“There will be things that people can’t get,” at Christmas, White House warns

By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -White House officials, scrambling to relieve global supply bottlenecks choking U.S. ports, highways and railways, warn Americans may face higher prices and some empty shelves this Christmas season.

The supply crisis, driven in part by the global COVID-19 pandemic, not only threatens to dampen U.S. spending at a critical time, it also poses a political risk for U.S. President Joe Biden.

The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll shows the economy continues to be the most important issue to Democrats and Republicans alike.

The White House has been trying to tackle inflation-inducing supply bottlenecks of everything from meat to semiconductors, and formed a task force in June that meets weekly and named a “bottleneck” czar to push private sector companies to ease snarls.

Biden himself plans to meet with senior officials on Wednesday to discuss efforts to relieve transportation bottlenecks before delivering a speech on the topic.

Supply chain woes are weighing on retail and transportation companies, which recently issued a series of downbeat earnings outlooks. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve last month predicted a 2021 inflation rate of 4.2%, well above its 2% target.

American consumers, unused to empty store shelves, may need to be flexible and patient, White House officials said.

“There will be things that people can’t get,” a senior White House official told Reuters, when asked about holiday shopping.

“At the same time, a lot of these goods are hopefully substitutable by other things … I don’t think there’s any real reason to be panicked, but we all feel the frustration and there’s a certain need for patience to help get through a relatively short period of time.”

Inflation is biting wages. Labor Department data shows that Americans made 0.9% less per hour on average in August than they did one year prior.

The White House argues inflation is a sign that their decision to provide historic support to small businesses and households, through $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief funding, worked.

U.S. consumer demand stayed strong, outpacing global rivals, and the Biden administration expects the overall economy to grow at 7.1%, as inflation reaches its highest levels since the 1980s.

“We recognize that it has pinched families who are trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy as we move into the later stages of the pandemic,” said a second senior White House official.

BOTTLENECK CZAR

In August, the White House tapped John Porcari, a veteran transportation official who served in the Obama administration as a new “envoy” to the nation’s ports, but he’s known as the bottleneck czar.

Porcari told Reuters the administration has worked to make sure various parts of the supply chain, such as ports and intermodal facilities, where freight is transferred from one form of transport to another, are in steady communication.

Now it is focused on getting ports and other transportation hubs to operate on a 24-hour schedule, taking advantage of off-peak hours to move more goods in the pipeline. California ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles have agreed to extended hours, and there are more to follow, he said in an interview Monday.

“We need to make better use of that off-peak capacity and that really is the current focus,” Porcari said.

The administration is also seeking to restore inactive rail yards for extra container capacity and create “pop-up” rail yards to increase capacity.

“It’s important to remember that the goods movement system is a private sector driven system,” he said. “There’s problems in every single part of that system. And, and they tend to compound each other.

“While the pandemic was an enormously disruptive force. I think it also laid bare what was an underlying reality, which was the system was strained before the pandemic.”

A NEW WAR ON CHRISTMAS

Republican strategists are seizing on possible Christmas shortages to bash Biden’s policies as inflationary, and thwart his attempt to push a multi-trillion dollar spending package through Congress in coming weeks.

A recent op-ed by Steve Cortes, a one-time advisor to former President Donald Trump, dubbed the upcoming holiday season “Biden’s Blue Christmas,” continuing in a long tradition of conservatives criticizing Democrats over celebrations around the Christian holiday.

Trump, considered the front-runner Republican candidate for president in 2024, blasted it out in a mass email through his political action committee, Save America.

Seth Weathers, a Republican strategist who ran Trump’s Georgia campaign in 2016 said they see local impact. “People here in Georgia are paying twice as much for items than they paid a year ago and they are blaming Biden. He’s in charge.”

A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed Biden is losing the public’s trust on the economy, with only 29% of public thinking the U.S. economy is in “good” or “excellent” condition, compared with 35% in April.

“President Biden could use a holiday season win,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy said. “A slowdown of holiday season deliveries and the financial strain that comes with it would be coal in the stocking for the Administration at the close of the first year in office.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons, Richard Pullin and Aurora Ellis)

Britain has 10 days to save Christmas, retail sector says

By James Davey, Victor Jack and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s retail industry warned the government on Friday that unless it moves to alleviate an acute shortage of truckers in the next 10 days then significant disruption was inevitable in the run-up to Christmas.

As the world’s fifth-largest economy emerges from COVID-19 lockdowns, a spike in European natural gas prices and a post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers have left Britain grappling with soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.

BP had to close some of its gas stations due to the driver shortages while queues formed at some Shell stations as pumps ran dry in some places. ExxonMobil’s Esso said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted in some way.

In a rush to fill up, drivers also queued at some gas stations in London and the southern English county of Kent. Diesel ran out at one station visited by Reuters.

For months supermarkets, processors and farmers have warned that a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point – making it harder to get goods on to shelves.

“Unless new drivers are found in the next 10 days, it is inevitable that we will see significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas,” said Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, the retail industry’s lobby group.

“HGV drivers are the glue which hold our supply chains together,” Opie said. “Without them, we are unable to move goods from farms to warehouses to shops.”

The next 10 days are crucial because retailers ramp up supplies in October to ensure there are enough goods for the peak Christmas season.

Hauliers and logistics companies cautioned that there were no quick fixes and that any change to testing or visas would likely be too late to alleviate the pre-Christmas shortages as retailers stockpile months ahead.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has insisted that there will be no return to the 1970s when Britain was cast by allies as the “sick man of Europe” with three-day weeks, energy shortages and rampant inflation.

‘DON’T PANIC’

As ministers urged the public not to panic buy, some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets have warned that the shortage of truck drivers could lead to just that ahead of Christmas.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said that Johnson, whom he met in New York, had asked him for an “emergency” agreement to supply a food product that is lacking in Britain, though the British embassy disputed Bolsonaro’s account.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there was a global shortage of truckers after COVID halted lorry driver testing so Britain was doubling the number of tests. Asked if the government would ease visa rules, he said the government would look at all options.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Shapps told Sky News. “We’ll move heaven and earth to do whatever we can to make sure that shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.

“We should see it smooth out fairly quickly,” he said.

British ministers are due to meet later on Friday in an attempt to hash out a fix.

TRUCKER VISA?

The trucking industry body, the Road Haulage Association (RHA), has called on the government to allow short-term visas for international drivers to enter Britain and fill the gap, while British drivers are being trained for the future.

“It’s an enormous challenge,” Rod McKenzie, head of policy at the RHA, told Reuters. In the short-term, he said, international drivers could help, even if it may be too late to help Christmas, and in the longer term the industry needed better pay and conditions to attract workers.

“It’s a tough job. We the British do not help truckers in the way that Europeans and Americans do by giving them decent facilities,” he said.

The British haulage industry says it needs around 100,000 more drivers after 25,000 returned to Europe before Brexit and the pandemic halted the qualification process for new workers.

Shapps, who said the driver shortage was not due to Brexit, said COVID-19 exacerbated the problem given that Britain was unable to test 40,000 drivers during lockdowns.

(Additional reporting by Gerhard Mey, Kate Holton, Michael Holden and Paul Sandle; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Toby Chopra nd Nick Macfie)

Authorities still searching for motive in Nashville blast

(Reuters) – Federal, state and local law enforcement officers on Monday were searching for the motive behind a bombing that rocked Nashville on Christmas morning, with evidence pointing to the 63-year-old suspect on a suicide mission that took only his life.

The FBI on Sunday identified the suspect as Anthony Q. Warner and said he died in the blast, which damaged more than 40 businesses in downtown Nashville, Tennessee’s largest city and the United States’ country music capital.

Warner’s motor home exploded at dawn on Friday moments after police responding to reports of gunfire noticed it and heard music and an automated message emanating from the vehicle warning of a bomb. Police hurried to evacuate people in the area, and Warner is the only person known to have died in the blast.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper has said that local officials felt there had to be some connection between the bombing, which occurred near an AT&T Inc transmission building on the city’s busy Second Avenue, and the building.

But officials have maintained it was too early in the investigation to discuss the suspect’s motives.

Council Member Freddie O’Connell, whose district includes Second Avenue, said officials have been reluctant to speculate about motive or to label the bombing an act of terrorism because it was still unclear whether Warner was driven by any ideology.

“It may be some time before we get even close to having some of these questions answered,” O’Connell said.

The explosion injured three people and damaged businesses, disrupting mobile, internet and TV services across central Tennessee and parts of four other states.

Investigators searched Warner’s home on Saturday and visited a Nashville real estate agency where he had worked part-time, providing computer consulting services.

Speaking to Fox News on Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee described the damage in Nashville as “enormous” and said he expected President Donald Trump would shortly grant his request to declare a state of emergency to assist the state.

“It was a indescribable blast and it’s destroyed businesses all up and down that downtown block,” Lee said.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Israel imposing third national COVID-19 lockdown

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will impose a third national lockdown to fight surging COVID-19 infections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, as the country pursues a vaccination campaign.

The restrictions will come into effect on Sunday evening and last for 14 days, pending final cabinet approval, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

They include the closure of shops, limited public transport, a partial shutdown of schools and a one-kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) restriction on travel from home, except for commuting to workplaces that remain open, and to purchase essential goods.

Such measures will cost Israel’s economy about three billion shekels ($932.6 million) a week, the Finance Ministry said.

The economy is expected to shrink 4.5% in 2020, though the Bank of Israel has said the contraction could reach 5% should the COVID-19 crisis prompt more curbs. In November, the jobless rate stood at 12%. The economy is projected to grow as much as 6.5% in 2021 and possibly faster – if the pandemic is contained.

With a population of nine million, Israel has so far reported more than 385,000 cases of COVID-19 and 3,150 deaths.

The number of daily infections approached 4,000 on Wednesday, rising from around 1,000 at the end of a month-long lockdown imposed in September that followed one that ran from late March to early May.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said it had found four people infected with the new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain.

With regard to Israel’s Christian minority, the Health Ministry said that during Christmas, prayers at houses of worship would be limited to gatherings of 10 people in closed spaces and 100 people in open areas.

The new lockdown comes with Israel’s vaccination drive already underway. Health workers and people over the age of 60 are the first groups to be inoculated in a campaign which the health minister said he expected to be completed within months.

But public anger has risen over the government’s perceived inconsistent handling of the crisis, and Israel will hold an election on March 23, its fourth in two years, after constant infighting in Netanyahu’s coalition.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Steven Scheer and Rami Amichay; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Stranded truckers fume as they wait to leave UK after COVID blockade

By Peter Nicholls and Gerry Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Furious truck drivers stranded at the English port of Dover scuffled with police as Britain sought to get cross-Channel traffic moving after a partial blockade by France to contain a highly infectious coronavirus variant.

Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative test result could board ferries for Calais from Wednesday after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutated variant.

The British government has drafted in the military to help but there was confusion amongst drivers about how to get tests, and warnings it would take time to clear the backlog of trucks, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food just days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.

“Testing has begun as we look to get traffic moving again between the UK and France,” British transport minister Grant Shapps said on Twitter. “However, French border police only acting on agreement from this morning and severe delays continue.”

Huge queues of trucks have been stacked on a motorway towards the Eurotunnel Channel Tunnel and on roads to Dover in the southeast county of Kent, while others have been parked up at the former nearby airport at Manston.

With no sign of traffic to the European mainland resuming and confusion over how to get a coronavirus test, tempers were beginning to flare among drivers, many from Eastern Europe who do not speak English and are angry that they will not be able to get home to their families before Christmas.

Police said there had been disturbances in Dover and Manston “involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel” and one arrest had been made.

“This is not how it should work. We have no information, the people need to be fetching information,” Mekki Coskun from Dortmund in Germany, told Reuters.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had been in touch with Britain’s Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron about the jam.

“This can be done differently. This whole process could’ve been better organized,” he said.

The Road Haulage Association, which estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks being held up in Kent, said it was chaotic.

“The border is still closed, the testing regime isn’t happening yet, you’ve got truckers very angry and we’re starting to see a breakdown in law and order in a small way among very frustrated guys who want to get back by Christmas,” Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy for the RHA, said.

Normally between 7,500-8,500 trucks travel via the port every day but volumes have reached more than 10,000 recently.

Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, said just 45 trucks had reached France between midnight and 1100 GMT.

FURTHER BREXIT DISRUPTION

Some of the extra traffic was a result of Christmas demand, but many were in the country to deliver goods to companies who are stockpiling parts before Britain finally leaves the EU on Dec. 31, a move that is expected to cause further disruption in January when a full customs border comes into force.

The British Retail Consortium, an industry lobby group, warned that until the backlog of trucks was cleared and supply chains returned to normal, there could be issues with the availability of some fresh goods.

Logistics firms have also said that many European drivers had already refused to come to Britain in the new year when they would have to carry customs paperwork, and the need to secure a coronavirus test will further compound the situation, pushing up freight prices.

Drivers will first take a rapid lateral flow test. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive PCR test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.

Many of the mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, believe they are pawns in a political standoff between Britain and the EU as trade talks reach a climax.

“We don’t have food to eat, we don’t have drink, we don’t have anything, nobody … cares about us,” said Stella Vradzheva a driver from Sterlcha in Bulgaria.

(Additional reporting by James Davey, Joanna Plucinska, and Yiming Woo; Writing by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)

Anger grows as truckers stranded in England miss Christmas at home

By Ben Makori and Gerhard Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Dan Jinca, a Romanian truck driver stranded in England after much of the world shut its borders to Britain, is angry, and he is not alone.

The 47-year-old will miss Christmas at home and he thinks the official excuse for the border closures – a new variant of the novel coronavirus spreading fast across southern England – is nonsense.

“We are upset and we don’t know why we have to be in this situation,” Jinca told Reuters, speaking English. “They say it is about corona. We don’t know.”

Hundreds of trucks are lined up, snaking into the horizon across southern England after the border closures. Many drivers have been stuck for days, eating up their reserves of food along roads that now stand silent.

No matter what is decided in London, Paris and Brussels, Jinca, a father, will miss Christmas at home in Bumbești-Jiu, about 186 miles (300 km) west of Bucharest, because he has too far to drive.

“Now it is done, it is finished. From here to go home we have about 2,000 miles,” he said. “It is about 45 hours to drive non-stop – no sleep, just drive. We can’t make it.”

After 7 years in trucking, it has never happened to him before.

Sergio Robles, a 41-year-old Spanish truck driver, said the conditions – stuck on a road in December for three days and counting – were a disgrace.

And he wants a solution – and information – fast.

“They don’t give us food, they don’t give us drinks, they don’t give us sanitation, they don’t offer us anything,” he said in Spanish. “The situation is basically inhumane, so what we are asking for is a solution.”

“I think and believe that this happening now isn’t due to coronavirus or anything, it’s due to Brexit, due to internal politics or something of that manner.”

Robles will also miss Christmas with his family in Madrid.

“We are the transport that moves the world, so to say. And they treat us badly,” he said.

“They treat us as if we are garbage. We don’t get to spend Christmas at home, not with family or children or anything. I think there’s nothing right in all of this.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. officials worry about holiday spike as coronavirus surges

By Brendan O’Brien and Maria Caspani

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. health authorities braced for further increases in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths on Friday, capping a week in which the spread of the novel coronavirus accelerated ahead of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday.

The seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases reached more than 165,000 on Thursday, while the seven-day average for deaths climbed to 1,359, more than any day since late May, according to a Reuters tally of public health data.

With hospitalizations rising across much of the nation, straining already exhausted medical staff, officials in more than 20 states have imposed restrictions to curtail the spread of the virus.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said the virus is spreading at a high rate across more than half the country and that Thanksgiving gatherings should be limited to immediate family members rather than a maximum number of people.

“I don’t like it to be any number… if you say it can be 10, and it’s eight people from four different families, then that probably is not the same degree of safe as 10 people from your immediate household,” Birx told CNN on Friday.

In a positive sign for combating the pandemic, Pfizer Inc. said it will apply to U.S. health regulators on Friday for emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine, the first such application in a major step toward providing protection against the virus.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE this week reported final trial results that showed the vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 with no major safety concerns.

If the data is solid, “we literally could be weeks away from the authorization of a 95% effective vaccine,” U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said on CBS’ “This Morning.”

California’s governor on Thursday imposed some of the most stringent restrictions on the vast majority of the state’s population, with a curfew on social gatherings and other non-essential activities that will start on Saturday night and end on the morning of Dec. 21.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the measure a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Similar restrictions took effect in Ohio this week, while Minnesota ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues from Friday until Dec. 18 at the earliest, as the state’s hospital intensive care units were stretched to capacity.

In Illinois, where the number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive was at an alarmingly high 20% and new restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining, took effect on Friday, long lines appeared again at testing sites.

In Chicago’s metro area, Emily Randall had no luck finding an opening to get tested after she woke up with a throbbing headache on Thursday.

“It’s very frustrating because I’m trying to be a responsible citizen,” said the 43-year-old research analyst. “My head feels a lot better but I am still worried because I have read stories of people who got better and then, all of a sudden, got worse.”

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50% in the past two weeks, with more than 80,000 people being treated for the disease in hospitals across the country as of late Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.

Daily COVID-19 deaths surpassed the 2,000 mark for the first time since late June on Thursday.

THANKSGIVING FEARS

U.S. officials have pleaded with the public to avoid unnecessary travel and exercise caution as the winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas approach.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “strong recommendation” on Thursday that Americans refrain from traveling for the holiday.

Although COVID-19 restrictions have received more bipartisan support from state leaders in recent weeks, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican and close ally of President Donald Trump, refused to limit gatherings on Thanksgiving.

“In South Dakota, we won’t stop or discourage you from thanking God and spending time together this Thanksgiving,” Noem said in a statement on Friday.

With cases and deaths increasing steadily in most states, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its widely cited model.

It now projects 471,000 coronavirus deaths by March 1, up from less than 440,000 in its previous forecast.

In hard-hit Wisconsin, the state’s hospital association implored lawmakers to address the growing crisis by providing more resources to health care workers and facilities.

“With few tools available right now to curb spread other than increasingly urgent public appeals, our COVID numbers are growing rapidly and predict, quite accurately so far, a health care crisis in Wisconsin that without significant, swift, and unified action will become a catastrophe,” Wisconsin Hospital Association President and CEO Eric Borgerding wrote in a letter to legislators and the governor on Thursday.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; additional reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, California; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Britain hopes Christmas can be saved as COVID cases flatten

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain could ease stringent COVID-19 rules to allow families to gather for Christmas as signs indicate that coronavirus cases are starting to flatten as a result of current lockdowns, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Friday.

The United Kingdom has the worst official COVID-19 death toll in Europe and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed some of the most stringent curbs in peacetime history in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

But heading into the holiday season, the government faces a dilemma – to ease restrictions, with the risk of renewed spread of the disease and death, or to ban large get-togethers.

“It of course won’t be like a normal Christmas, there will have to be rules in place,” Hancock told Sky News.

He said he hoped that restrictions, which include a strict lockdown in England, could be eased to “allow for a bit more of that normal Christmas that people really look forward to”.

Hancock said he was working with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – which manage their own policies on combating the pandemic – for a UK-wide approach to rules for Christmas.

The head of London’s Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, said that while police might try to stop wild parties, there were better uses of police time than trying to catch families out.

“Let’s see what the rules are, but I have no interest in interrupting family Christmas dinners,” she told LBC radio.

There was some sign that infection numbers were flattening. The Office for National Statistics said incidence had levelled off in recent weeks, with daily infections increasing by 38,900 in England in the latest week, down from around 50,000 previously.

The government also reduced their estimate of the reproduction “R” number, and said the daily growth rate had fallen to between 0% and 2%.

England has been under lockdown for two weeks. It is due to end on Dec. 2, although ministers have not ruled out that it could be extended.

Scotland’s biggest city Glasgow and parts of the nation’s west and central regions begin a stricter lockdown regime on Friday to last until Dec. 11, including the closure of pubs and restaurants and non-essential shops.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Sarah Young, Kate Holton and Michael Holden, editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan)

Europe’s COVID curbs prompt pushback amid bleak countdown to Christmas

By Guy Faulconbridge and Richard Lough

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) – A wave of COVID lockdowns and curbs has stirred resistance across Europe, with the right-wing British politician who helped force a referendum on Brexit harnessing popular anger at a new lockdown by recasting his Brexit Party under a new banner.

The United Kingdom, which has the highest official death toll in Europe from COVID-19, is grappling with more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day and scientists have warned the “worst-case” scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded.

Cast by his supporters as the godfather of the movement to quit the European Union, Brexit Party founder Nigel Farage said Johnson had terrified Britons into submission with a second lockdown.

“The single most pressing issue is the government’s woeful response to coronavirus,” Farage and Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice said in a joint article in the Daily Telegraph, announcing his Reform UK party.

“Ministers have lost touch with a nation divided between the terrified and the furious. The debate over how to respond to COVID is becoming even more toxic than that over Brexit.”

Instead of a lockdown, Farage proposed targeting those most at risk and said people should not be criminalized for trying to live normal lives such as meeting family for Christmas.

France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries have announced second lockdowns or strict new curbs as infections surge.

Small shopkeepers in France have complained about being forced to close while supermarkets are allowed to sell “non-essential goods” such as shoes, clothes, beauty products and flowers because they also sell food.

CHRISTMAS CANCELLED?

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Monday French supermarkets would face the same limits on selling non-essential goods but shop owners were not allowed to challenge the lockdown, in place until at least Dec. 1.

“I am not optimistic that in just four weeks we will lower the number of new cases to the level announced by the president (5,000 new cases per day),” said epidemiologist Dominique Castigliola, director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

“We will need more time. I don’t think we’ll be able to hold big family meals at Christmas. That seems very unlikely to me.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week denounced populists who say the coronavirus is harmless as dangerous and irresponsible.

“Throughout the winter months, we will have to limit private contacts,” she told a news conference. “The light at the end of the tunnel is still quite a long way off.”

Police in the Spanish capital, Madrid, on Sunday raided 81 illegal parties, 18 drinking sessions known in Spain as “botellones,” and 10 bars which broke COVID-19 curbs.

Protests flared against new restrictions across Italy last week, with violence reported in Milan and Turin. Italy will tighten restrictions but is holding back from a lockdown, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Monday.

Italy’s daily tally of infections has increased 10-fold over the last month.

“It is a monumental debacle. The fact that Italy is in the same situation as other countries in Europe is no comfort to me,” virologist Andrea Crisanti told Reuters. “We had five months to strengthen our surveillance, tracking and prevention systems and instead we are heading towards a new lockdown.”

More than 46.37 million people have been infected globally and 1,198,168​ have died from the respiratory disease, according to a Reuters tally. The United States, which holds a presidential election on Tuesday, leads the world with more than 9 million cases and 230,700 deaths.

Iran, the Middle East country worst hit by COVID-19, reported a record 440 deaths in the past 24 hours.

World shares recovered from one-month lows as strengthening factory data in China and Europe offset news of lockdowns, while investors prepared for more volatility arising from the U.S. presidential election.

U.S. President Donald Trump has continually downplayed the virus, mocking Democratic challenger Joe Biden for wearing a mask and social distancing at campaign rallies, a tactic which enlivens his base supporters but infuriates his opponents.

Trump has also ridiculed his top coronavirus task force adviser, Anthony Fauci, who has contradicted Trump’s assertions that the U.S. fight against the virus is “rounding the turn”.

The United States reported 67,862 new cases on Sunday, the highest number it has reported on the last day of any week. The seven-day average hit 81,540, a new record, and has risen for 30 days in a row.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood/Mark Heinrich)

Fire in Minneapolis leaves 250 homeless on Christmas Day

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Fire swept a hotel apartment building that provides transitional housing for the poor in downtown Minneapolis early on Wednesday, leaving about 250 people homeless on Christmas morning, city officials said.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in the four-alarm blaze. Three residents with minor injuries were taken to a hospital for evaluation, and several others were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, officials said.

The fire erupted before dawn on the second floor of the three-story Francis Drake Hotel before spreading to the third floor and attic area of the brick building, city Fire Chief John Fruetel told reporters outside the complex.

The cause was unknown, Fruetel said, adding that he expected it would take fire crews until Thursday to fully extinguish the blaze.

Television news footage showed flames leaping through the roof amid thick smoke as firefighters poured streams of water onto the burning structure.

“I would estimate that the building is going to be a total loss,” assistant fire chief Bryan Tyner told Minnesota Public Radio News.

With temperatures hovering just above freezing, the city immediately brought in transit buses to provide emergency shelter and warmth for displaced residents, Mayor Jacob Frey told a news briefing, adding that municipal agencies were working with the American Red Cross and other authorities to provide food, longer-term shelter, clothing and other needs for the evacuees.

“These are people’s lives, this is their home. They’re concerned about everything from a wallet or a phone so they can get in touch with a loved one on Christmas, to where are their babies going to get formula,” Frey said, choking up with emotion.

The Francis Drake, which opened in 1926 as a luxury hotel later converted to residential units, provides overflow shelter space for homeless families, as well as temporary lodging for individuals who lack permanent housing in Minnesota’s largest city, municipal and county officials said.

Drake Hotel resident Jason Vandenboom said he was awakened by his wife when fire alarms sounded and he ventured out of their unit to see “a guy coming down the hallway, just pounding on the doors, saying, ‘There’s a fire, we gotta get out of here.'”

Gazing out to another wing of the building, “I saw flames shooting at least about 10, 15 feet (3, 4.5 meters) up,” he told CBS affiliate WCCO-TV. Vandenboom said he then ran back to his room and told his wife, “‘Yeah, we gotta go now.’ … It was bad.”

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)