Germany on Wednesday backtracked on its plan to impose a strict Easter weekend shutdown after public outcry, as the European Union said it would tighten vaccine export controls in a bid to ramp up its stuttering inoculation campaign.
Inoculations across the EU remain stubbornly behind hard-hit countries outside the bloc, which has blamed production and supply problems on its slow rollout.
The melee over vaccines comes as several countries battle third waves of the virus, with some governments looking to impose new anti-virus measures despite widespread lockdown fatigue more than a year into the pandemic.
Germany on Wednesday said it would scrap plans to close most shops in the country over Easter from April 1 to 5 after facing stinging criticism of the plan.
The government instead asked people to stay home over the holiday and Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a mea culpa after reversing the measures.
“This mistake is mine alone,” Merkel said. “The whole process has caused additional uncertainty, for which I ask all citizens to forgive me.”
– ‘Big lesson in humility’ –
Elsewhere on the continent, Belgium said it would bring in a new partial lockdown for four weeks, closing schools and limiting access to non-essential shops as it sought to quell a third wave.
The pandemic “is a big lesson in humility for politicians, for everyone,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in announcing the measures.
Poland meanwhile recorded its highest daily infections with nearly 30,000 new cases, while the Netherlands extended coronavirus restrictions until April 20.
And Norway said it would roll out new restrictions this week, including banning alcohol sales at bars and restaurants.
Vaccines are seen as the way out of the pandemic that has now killed more than 2.7 million people around the world and plunged the global economy into a recession not seen in decades.
More than 479 vaccine doses have now been administered globally, mainly in wealthier countries with Israel, the United States, and Britain leading the pack.
But with demand far outstripping supply, countries are scrambling to secure much-needed jabs, with just a handful of vaccines approved around the world.
– AstraZeneca woes –
The EU said Wednesday it would adopt tougher export rules to prevent what it sees as an unfair one-way flow of vaccines out of the bloc.
“Open roads should run in both directions,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.
The measure could limit vaccine exports to countries like Britain which produce some of their own vaccines but do not, in turn, send doses to the EU.
Brussels accuses the former EU member of laying claim to AstraZeneca vaccines produced at a plant in the Netherlands and says the UK-based company has fallen short on deliveries promised to the EU.
The tussle has added to AstraZeneca’s woes after several countries suspended its vaccine over blood clot fears.
The World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have both said the jab is safe and effective and dismissed feared links with clots.
In a fresh controversy, the British-Swedish firm this week published results from its US trials showing the vaccine to be 79 percent effective in preventing Covid-19.
But a day later the US National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases raised concerns that the results were outdated.
The firm backed its shot on Tuesday, saying a review found the interim results it had announced were “consistent”, and that it would release new analysis and data “within 48 hours”.
And there were more vaccine troubles on Wednesday when Hong Kong and Macau suspended the Pfizer/BioNTech jab over what authorities said were packaging problems.
Health officials did not explain what exactly was wrong with them but insisted there were no safety issues.
– ‘Like a war’ –
As rich nations have accelerated their vaccine drives, fears are growing about supplies for the rest of the world.
“I am deeply concerned that many low-income countries have not yet received a single #COVID19 vaccine dose,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted Wednesday.
“Vaccines must be a global public good. The world must unite to make this a reality.”
The pandemic has taken a turn for the worse in many nations, with known infections worldwide approaching 124 million.
Hard-hit Brazil’s daily death toll crossed 3,000 for the first time, as the South American nation’s healthcare infrastructure was pushed to the brink by an explosion of cases.
Supplies of medical oxygen for Covid-19 patients have fallen to “worrying” levels in six of Brazil’s 27 states, officials said Tuesday.
The warning raised fears of a repeat of horrific scenes in the northern city of Manaus in January when oxygen shortages left dozens of Covid-19 patients to suffocate to death.
“You have no idea what it is to see families running around to find oxygen canisters, the fights outside places selling oxygen,” Manaus-based doctor Adele Benzaken told AFP.
“It was like a war — the chaos of a bombing when people are running around desperately without knowing what to do.”