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Austria imposes full lockdown, Germany may follow as COVID grips Europe

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November 19, 2021

By Francois Murphy and Paul Carrel

VIENNA/BERLIN (Reuters) -Austria will become the first country in western Europe to reimpose a full COVID-19 lockdown, it said on Friday as neighbouring Germany warned it may follow suit, sending shivers through financial markets worried about the economic fallout.

A fourth wave of infections has plunged Germany, Europe’s largest economy, into a national emergency, Health Minister Jens Spahn said, warning that vaccinations alone will not cut case numbers.

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Austria said it would require the whole population to be vaccinated as of February, a decision bound to infuriate many in a country where scepticism about vaccines runs high, encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest in parliament.

The party is planning a protest against coronavirus restrictions on Saturday.

Roughly two-thirds of those eligible in Austria are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. Its infections are among the highest on the continent, with a seven-day incidence of 991 per 100,000 people.

“We have not succeeded in convincing enough people to get vaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told a news conference, saying the lockdown would start on Monday and the requirement to be vaccinated on Feb. 1.

“It hurts that such measures still have to be taken.”

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Asked if Germany could rule out an Austrian-style full lockdown, Spahn said: “We are now in a situation – even if this produces a news alert – where we can’t rule anything out.

“We are in a national emergency,” he told a news conference.

European stocks retreated from record highs while government bond yields, oil prices and the euro tumbled as the spectre of a fresh COVID-linked lockdown in Germany and other parts of Europe cast a fresh shadow over the global economy.

“We expect targeted measures (against COVID-19) across some countries mainly according to the health situation, but other factors, such as domestic political situations, will be relevant,” Oxford Economics analysts said in a note.

“And while it might take a while before a political consensus can be reached in other countries, it is clear that the tide has turned.”

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CHRISTMAS SURPRISE

As cases rise again across Europe, a number of governments have started to reimpose limits on activity, ranging from Austria’s full lockdown to a partial lockdown in the Netherlands and restrictions on the unvaccinated in parts of Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Hungary reported 11,289 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, its highest daily tally, and will make booster shots mandatory for all healthcare workers and require mask-wearing in most indoor places from Saturday.

While the new measures across Europe are not seen hitting the economy as much as the all-out lockdowns of last year, analysts say they could weigh on the recovery in the last quarter of the year, especially if they hit the retail and hospitality sectors over Christmas.

A full lockdown in Germany would be more serious, however.

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“A total lockdown for Germany would be extremely bad news for the economic recovery,” said Ludovic Colin, a senior portfolio manager at Swiss asset manager Vontobel.

“It’s exactly what we saw in July, August of this year in parts of the world where the delta (variant) was big, it (COVID-19) came back and it slows down the recovery again.”

The pressure on intensive care units in Germany had not yet reached its peak, Spahn said, urging people to reduce contacts to help break the wave. “How Christmas will turn out, I dare not say. I can only say it’s up to us,” he added.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/german-region-hardest-hit-by-covid-surge-plans-partial-lockdown-report-2021-11-18 Germany will limit large parts of public life in areas where hospitals are becoming dangerously full of COVID-19 patients to those who have either been vaccinated or have recovered from the illness.

Merkel also said the federal government would consider a request from regions for legislation allowing them to require that care and hospital workers be vaccinated.

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Saxony, the region hardest hit by Germany’s fourth wave, is considering shutting theatres, concert halls and soccer stadiums, Bild newspaper reported. The eastern state has Germany’s lowest vaccination rate.

New daily infections have risen 14-fold in the past month in Saxony, a stronghold of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which harbours many vaccine sceptics and anti-lockdown protesters.

Global COVID tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/regions/europe

(Additional reporting by Dhara Ranasinghe and Mark John in London and Zuzanna Szymanska in Berlin; Writing by Paul Carrel and Nick MacfieEditing by Mark Heinrich)

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Iran plays hardball as nuclear talks with world powers resume

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November 29, 2021

By Francois Murphy, Parisa Hafezi and John Irish

VIENNA (Reuters) -Iran and world powers resumed talks on Monday after a five-month hiatus to try to salvage their 2015 nuclear deal but with Tehran sticking to its tough stance and Western powers warning that will not work, hopes of a breakthrough appeared slim.

Diplomats say time is running out to resurrect the pact, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other powers involved – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

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Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June. The new round formally began with a meeting of the remaining parties to the deal, without the United States, shortly after 1400 GMT.

The meeting in Vienna ended an extended break triggered by the election of hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi in June as Iran’s president. The talks are effectively indirect negotiations between Tehran and Washington since Iran refuses to meet face to face with U.S. envoys. Other officials shuttle between them.

Tehran’s negotiating team has set out demands that U.S. and European diplomats consider unrealistic, Western diplomats say.

“Our demands are clear. Other parties and especially Americans should decide whether they want this deal to be revived or not. They abandoned the pact, so they should return to it and lift all sanctions,” an Iranian official close to the talks told Reuters.

Iran has adopted an uncompromising position by demanding removal of all U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed since 2017, including those unrelated to its nuclear programme, in a verifiable process.

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“The United States still fails to properly understand the fact that there is no way to return to the deal without a verifiable and effective lifting of all sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in a statement shortly after the talks resumed.

“The return of the U.S. to the nuclear deal would be meaningless without guarantees to prevent the recurrence of the bitter experience of the past,” he said. “This opportunity is not a window that can remain open forever.”

TENSIONS

In parallel, Tehran’s conflicts with the U.N. atomic watchdog, which monitors its nuclear programme, have festered.

As Iran has advanced its uranium enrichment, the International Atomic Energy Agency says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to reinstall monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal.

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“If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won’t work. We and our partners won’t go for it,” U.S. envoy Robert Malley told BBC Sounds on Saturday.

Since Trump took the United States out of the deal, Iran has breached many of its restrictions meant to lengthen the time it would need to generate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb https://www.reuters.com/news/picture/explainer-what-remains-of-the-iran-nucle-idUSKBN2ID0E4. Iran says it wants to enrich uranium only for civil uses.

Malley warned that Washington would be ready to ramp up pressure on Tehran if the talks collapse.

Diplomats have said Washington has suggested negotiating an open-ended interim accord with Tehran as long as a permanent deal is not achieved. Several Iranian officials told Reuters Iran had no intention of accepting an interim deal.

Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, which opposed the original deal as too limited in scope and duration, has said military options will be on the table if diplomacy fails.

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“They (Iranians) will play for time, earn billions from the removal of sanctions, continue to deceive the world, and covertly advance their nuclear programme,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told reporters in London https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israels-lapid-urges-world-keep-up-pressure-iran-2021-11-29.

“The intelligence is clear. It leaves no doubt.”

(Writing by John Irish and Parisa Hafezi Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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U.N. chief concerned about southern Africa isolation over Omicron

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November 29, 2021

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he was deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries after COVID-19 travel restrictions were imposed by several countries over the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

“I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travelers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures, with the objective of avoiding the risk of transmission so as to allow for travel and economic engagement,” Guterres said in a statement.

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The Omicron variant of coronavirus carries a very high global risk of surges https://www.reuters.com/world/spread-omicron-variant-forces-nations-rethink-plans-global-travel-2021-11-29, the World Health Organization warned on Monday, as more countries reported cases.

Omicron was first identified in southern Africa and many countries, including the United States and Britain, have announced travel curbs and other restrictions on the region. Africa has some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates worldwide due to a lack of access to doses.

Guterres has long warned about the dangers of vaccine inequality around the world and that low immunization rates are “a breeding ground for variants.”

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” he said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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Belarus announces military drills with Russia near Ukraine border

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November 29, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarus on Monday announced joint military drills with close ally Russia on its southern border with Ukraine and accused the NATO military alliance of building up offensive capabilities near its borders.

U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials say Russia has built up forces near Ukraine, sparking fears of a looming attack. Moscow denies any such plan. Belarus is itself locked in a row with the European Union over migrants camped at its western border.

Casting it as a response to new military deployments in countries to the west and south of Belarus, Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said Minsk would hold an exercise with Russia in the “medium term”. He gave no specific date.

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“We see troop formations around our state borders… We can only be concerned by the militarisation of our neighouring countries, which is why are forced to plan measures in response,” he said in comments on his ministry’s website.

NATO member Lithuania, which lies to the west of Belarus, said on Sunday the Atlantic alliance needed to adjust its stance towards Belarus, whose military, it said, was becoming more integrated with Russia’s armed forces.

On Monday, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said Minsk would not sit idly on the sidelines if the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted or a war broke out with the West at Russia’s borders.

“…it is clear whose side Belarus will be on,” he said in a clear nod to Russia, whose financial and political backing helped him weather huge protests against his rule that broke out last autumn.

“They understand this, that’s why they’ve begun strengthening their northern Belarus-Ukraine border,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

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The comments appeared to contrast with the more neutral stance taken by Lukashenko after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for separatist forces in Ukraine’s east.

Minsk, like most of the world, still recognises Crimea as Ukrainian territory.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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