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England to lockdown again as Slovakia tests population for virus

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a new four-week lockdown in England, which will join several European countries in imposing the measure for a second time since the coronavirus pandemic began, as Slovakia took a different tack and began testing its entire population.

The list of countries on the continent re-implementing stringent new restrictions on people’s lives is fast expanding as Europe experiences a dizzying spike in Covid-19 cases, leading to widespread exasperation and sometimes violent protests.

Just minutes after Johnson’s announcement, Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa announced a partial lockdown for his country, with 70 percent of the population going back into lockdown.

Also on Saturday, Austria brought in a second lockdown of its own, while Greece declared a partial one. The new measures came just a day after France started its second lockdown and Belgium said it would tighten its measures.

– ‘Time to take action’ –

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 1,189,892 people and infected 45,650,850 since emerging late last year, according to an AFP tally.

The United States, the hardest-hit country, passed nine million reported coronavirus cases on Friday, as infections spike just days before the country’s presidential election.

President Donald Trump, running for re-election on November 3, again downplayed Covid-19’s threat on the campaign trail.

“If you get it, you’re going to get better, and then you’re going to be immune,” said Trump, who was hospitalised over his own bout of coronavirus.

The UK meanwhile passed one million infections after recording nearly 22,000 new cases on Saturday, while virus hospitalisations climbed by 1,239, the highest daily tally since late April.

The lockdown announcement by Britain’s Johnson marks a dramatic shift in strategy following warnings that hospitals would become overwhelmed within weeks under the current system of localised restrictions.

Under the new lockdown, planned to start on Thursday and end on December 2, England’s population must stay at home except when exemptions apply, such as for work, education or exercise, while all but essential shops will close.

Schools, colleges and universities will remain open.

“Now is the time to take action because there’s no alternative,” Johnson told at a Downing Street news conference.

“We have got to be humble in the face of nature. In this country, alas, as in much of Europe, the virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst-case scenario of our scientific advisers.”

The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already reimposed partial lockdowns to try to cut their surging rates.

Johnson’s critics say that delaying the decision has resulted in the need for an even longer lockdown.

“Government delay has cost both lives and livelihoods,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan, of the main opposition Labour party, tweeted.

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, meanwhile, justified his new partial lockdown by saying it was time to act “before intensive care units buckle under the strain of lives in danger”.

The new lockdown will close restaurants and other leisure activities in Athens and other major cities from Tuesday.

– Tests for everyone –

In Slovakia, the government decided to take a different approach and test its 5.4-million-strong population.

Some 45,000 medical workers, army and police are being deployed to carry out the tests in the EU nation, collecting swabs at around 5,000 testing points.

Participation in the testing is not mandatory but anyone who is not able to produce a negative test certificate if stopped by police could face a heavy fine.

“This will be our road to freedom,” Prime Minister Igor Matovic said this week, hinting that virus restrictions could be eased once testing is complete, or reinforced if the programme is not carried out in full.

But the Slovak Association of General Practitioners has criticised the operation as ill-conceived, pointing out that crowding into testing sites went against anti-infection protocols.

– Violent clashes –

Some countries that have already reintroduced lockdowns, at varying degrees of severity, are now facing a backlash from disgruntled citizens.

New skirmishes between police and protesters broke out in Rome on Saturday following clashes in Florence a night earlier over new restrictions.

Some protesters in a crowd of a few hundred protesters at Rome’s famed Campo dei Fiori began throwing bottles and firecrackers, before being dispersed by police with riot gear and truncheons.

“Unfortunately there are violent fringe elements trying to infiltrate the plazas in order to exploit the social and economic discomfort of this difficult moment,” Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said.

Italy reported 31,758 new cases of the virus on Saturday — a daily record — and the government is reportedly eyeing a lockdown of the country’s major cities, including Milan, Rome and Naples.

Protesters also clashed with police in Spain’s Barcelona on Friday after hundreds gathered to denounce new coronavirus restrictions.