France suspends 3,000 health staff as Europe targets vaccine refusal

By Matthieu Protard and Ingrid Melander

PARIS (Reuters) -Hospitals, care homes and health centers have suspended around 3,000 workers across France for failing to comply with mandatory COVID vaccination, the government said on Thursday, as countries around Europe weigh how far to go to combat the pandemic.

While Italy is set to announce later on Thursday that proof of vaccination or a negative test will be compulsory for all workers, going further than any other country in the region, the Netherlands plans a similar step – but only to go to bars or clubs.

Britain, meanwhile, says it is highly likely to require front-line health and social care workers in England to be vaccinated as part of a plan to contain the virus during winter.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s decision in mid-July to require a similar health pass to go anywhere from restaurants to gyms and museums, and make the jab mandatory for health workers, has massively increased vaccination take-up.

With the mandate for workers in hospitals and care homes taking effect on Wednesday, its very concrete impact – unvaccinated staff forbidden to work – started to be felt.

According to local daily Nice Matin, nearly 450 health workers – out of 7,500 – have been suspended in just one hospital in the city of Nice, in southern France.

The government, however, shrugged off the impact.

“It hasn’t been chaos, far from it,” Health Minister Olivier Veran told French RTL radio, adding there were 27 million workers in the sector.

There have been a few cases where it has affected care, he said, like the use of an MRI being briefly complicated, but most suspended staff work in support roles, limiting the impact.

“Most of the suspensions are only temporary … many have decided to get vaccinated as they see that the vaccination mandate is a reality,” Veran said.

But unions warn of likely disruptions to care, and just a few absentees in a team is enough to trigger a crisis, Emmanuel Chignon, a care home manager in Bordeaux told Reuters this week, pointing to how hard it was to hire staff in the sector.

“If we can’t replace the carers who leave, the work will fall on the others, and I fear an unvirtuous circle, with tiredness, exhaustion and an increase in absenteeism,” he said.

MANDATORY

In Italy, where vaccination for health workers was made mandatory at the end of March, some have been suspended, but with numbers nowhere near those seen in France.

As of Sept. 16, some 728 doctors in all of Italy had been suspended for failing to be vaccinated, the Italian doctors’ federation said.

Italy is now set to go much further and announce on Thursday that a “Green pass” – showing someone has received at least one vaccine dose, tested negative or recently recovered from the virus – will be mandatory for all public and private sector workers. Failure to have a Green Pass will result in workers being suspended and losing their pay.

In other countries, like the Netherlands, opinion polls show a majority of the public favoring mandatory vaccination for health workers, with the workers themselves mostly opposed to it, and the government has said it will not take such measures.

However a pass showing proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test is set to be required there as of Sept 25 to go to bars, restaurants, clubs or cultural events.

Although polls have shown that a majority of the Dutch support the measure, the pass is strongly opposed by the around 30% of the population who have so far refused to be vaccinated. Critics say the measure is meant to force people to get the jab.

(Reporting by Blandine Henault, Matthieu Protard and Ingrid Melander in Paris, Crispian Balmer and Francesco Zecchini in Rome, Bart Mejier in Amsterdam; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean)

France reports over 10,000 new coronavirus cases per day again

PARIS (Reuters) – France reported more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases again as the rapid spread of the more contagious Delta variant led to a jump in new infections.

The health ministry reported 10,908 new cases on Friday, taking the total to more than 5.84 million. The daily new case tally was last over 10,000 at the end of May.

The seven-day moving average of new cases rose further to 5,795, after jumping over the key threshold of 5,000 on Wednesday.

The closely watched metric – which smooths out daily reporting irregularities – had risen as high as 42,000 per day in mid-April and fallen back to less than 2,000 per day in late June.

But since then, week-on-week percentage increases in new cases have risen every day, from more than 50% last week to more than 100% on Wednesday and nearly 140% on Friday. On Thursday, the number of reported cases fell following the July 14 national holiday.

Hospital numbers for COVID-19 continued their weeks-long fall, but the rate of decline slowed further. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital fell below 7,000 for the first time since early October and the number of people in intensive care with the disease fell below 900.

The ministry also reported 22 new deaths from COVID-19, taking the total to 111,451.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Chris Reese and Alex Richardson)

Protests in France against COVID-19 ‘health pass’ rules

PARIS (Reuters) -Police in Paris clashed with protesters railing against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to require a COVID-19 vaccine certificate or negative PCR test to gain entry to bars, restaurants and cinemas from next month.

Macron this week announced sweeping measures to fight a rapid surge in new coronavirus infections, including the mandatory vaccination of health workers and new health pass rules for the wider public.

In doing so, he went further than most other European nations have done as the highly contagious Delta variant fans a new wave of cases, and other governments are watching carefully to see how the French public responds.

The police fired tear gas on several occasions as pockets of protesters overturned garbage cans and set a mechanical digger alight. Some protesters away from the skirmishes wore badges saying “No to the health pass”.

Some critics of Macron’s plan – which will require shopping malls, cafes, bars and restaurants to check the health passes of all patrons from August – accuse the president of trampling on freedoms and discriminating against those who do not want the COVID shot.

“It’s totally arbitrary and wholly undemocratic,” said one protester who identified himself as Jean-Louis.

Macron says the vaccine is the best way to put France back on the path to normalcy and that he is encouraging as many people as possible to get inoculated.

There were protests in other cities including Nantes, Marseille and Montpellier.

The show of discontent took place on Bastille Day, the anniversary of the 1789 storming of a medieval fortress in Paris which marked the turning point in the French Revolution.

Among other proposals in the government’s draft bill is the mandatory isolation for 10 days of anyone who tests positive, with police making random checks, French media reported. The prime minister’s office did not respond when asked to confirm the detail.

(Reporting by Christian Lowe and Gonzalo Fuentes; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Sandra Maler)

Mali coup leader Goita sworn in as interim president and appoints PM

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) – Assimi Goita, the Malian colonel who has overthrown two presidents in the past nine months, said he would oversee a transition toward democratic elections as he was sworn in as interim president on Monday.

Goita, a 38-year-old special forces commander, had already been declared president by the constitutional court last month after ousting Bah Ndaw, but was formally sworn in on Monday during a ceremony in the capital Bamako.

Within hours, he appointed opposition leader and former minister Choguel Maiga as prime minister, according to a decree read on state television.

It was not immediately clear to what extent Maiga’s appointment would satisfy calls from Mali’s neighbors and military allies like France and the United States for a civilian-led government.

Those countries, fearful the political upheaval could undermine a fight against Islamist insurgents across the Sahel region, have also been pressing to ensure elections go ahead next February as scheduled. Goita’s advisers have suggested those might be delayed.

“The situation offers us the opportunity to put the process of transition back in the direction desired by the people,” Goita, who had traded his camouflage fatigues for a dark gray officer’s uniform and a yellow sash, said at his inauguration.

He said he was committed to implementing “the actions necessary for the success of the transition, notably the organization of credible, fair and transparent elections that are held as scheduled.”

Goita was one of several colonels who overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita last August.

A transitional government that would oversee an 18-month transition to democratic elections was then put in place with Ndaw as president and Goita as his vice.

Goita last month ordered the arrests of both Ndaw and the prime minister for not informing him about the details of a cabinet reshuffle, which he alleged violated the transitional charter. Both later resigned while in custody.

West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union last week suspended Mali from their organizations, although they declined to impose further sanctions. The World Bank said on Friday it had temporarily paused payments to the country.

Former colonial power France, which maintains more than 5,000 troops in Mali to combat Islamist militants, said it would temporarily suspend joint military operations with Malian troops but would continue to operate in the country separately.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Cooper Inveen and Aaron Ross; Editing by Edmund Blair and Angus MacSwan)

Pressuring junta, France suspends joint military operations with Malian forces

By Tangi Salaün

PARIS (Reuters) -France said on Thursday it was suspending its joint military operations with local troops in Mali as part of efforts to pressure the military junta there to restore a civilian-led government.

Mali’s military arrested interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane last week and pressured them to resign, derailing a transition to democratic elections after another military coup last August.

Former vice president Assimi Goita, a colonel who led the August coup and last week’s revolt, was declared president on Friday.

West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union have suspended Mali from their organizations and threatened sanctions.

“Pending these guarantees, France, after informing its partners and the Malian authorities, has decided to suspend, as a precaution and temporarily, joint military operations with the Malian forces, as well as national advisory missions that benefit them,” the Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement.

French forces will continue to operate in the country separately and the decision will be reassessed in the coming days, it added.

A spokesman for the Malian army declined to comment on what he termed a political matter.

France, the former colonial power, has more than 5,000 troops waging counter-insurgency operations against Islamist militants in Mali and the wider Sahel, an arid region of West Africa just below the Sahara desert.

Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

While France has hailed some success in recent months, the situation is extremely fragile and Paris has increasingly grown frustrated with no end in sight to its operations.

Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday the latest power grab by the junta and any sign it plans to negotiate with Islamist militants could lead to a French withdrawal.

“I passed them the message that I would not stay alongside a country where there is no longer democratic legitimacy or transition,” he was quoted as saying.

(Reporting by Tangi Salaun in Paris; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Paul Lorgerie in BamakoWriting by John Irish; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

Iran says nuclear talks not at impasse, but difficult issues remain

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran believes that barriers to the revival of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers are complicated but not insurmountable, a spokesman said on Tuesday, denying that negotiations had stalled.

Iran and six powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for Tehran and Washington to take, respectively, on nuclear activities and sanctions, for the pact to resume.

“There is no impasse in the Vienna talks,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference streamed live by a state-run website.

“Negotiations have reached a stage where a few key issues need to be decided, and these issues require the proper attention, perfectionism and time.”

Since former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal three years ago and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.

“It is natural that due to the complexities created by the Trump administration’s numerous sanctions and Iran’s measures … Many details need to be considered, but none of these obstacles are insurmountable,” Rabiei added.

On Monday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator expressed doubt that the current round of talks would be the final one.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Washington will return to the pact if Tehran first resumes compliance with its strict limits on uranium enrichment.

Separately, France, one of the signatories to the deal, voiced concern after a report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog which showed on Monday that Iran had failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll, asked whether Paris wanted to resurrect a resolution criticizing Iran at the IAEA watchdog for not clarifying the uranium issue, said: “We strongly call on Iran to provide such responses as quickly as possible.”

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a U.S.-backed plan for the watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles. The three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, and John Irish in Paris; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alison Williams)

France imposes quarantine on UK visitors ahead of summer tourist season

By Matthieu Protard

PARIS (Reuters) -France on Wednesday declared a mandatory quarantine period for people coming from Britain, due to the increasing prevalence there of a highly contagious coronavirus variant first detected in India.

France follows Austria, which said on Tuesday it was banning direct flights and tourist visits from Britain, and Germany, which said on Friday that anyone entering from the UK would have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival.

“There is a new situation with the progression of the so-called Indian variant in the United Kingdom,” said government spokesman Gabriel Attal. “(France) will set up compulsory isolation for people coming from the United Kingdom.”

The isolation will need to last seven days, Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, said on Twitter, adding visitors would also need to present a COVID-19 test carried out less than 48 hours before departure.

The measures are expected to come into force on Monday.

Coronavirus infections in Britain have been rising again, but the overall incidence is still low in a country with one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients fell last week to its lowest level since September.

Clusters of the B.1.617 Indian variant have grown quickly, however, to 3,424 as of last Thursday, up by 2,111 from similar numbers the previous week. The Indian variant has been reported in at least 17 countries.

The French government’s announcement will be a blow to parts of the beleaguered tourism industry, which is desperate for a return to normal business ahead of the peak summer season.

“It’s reasonable in terms of saving the French summer but will be very punishing for those regions which depend on British holidaymakers,” said Ge Kusters, owner of Le Paradis campsite in the Dordogne area and president of the regional campsite union.

“More financial support is going to have to follow.”

British tourists had been due to be allowed to visit France without restrictions from June 9 if they carried a certificate of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 PCR test.

Some 13 million Britons visited France every year before the coronavirus crisis began in early 2020, more than any other nationality, according to official data.

(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten and Matthieu Protard; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Dominique Vidalon, Mark Heinrich and Peter Cooney)

Five EU countries say focus should be on vaccine production, not patents

By John Chalmers and Marine Strauss

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Five European Union countries distanced themselves on Friday from the idea of waiving patent rights on coronavirus vaccines, saying the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic was making more vaccines quickly.

Leaders of the 27-nation bloc were to discuss the suggestion, backed by U.S. President Joe Biden, at a two-day summit that opened in the Portuguese city of Porto on Friday, but are divided about its usefulness.

Experts say waivers could take years to negotiate, and would not address the immediate need to manufacture more doses fast.

“What is the current issue? It is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow?” French President Emmanuel Macron said on entering the talks.

“The main issue for solidarity is the distribution of doses,” he said, adding that France was working hand in hand with Germany on the issue. Berlin expressed its opposition to the idea on Thursday.

Biden on Wednesday backed a call from India and South Africa to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, responding to pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.

Some EU officials argue that it could take two years to agree on the waivers in the World Trade Organization (WTO), most likely making it irrelevant to the current pandemic.

DIFFICULT PROCESS

The EU leaders are likely to hear advice from the bloc’s executive, the European Commission, that a waiver would not help to boost production, especially in poorer countries, as the manufacturing process requires advanced technologies and facilities, officials said.

The U.S. firm Moderna waived patent rights in October on its vaccine, which uses using the latest mRNA technology, but no other firm has yet announced that it will try to copy the shot.

Germany, home to BioNTech, which owns a patent on another mRNA vaccine developed jointly with Pfizer of the United States, opposes waivers, while Italy supports them, EU officials said.

While the pandemic rages, the chances are high that even more dangerous new variants of the coronavirus will emerge.

The pharmaceutical industry argues that the most expedient approach is to overcome existing production bottlenecks, and sell or donate vaccines to countries around the world.

“No one we will be safe until we all are. If vaccination takes place only in developed countries, our victory over COVID-19 will only be short-lived. We are seeing how quickly the virus is mutating, creating new variants that entail new challenges,” the leaders of Belgium, Sweden, France, Denmark and Spain said in a joint letter to the Commission.

“Vaccines have become security policy and the EU cannot afford to lag behind; to this end, an increased European production capacity will be a key priority,” they said.

The EU, which is among the biggest producers of vaccines in the world, is also the main exporter, with 200 million doses already shipped outside the bloc. The United States and Britain have not exported any of the vaccines they have made.

(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Phil Blenkinsop, Francesco Guarasio and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

France’s Macron charts way out of third COVID-19 lockdown

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) -France will start relaxing a nightly curfew and allow cafes, bars and restaurants to offer outside service from May 19, as President Emmanuel Macron charts a way out of a third COVID-19 lockdown.

Macron, who is under pressure from business groups and a COVID-weary public to open up the economy again, announced in an interview with the regional papers a four-phase plan for unwinding France’s month-long stay-at-home order.

The easing will come despite the numbers of new daily cases and COVID-19 patients being treated in intensive care being far higher than when the two previous lockdowns were rolled back. Macron said the vaccine rollout made this possible.

“I have never gambled on the health and safety of our citizens,” Macron said. “I take responsibility for the choices I make, but these are never bets.”

The plan envisages the nightly curfew being pushed back to 2100 from 1900 CET from May 19 and to 2300 from June 9, before being scrapped completely on June 30.

Museums, cinemas and theatres will also be allowed to reopen on May 19. Foreign tourists with a “health pass” will be allowed to visit France again from June 9, according to the timetable published by Ouest France and other newspapers.

The timetable is provisional and could be delayed on a region-by-region basis in areas where intensive care units are close to saturation or the COVID-19 incidence rate exceeds 400 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

‘EMERGENCY BRAKE’

“We will be able to pull an emergency brake in territories where the virus is too present,” Macron said.

The incidence rate in Paris and its surrounds was an average 459 per 100,000 people in the seven days up to April 25 and is falling, data showed. Ile de France is home to nearly a fifth of France’s population and accounts for 30% of economic activity.

About 22% of all French citizens have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Reuters tracker.

Accelerating the rollout in France, Europe and in developing countries is paramount to push back against the virus, Macron said.

Opening up the vaccine to more people in France, Macron said COVID shots would be made available to all obese adults from May 1.

Macron said France could use a digital or paper-based ‘health pass’ to help curb the spread of the virus at events with large crowds such as sport stadia or festivals. But he said it would not be right to use them at everyday venues like restaurants or cinemas.

“A health pass will never be a right of access that differentiates the French,” the president said. “As it pertains to public liberties, parliament will debate the matter.”

France’s main COVID-19 indicators all showed some signs of improvement on Wednesday, with the seven-day moving average of daily new infections falling to 27,366 compared with 38,000 when the lockdown began.

France has recorded 5.57 million COVID-19 cases and 103,947 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Gareth Jones and Sonya Hepinstall)

Parties to Iran nuclear talks to speed up efforts for Iranian, U.S. compliance

VIENNA (Reuters) -The parties negotiating a revival of the Iran nuclear deal agreed on Tuesday to speed up efforts to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance, diplomats said.

Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia began a third round of meetings in Vienna on Tuesday to agree yo steps that would be needed if the 2015 agreement is to be revived.

The main differences are over what sanctions the United States will need to remove, what steps Iran will need to take to resume its obligations to curb its nuclear program, and how to sequence this process to satisfy both sides.

“The discussions proved that participants are guided by the unity of purpose which is full restoration of the nuclear deal in its original form,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Moscow’s ambassador to the U.N. atomic watchdog, said on Twitter after senior diplomats met in the Austrian capital.

“It was decided to expedite the process.”

A U.S. delegation is in a separate location in Vienna, enabling representatives of the five powers to shuttle between both sides because Iran has rejected direct talks.

Three expert working groups have been tasked with unravelling the most important issues and drafting solutions.

At the end of talks last week, the United States and its European allies said serious differences still persisted despite making some progress in their latest indirect talks.

“We hope all parties will sustain the momentum we have already reached in their efforts towards an earliest resolution of this issue before us,” Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the U.N. watchdog, told reporters, adding that senior diplomats would reconvene on Wednesday to take stock.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Timothy Heritage)