although Vucic suspended his decision to enforce a second shutdown.

After initially handling the pandemic relatively well, Vucic and his government have been accused of allowing the crisis to spin out of control in order to hold a June 21 election that tightened his grip on power.

Opponents blame the president for contributing to the large spike in deaths and new cases after he entirely lifted previous very tight lockdown measures. Mass gatherings at soccer and tennis matches and at nightclubs were allowed despite warnings by experts that this could lead to a spike in infections.

Serbian officials denounced the protests as an attempt to overthrow the government and weaken Vucic’s position in the European Union-mediated negotiations on Kosovo, a former province whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade doesn’t recognize.

More protests are scheduled for Friday.

Europe fears complacency; virus hits ‘full speed’ in Africa

July 09, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Asian and European officials pleaded with their citizens Thursday to respect modest precautions as several countries saw coronavirus outbreaks accelerate or sought to prevent new flare-ups, while the virus showed no signs of slowing its initial advance in Africa and the Americas.

Following two nights of anti-lockdown protests in Serbia, authorities banned mass gatherings in the capital of Belgrade amid an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases. Officials elsewhere in Europe warned of the risk of new flareups due to lax social distancing, while officials in Tokyo and Hong Kong reviewed nightclubs, restaurants and other public gathering spots as a source of their latest cases.

Infections mounted at a frightening speed in the countries with the world’s highest confirmed caseloads — the United States, India and Brazil. Between them, the three account for the majority of new cases worldwide reported daily.

India on Thursday reported 25,000 new cases; the United States on Wednesday reported just short of the record 60,000 cases set a day earlier, and Brazil reported nearly 45,000. In the U.S., the total number of confirmed cases has passed 3 million — meaning nearly one in every 100 people has been confirmed as infected

The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the continent would be wise to prepare for the worst-case scenario as virus-related deaths passed 12,000 and confirmed cases climbed fast. A day after confirmed virus cases across Africa surpassed half a million, the total was over 522,000, and the actual number of cases is unknown since testing levels are low.

’We’ve crossed a critical number here,” Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said of the half-million milestone. “Our pandemic is getting full speed.” Much of Europe appeared to have put the worst of the crisis behind it, at least for now. But Serbia has emerged as a new focus of concern — and of unrest. On Thursday, authorities banned gatherings of more than 10 people in Belgrade, the capital, in what they said was an effort to prevent the further spread of the virus. They also ordered shorter working hours for businesses such as cafes and shops.

“The health system in Belgrade is close to breaking up,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said. “That is why I can’t understand what we saw last night and the night before.” “It will cost us, there is no doubt,” Brnabic said, referring to the possible spread of the virus after large protests which featured little social distancing or mask-wearing.

Serbia, which has a population of about 6.9 million, has confirmed more than 17,000 cases of the new coronavirus, including 341 deaths. A few hundred new infections are being reported daily. Critics accuse President Aleksandar Vucic of letting the crisis spin out of control by lifting an earlier lockdown to allow for an election last month that tightened his grip on power.

Vucic’s announcement this week that new measures would include a lockdown sent thousands into the streets, and rock-throwing demonstrators fought running battles with special police forces. The new government measures don’t include the originally planned weekend curfew, but effectively ban further protests.

Flare-ups of new virus cases are causing concern in several parts of the world, and in some cases leading to the reintroduction of restrictions on public activity. In France and Greece, officials warned that people were too frequently ignoring safety guidance. The French government’s leading coronavirus adviser, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, lamented that “the French in general have abandoned protective measures.”

“Everyone must understand that we are at the mercy of a return (of the virus) in France,” Delfraissy said. “It suffices to have one super-spreader in a gathering and it will take off again.” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said authorities were “determined to protect the majority from the frivolous few.” He said the government may announce new restrictions, if needed, on Monday.

Petsas said authorities were focused on the rising number of cases in nearby Balkan countries and tourists who traveled to Greece over the land border with Bulgaria. In Australia, which had initial success containing the outbreak, authorities on Thursday reported 179 new cases, most in Melbourne, where authorities are battling a resurgence and have imposed a new six-week lockdown.

Tokyo confirmed more than 220 new cases Thursday, exceeding its record daily increase from mid-April and prompting concerns of widening of the infections. Tokyo’s more than 7,000 cases are about one-third of Japan’s total.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters. “We need to use extra caution against the further spread of the infections.” Experts on Tokyo’s virus task force said the majority of recent cases were linked to night clubs but rising infections from households, workplaces and parties raised concerns the virus is spreading in the wider community.

Hong Kong moved to tighten social-distancing measures after it reported 42 new infections on Thursday. Rules for restaurants, bars and fitness centers will be tightened for two weeks starting Saturday.

In India, research by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai shows that the reproduction rate of the virus ticked up in the first week of July to about 1.2 after it had steadily fallen from a peak of 1.8 in March. The rate needs to be below one for new cases to start falling.

Moulson reported from Berlin. Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

Serbia bans mass gatherings after virus lockdown protests

July 09, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbian authorities on Thursday banned gatherings of more than 10 people in the capital, Belgrade, after two nights of violent clashes between police and thousands of demonstrators protesting coronavirus lockdown measures.

Thousands of people defied the ban to stage a sit down protest Thursday night in front of Parliament, along with other peaceful gatherings in towns elsewhere in Serbia. Many protesters wore white T-shirts with the inscription, “Sit Down, Don’t Be Set Up” — referring to widespread claims that the violence the previous nights was staged by hooligan groups close to the authorities to smear the opposition groups’ image.

“This is how the protest should really look like, without their mad dogs present,” said one of the main opposition leaders, Dragan Djilas. Despite no police intervention, there were several skirmishes between peaceful protesters and the far-right groups, but no clashes like the violence of the previous two nights.

Serbia’s government crisis team said the restrictions imposed Thursday were intended to prevent the virus’ further spread following two nights of clashes, during which few people wore face masks. In addition to limiting gatherings, businesses in closed spaces, such as cafes, shopping malls or shops, were ordered to operate shorter hours.

“The health system in Belgrade is close to breaking up,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said. “That is why I can’t understand what we saw last night and the night before.” The clashes followed an announcement from President Aleksandar Vucic that further lockdown measures were likely as the outbreak in the country was spiraling out of control, especially in Belgrade, where 80 percent of new cases were recorded. At least 17,342 cases and 352 deaths have been recorded throughout Serbia.

Although the new government measures passed Thursday don’t include an originally planned weekend curfew, the limit on gatherings effectively means a ban on protests. After initially handling the pandemic relatively well, Vucic and his government have been accused of allowing the crisis to spin out of control in order to hold a June 21 election that tightened his grip on power.

Opponents blame the autocratic president for contributing to the large spike in deaths and new cases after he entirely lifted previous very tight lockdown measures. Mass gatherings at soccer and tennis matches and at nightclubs were allowed despite warnings by experts that this could lead to a spike in infections.

Over the previous two evenings, rock-throwing demonstrators fought running battles with special police forces, who used tear gas, armored vehicles and horses to disperse them. Both protests started peacefully before far-right nationalist groups started hurling objects at police.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement Thursday it was “deeply concerned” by the violence. “We condemn all violence, including what appeared to us to be coordinated attacks on police seemingly intended to provoke overreactions, as well as what appeared to the use of excessive force by police,” it said.

Dozens of people were injured in the two days of clashes in Belgrade and other cities. Serbia’s police chief, Vladimir Rebic, said 118 police officers were injured and 153 protesters were detained. “Such violence is inadmissible and police will use all means to stop it,” Rebic said in a statement.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International, however, blamed the police for applying “heavy-handed measures” against the demonstrators. “Images of Serbian police firing tear gas and stun grenades indiscriminately into the crowd, and of protesters and bystanders being charged by mounted police and beaten by police in riot gear, raise serious concerns,” Amnesty International’s Balkans researcher Jelena Sesar said in a statement.

Videos on social media appeared to show police severely beating up protesters. In one, a protester was seen being hit and kicked by several officers and dumped on the sidewalk, seemingly unconscious. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.

Under apparent pressure from the protesters, the Serbian president backtracked Wednesday on his plan to implement a weekend curfew, claiming the measure could not be carried out without proclaiming a nationwide state of emergency.

In an Instagram post on Thursday — from inside the plane taking him on an official visit to France — Vucic said the state will curb unrest, and urged his followers not to confront violent demonstrators.

“I promised that we will know how to preserve peace and stability despite criminal hooligan violent attacks that have shocked us all,” he said. Vucic has accused foreign intelligence services of being behind the unrest. He has described the protests as “political” and aimed at weakening Serbia in its talks with Kosovo, a former province whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade does not recognize.

Although Vucic stopped short of identifying the alleged foreign spy agencies, tabloids under his control accused pro-Russia far-right groups of fueling the violence. The Russian ambassador to Serbia on Thursday vehemently denied accusations that Moscow was behind the unrest.

Serbia eyes restrictions; virus spreads in US, Brazil, India

July 09, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The European nation of Serbia mulled how to curb accelerating coronavirus infections following two nights of clashes involving anti-lockdown demonstrators, while the virus showed no sign of slowing Thursday in the countries with the highest caseloads — the United States, India and Brazil.

The three nations on separate continents are accounting for more than 60% of new confirmed cases, according to recent tallies from Johns Hopkins University. India on Thursday reported 25,000 new cases; the United States on Wednesday reported just short of the record 60,000 cases set a day earlier, and Brazil reported nearly 45,000.

Much of Europe appeared to have put the worst of the crisis behind it, at least for now. But Serbia has emerged as a new focus of concern — and of unrest. The country’s crisis team was expected to reimpose a ban gatherings in the capital, Belgrade and to limit the cafe and night club operations following a spike in infections that officials say threatens the Serbian health system.

It wasn’t clear whether officials would reintroduce a weekend curfew, the initial announcement of which triggered violent protests in Belgrade and other cities. Critics accuse President Aleksandar Vucic of letting the crisis spin out of control by lifting an earlier lockdown to allow for an election that tightened his grip on power.

Rock-throwing demonstrators this week fought hours-long running battles with special police forces who used tear gas to disperse them. Vucic said in an Instagram post on Thursday that the government would control the unrest.

Flare-ups of new virus cases are causing concern in several parts of the world, and in some cases leading to the reintroduction of restrictions on public activity. In France and Greece, officials warned that residents were too frequently ignoring safety guidance. The French government’s leading coronavirus adviser, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, lamented that “the French in general have abandoned protective measures.”

“Everyone must understand that we are at the mercy of a return (of the virus) in France,” Delfraissy said. “It suffices to have one super-spreader in a gathering and it will take off again.” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said authorities were “determined to protect the majority from the frivolous few.” He said the government may announce new restrictions, if needed, on Monday.

Pestas said authorities were focused on the rising number of cases in nearby Balkan countries and tourists who traveled to Greece over the land border with Bulgaria. In Australia, which had initial success containing the outbreak, authorities on Thursday reported 179 new cases, most in Melbourne, where authorities are battling a resurgence and have imposed a new six-week lockdown.

Victoria state Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said six new cases were from a Melbourne high school which has become the state’s largest known cluster, with 113 people infected. More than 2,000 students and hundreds of staff are in quarantine.

Tokyo confirmed more than 220 new cases Thursday, exceeding its record daily increase from mid-April and prompting concerns of widening of the infections. Tokyo’s more than 7,000 cases are about one-third of Japan’s total.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters. “We need to use extra caution against the further spread of the infections.” Experts on Tokyo’s virus task force said the majority of recent cases were linked to night clubs but rising infections from households, workplaces and parties raised concerns the virus is spreading in the wider community.

Hong Kong moved to tighten social-distancing measures after it reported 42 new infections on Thursday. Rules for restaurants, bars and fitness centers will be tightened for two weeks starting Saturday.

In India, research by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai shows that the reproduction rate of the virus ticked up in the first week of July to about 1.2 after it had steadily fallen from a peak of 1.8 in March. The rate needs to be below one for new cases to start falling.

The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would be wise to prepare for the worst-case scenario as virus=related deaths passed 12,000 and confirmed cases climbed fast on that continent. A day after confirmed virus cases across Africa surpassed half a million, the total was over 522,000 and climbing. Testing levels are low, so the actual number of cases is unknown.

’We’ve crossed a critical number here,” Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said of the half-million milestone. “Our pandemic is getting full speed.” In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases has passed 3 million — meaning nearly one in every 100 people has been confirmed as infected — and the death toll in the pandemic is more than 132,000.

U.S. President Donald Trump remains determined to reopen America’s schools despite worries about the virus, and on Wednesday threatened to hold back federal money if school districts don’t bring their students back in the fall.

Despite Trump’s pressure, New York City announced that most of its students would return to classrooms only two or three days a week and would learn online in between. A growing chorus of public health experts is urging U.S. officials to reconsider how they are reopening the broader economy, and to prioritize schools. That effort that will likely require closing some other establishments like bars and gyms to help curb the virus spread.

Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

UK gets creative: Job bonus and eating out schemes announced

July 08, 2020

LONDON (AP) — The British government unveiled a raft of measures Wednesday it hopes will limit an anticipated spike in unemployment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Most noteworthy were a new bonus plan aimed at getting firms to retain workers that have been idle for months, as well as tax cuts for hard-pressed firms in the tourism and hospitality sectors and a new “Eat Out to Help Out” discount scheme.

Treasury chief Rishi Sunak said his latest major intervention is aimed at weaning the U.K. economy off emergency measures announced when the country was put into lockdown in March, while at the same time protecting and generating as many jobs as possible during the recession.

“People need to know that although hardship lies ahead, no-one will be left without hope,” he told socially distanced lawmakers. So far, Britain has been spared the sharp rises in unemployment seen in the U.S., for example, because of the Job Retention Scheme, whereby the government has been paying the majority of the salaries of workers who were not fired. Some 1.1 million employers have taken advantage of the program to furlough 9.4 million people at a cost to the government of 27.4 billion pounds ($35 billion).

While confirming that it will end in October, Sunak said the government is introducing a new program that could cost a further 9.4 billion pounds if everyone who has been furloughed is given his or her job back. Under this plan, the government will pay companies a 1,000-pound bonus for each employee they take back.

“Leaving the furlough scheme open forever gives people false hope that it will always be possible to return to the jobs they had before,” he said. “The longer people are on furlough, the more likely it is their skills could fade, and they will find it harder to get new opportunities.”

The government hopes employers will make use of the new program as they try to get back on track during what is a historically savage recession — in March and April alone, the U.K. economy shrank 25%. Many economists think unemployment could more than double to over 3 million this year, to levels last seen in the 1980s.

Anneliese Dodds, the economics spokesperson for the main opposition Labour Party, said Sunak should have made the Job Retention Scheme more flexible rather than scrapping it outright. “It should have been the day when the millions of British people worried about their jobs and future prospects had a load taken off their shoulders,” she said.

Sunak reserved extra support for tourism and hospitality, which were shut down during the lockdown. Pubs and restaurants, for example, only reopened Saturday for the first time in over three months. Sunak said firms within those sectors will see taxes on sales of food and non-alcoholic drinks as well as on accommodation and admission to attractions slashed to 5% from 20%. This measure, Sunak said, is worth 4 billion pounds and should help companies support 2.4 million jobs.

He also announced a new dining discount plan for August that will give people a 50% discount at participating restaurants, cafes and pubs between Monday and Wednesday up to a maximum 10 pounds per person.

U.K. Hospitality, which represents the sector, said the measures provide many firms “much-needed help to get going again in earnest.” However, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the umbrella Trades Union Congress, said Sunak should have given low-paid workers a pay increase rather than offering “a dining out discount for the well-off.”

Other measures announced included 2 billion pounds to fund work placement schemes for 16-to-24-year-olds, a 3 billion-pound environmental package and the temporary elimination of a tax on house purchases below 500,000 pounds.

Make U.K., which represents companies in the manufacturing sector, praised Sunak’s “bold intent” and singled out the training measures for the young. “This is not the beginning of the end of this crisis, however, but perhaps the end of the beginning as far as the economy is concerned,” Chief Executive Stephen Phipson said.

Serbia sends mixed signals on virus lockdown after clashes

July 08, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president and other officials sent mixed signals on Wednesday whether they will go ahead with the plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown in Belgrade after thousands protested the move and violently clashed with the police in the capital.

Chaos erupted as thousands of protesters fought running battles with police and tried to storm the parliament building after President Aleksandar Vucic announced on Tuesday that a weekend curfew will be reintroduced in the Balkan country after health officials reported the highest single-day death toll of 13 amid 299 new COVID-19 cases.

Opponents blame the autocratic Serbian leader of contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he lifted the previous lockdown measures. They say he did that to cement his grip on power after parliamentary elections held on June 21. He has denied those claims.

On Wednesday, Vucic appeared to backtrack on his new lockdown plans that were to take effect during the coming weekend. “You know, seven days ago I thought to impose once again the lockdown of the entire country because of that new wave of the COVID-19 crisis,” Vucic told a video conference with his populist allies, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovenian Premier Janez Jansa.

“But you know, if we would have done that, we would have no chances of surviving economically and we need to live with this, and we need to take all precautionary measures but we need to keep on working, to keep on working very hard just to protect our business community and our workers,” he said.

Serbia’s chief epidemiologist, Predrag Kon, told N1 television that the announced curfew is still under discussion and might not be imposed after all. Kon said the protest on Tuesday evening “showed how people feel” about the possibility of total lockdown in Belgrade during the weekend.

He said the virus’ spread has to be curbed and lockdown is the easiest way. But he suggested the measures might be less strict than Vucic announced. Serbian police said 23 people have been detained and scores of police officers and demonstrators injured in the clashes that lasted for more than six hours.

Police chief Vladimir Rebic told state-run RTS television that authorities are working to identify more people who took part in the rioting in central Belgrade that left 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators injured.

Rebic said police showed “maximum restraint” and reacted only when it was absolutely necessary. Some rights groups in Belgrade denounced what they described as police brutality. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights urged citizens to come forward and offered legal aid.

Vucic will deliver a TV address to the nation later Wednesday as more protests by opposition groups are planned.

Serbs storm parliament after virus lockdown announced

July 08, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Thousands of protesters fought running battles with police and tried to storm the parliament building in Belgrade on Tuesday after the Serbian president announced that a coronavirus lockdown will be reintroduced in the Balkan country.

Police fired several rounds of tear gas at the protesters, some chanting “Resignation! Resignation!” as they gathered in front of the downtown parliament building in the Serbian capital. Some of the protesters briefly managed to enter the parliament by force, but were pushed back by riot police.

The protesters responded by hurling flares, stones, bottles and eggs at the police. Several clashes erupted between some of the most extremist rioters apparently belonging to far-right groups and the baton-wielding police.

Protesters also clashed with police in front of the state TV building. The broadcaster is accused by the opposition of having a pro-government bias. A number of police vehicles were set on fire. Serbian police director Vladimir Rebic told the state television that a number of demonstrators have been detained and police officers injured, but did not specify how many. He said smaller protests were also held in other Serbian cities.

“I appeal to the citizens … to help ease the tensions,” Rebic said. “I’m certain police will respond adequately and prevent any form of hooligan behavior.” Earlier, President Aleksandar Vucic called the virus situation in Belgrade “alarming” and “critical” as the city’s hospitals neared their capacity limits after health officials reported highest single-day death toll from the coronavirus on Tuesday.

Vucic said the government would reimpose a curfew as of Friday. He said it will “probably” last from 6 p.m. on Friday till 5 a.m. on Monday. He also said the groups of no more than five people will be allowed together.

Many blame the autocratic Serbian president for lifting the previous lockdown measures just so he would cement his grip on power after parliamentary elections. He has denied those claims. Soccer and tennis matches were played in packed stands and the election was held on June 21 despite warnings from experts that the mass gatherings without social distancing could lead to a new coronavirus wave.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic denounced the protest, saying the state will protect law and order and accused opposition politicians of being behind the storming of parliament. “I strongly condemn the vandalism of politicians who are behind the violent break into the Serbian Parliament at the moment when the state and the health system face the toughest blow from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic,” Brnabic said.

The country’s Health Ministry said Tuesday that 13 people had died in 24 hours in Serbia and 299 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed. That brought the total to 16,719 confirmed cases and 330 virus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic in Serbia, which went from having one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns to a near-complete reopening at the beginning of May.

AP Writer Jovana Gec contributed.

Australia isolates virus-prone state, Serbs oppose lockdown

July 08, 2020

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia isolated the state of Victoria on Wednesday in a bid to contain the worsening spread of the coronavirus as the city of Melbourne prepared for its second lockdown, an example of a resurgent disease in places that initially succeeded in taming it.

Melbourne’s failure to curb the virus in the past three weeks is a starkly different pandemic experience to other parts of the country that have been reporting single-digit daily counts of infections if any.

In Serbia, chaos erupted as thousands of protesters fought running battles with police and tried to storm the parliament building in Belgrade on Tuesday after the president announced that a coronavirus lockdown will be reintroduced in the Balkan country.

President Aleksandar Vucic called the virus situation in Belgrade “alarming” and “critical” as the city’s hospitals neared their capacity limits after health officials reported the highest single-day death toll of 13 amid 299 new COVID-19 cases.

Many blame the autocratic Serbian leader for lifting the previous lockdown measures just so he would cement his grip on power after parliamentary elections. He has denied those claims. In China, where the pandemic appeared late last year, only seven new cases were confirmed on Wednesday, all of them brought from outside the country. But South Korea reported 63 additional cases among a population twice the size of Australia’s. South Korean authorities are scrambling to stem transmissions tied to places such as churches, temples, restaurants and workplaces.

Pakistan’s daily infection rate dropped below 3,000 for the second straight day. Medical professionals are urging caution, noting testing has been cut by almost one third. Still some experts, particularly in the eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province where nearly 60% of the country’s 220 million people live, are suggesting the virus may have peaked in June.

Victoria authorities announced another 134 coronavirus cases in the latest 24 hours, down from a daily record 191 cases on Tuesday. The rest of Australia recorded 13 cases including three Melbourne-linked infections in the national capital Canberra. The Canberra infections are the first recorded there in almost a month.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the entire nation was behind Melbourne as it locked down for six weeks from Wednesday night. “We’re all Melburnians now when it comes to the challenges we face,” Morrison said. “We’re all Victorians now because we’re all Australians and that’s where the challenge is right now.”

The Victoria border with New South Wales closed on Tuesday, but a steady stream of cars continued to pass through police checkpoints with permits granted to travelers to cross for reasons such as work and medical treatment.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned her citizens against traveling to the border region. She foreshadowed potential restrictions on travel within Australia’s most populous state to further reduce the risk of Melbourne virus reaching Sydney.

Other states have warned that people from Victoria would be turned back or be forced to spend two weeks in quarantine on arrival. Australian successes in the early weeks of the pandemic through its suppression strategy were similar to near-neighbor New Zealand, which set out to eradicate the virus and ended community transmission.

New Zealand authorities said Wednesday they will press charges against a coronavirus patient who escaped quarantine in Auckland and went shopping at a supermarket. Air Commodore Darryn Webb, the head of managed isolation and quarantine, said the 32-year-old man escaped through a fence at the Stamford Plaza hotel and was gone for just over an hour before returning.

The man later tested positive for the virus. Webb said the man was a New Zealander who recently returned from India and his actions were “completely unacceptable.” New Zealand is trying to contain cases at the border by placing new arrivals into a 14-day quarantine at various hotels.

Morrison said he wanted to reduce the numbers of Australian citizens, permanent residents and foreigners exempt from Australia’s travel ban landing at Australian airports because of the strain on hotel quarantine.

Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

Serbia to reintroduce virus lockdown after new case spike

July 07, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president announced the reintroduction of a lockdown after the Balkan country reported its highest single-day death toll from the coronavirus Tuesday. President Aleksandar Vucic called the virus situation in the Serbian capital of Belgrade “alarming” and “critical” as the city’s hospitals neared their capacity limits.

Vucic said the government would reimpose a curfew as of Friday. He said it will “probably” last from 6 p.m. on Friday till 5 a.m. on Monday. He also said the groups of no more than five people will be allowed together.

The country’s Health Ministry said Tuesday that 13 people had died in 24 hours in Serbia and 299 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed. That brought the total to 16,719 confirmed cases and 330 virus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic in Serbia, which went from having one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns to a near-complete reopening at the beginning of May.

Soccer and tennis matches were played in packed stands and a parliamentary election was held on June 21 despite warnings from experts that the mass gatherings without social distancing could lead to a new coronavirus wave.

“We have probably relaxed too much. Everyone thought it was all over,” Vucic said, angrily rejecting widespread criticism that his insisting on holding the election led to the lifting of the earlier lockdown and the recent coronaviorus case spike.

On Tuesday, Montenegro introduced a compulsory quarantine for all people arriving from neighboring Serbia, citing coronaviorus health risks. Greece also banned Serb tourists from entering the country on Monday.

In an apparent tit-for-tat move, the Serbian government said Tuesday it was introducing a 14-day self-quarantine period for Montenegrin citizens who come to Serbia. A country of 620,000, Montenegro split from the much larger Serbia in 2006, but many in Montenegro and Serbia remain opposed to the separation. Serbs represent about 30% of Montenegro’s population.

Montenegro, the first European country to declare itself free of the coronavirus, has recently seen an uptick in new confirmed cases.

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