Greece offers its young people cash and phone data to get COVID shots

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece will offer its young people a 150 euro ($180) cash card and a free month of phone data to get their first COVID-19 shot, in a government drive to boost vaccination rates in the build-up to the holidays.

The country has been easing restrictions as infections fall, but concerns are rising about the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

“With the first jab of the vaccine (they) will get a prepaid card of 150 euros,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a ministerial meeting.

“It’s a debt to the youth, a gift out of gratitude,” he added.

Around 940,000 Greeks aged 18-25 who get their first shot by the end of the year will be eligible for the “freedom pass” cash bonus, the government said.

They will be allowed to spend it on their summer holidays and cultural events from July 15.

Around a third of the 11 million-strong population is fully inoculated, according to government figures.

Greece could have 80% of its people vaccinated by the autumn if they were convinced about the importance of shots, a government official in charge of vaccinations said on Monday.

“If the message is clear… this target can be achieved by the end of the summer, early in September,” Marios Themistocleous told a weekly briefing.

Greece has reported a total of 421,266 cases and 12,682 related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The country ended the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors last week. From Monday, fully vaccinated Greeks can also go to work or the gym without having to test themselves.

($1 = 0.8389 euros)

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Andrew Heavens)

Greece faces row over wheelchair pathway at Acropolis

By Deborah Kyvrikosaios

ATHENS (Reuters) – A new concrete pathway to facilitate wheelchair access to the Acropolis in Athens has fueled a row between authorities aiming to broaden access to Greece’s most famous ancient monuments and critics who say it ruins the classical harmony of the site.

Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras last month demanded the conservative government “stop abusing our cultural heritage,” saying the changes would amount to “changing the landscape” of a world heritage site.

But Culture Minister Lina Mendoni defended the development, which was approved by the Central Archaeological Council (KAS), the body which oversees the Acropolis complex that includes the Parthenon, a 5th century BC temple to the goddess Athena.

“I have seen people in wheelchairs who came up for the first time and felt happy,” Mendoni told reporters during a visit to the site late on Tuesday.

“I think this is something that should also make us particularly happy because to give joy to people is perhaps just as significant as the protection of our cultural goods,” she said.

The Acropolis, a rocky outcrop with an ancient citadel and temple complex, has dominated the city of Athens for more than 3,000 years but reached its high point with the Parthenon, one of the supreme expressions of classical Greek culture.

Now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, it attracts thousands of visitors a day in peak periods, most of whom climb the 160 meter hill on foot and wander among the monuments on uneven stone paths worn smooth over hundreds of years.

The new walkway, a grey concrete track, is laid over a synthetic membrane that protects the ancient stones underneath and permits easy removal, said architect Manolis Korres, who is heading the project and has been doing restoration work on the Acropolis since 1975.

It was opened to the public in March, replacing an older walkway from the 1970s which had worn away over the years.

As well as improving wheelchair access, other changes include a new elevator and golf carts with plans for tactile mobile models to allow blind people a fuller experience of the monuments.

“I still think the Acropolis is very beautiful,” said Michael Kirk, from the United States. “I don’t think it’s hurt the Acropolis at all.”

(Reporting by Deborah Kyvikosaios; Editing by James Mackenzie and Jane Wardell)

Greece evacuates more villages as forest fire spreads to Attica region

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) -Greek authorities ordered the evacuation of more villages threatened by a forest fire on Thursday as winds strengthened and firefighters battled the blaze, which had already scorched 20 square kilometers of woodland.

No deaths were reported as a result of the fire, which broke out on Wednesday night in a forest at a small seaside holiday resort on the Gulf of Corinth, about 90 km west of the capital, Athens.

Seven villages and two monasteries in the Geraneia mountains have been evacuated since Wednesday night after the blaze moved eastward and crossed into western Attica province.

Residents of four more villages received a text message from the authorities earlier on Thursday, advising them to leave their homes and move towards the town of Megara.

“They were asked to move away as wind speed strengthened to eight on the Beaufort scale,” a fire brigade official said.

The fire has burnt mainly woodland and thick vegetation, another fire brigade official said. State television showed images of some holiday homes and electricity pylons damaged by the blaze.

In parts of Athens, the smell of fire was suffocating and the sky had turned grey from the smoke.

More than 200 firefighters were battling the blaze, backed by more than 80 fire trucks, 17 aircraft and one helicopter, the fire brigade said.

(Reporting by Angeliki KoutantouEditing by Robert Birsel and Estelle Shirbon)

Europe dares to reopen as 200 millionth vaccine dose delivered

By Michael Gore and Estelle Shirbon

MADRID/LONDON (Reuters) – As its vaccination drive reaches a third of adults and COVID-19 infections ease, Europe is starting to reopen cities and beaches, raising hopes that this summer’s holiday season can be saved before it is too late.

Exhilarated Spaniards chanting “freedom” danced in the streets as a COVID-19 curfew ended in most of the country at the weekend, while Greece reopened public beaches – with deckchairs safely spaced.

With 200 million vaccine doses delivered, the European Union is on track to achieve its goal of inoculating 70% of its adult population by summer, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Sunday.

And, in Germany, a first weekend of summer sun lifted spirits after Health Minister Jens Spahn declared the third wave of the pandemic finally broken.

Yet, Spahn warned: “The mood is better than the reality.”

The national seven-day incidence of COVID-19 cases remains high at 119 per 100,000 people, he said. “That makes it all the more important to keep up the speed of the vaccination campaign.”

Across the EU, the seven-day incidence of COVID-19 is 185, according to Our World in Data. That is far higher than in countries such as Israel with 6, Britain (31), or the United States (123), all of which made quicker early progress in their vaccination drives.

HEAD START

In Britain, early orders and approval of vaccines and a decision to give first doses to as many people as possible have driven down infections and fatalities far more quickly.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to set out the next phase of lockdown easing in England, giving the green light to “cautious hugging” and allowing pubs to serve customers pints inside after months of strict measures.

“The data reflects what we already knew – we are not going to let this virus beat us,” Johnson said ahead of an official announcement later on Monday.

Vaccine deliveries were slower initially in the EU under its centralized procurement strategy.

Now, with shots from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna relatively plentiful, vaccinations as a share of the population in Europe are growing while countries that made early advances see slowdowns as they encounter hesitancy among the unvaccinated.

Some 31.6% of adults in 30 European countries have received a first dose and 12% a full two-shot regime, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker showed.

France expects to give 20 million first injections by mid-May, and hit 30 million by mid-June.

With infection rates falling and occupancy in hospital intensive care units declining, France plans to start relaxing its curfew and allow cafes, bars and restaurants to offer outdoor service from May 19.

PICKING AND CHOOSING

Improving supply has given countries greater freedom to adapt their strategies following reports of very rare, but sometimes fatal, blood clotting in people who received shots from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Germany has decided to make the two vaccines available to anyone who wants them, as long as they have been advised by a doctor – an offer aimed at younger adults who would have to wait their turn otherwise.

Norway’s vaccine commission made a similar call on Monday, saying the AstraZeneca and J&J shots should be made available to volunteers. Some Italian regions are also offering both shots to people under 60.

With some governments shortening the gaps between doses, and plans for an EU digital “green pass” scheme in June for travelers to provide proof of vaccination or immunity, people cooped up for months are finally daring to make holiday plans.

“We’re pinning our hopes on tourism,” said Nikos Venieris, who manages a beach in Alimos, an Athens suburb.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece’s economy and jobs, and the country can ill afford another lost summer. Greece is lifting restrictions on vaccinated foreigners from May 15.

(Writing by Douglas Busvine; Additional reporting by Jordi Rubio, Terje Solsvik, Gwladys Fouche, Matthias Blamont, Emilio Parodi, John Miller, Alan Charlish and Phoebe Fronista; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Greece opens to tourists, anxious to move on from crisis season

By Karolina Tagaris

RHODES, Greece (Reuters) – Greece began opening to tourists on Monday with few bookings but hopes for a better season to help make up for a 2020 devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

On Rhodes island, where most visitors are from abroad, hoteliers are scrubbing, polishing and painting in anticipation of a make-or-break year.

“We’re preparing the hotel in order to start as soon as the government gives us the green light,” said George Tselios, general manager of Sun Beach Hotel, whose customers are from Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Britain.

Greece will formally open on May 14 but starting Monday, tourists from the European Union, the United States, Britain, Serbia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will not quarantine if they are vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19.

Tourism, which generates a fifth of Greece’s GDP and one in five jobs, is vital for an economy which had climbed out of a decade-long slump only to slip back into recession last year as COVID-19 struck.

In a normal year, Rhodes would have already laid out the umbrellas for a season that runs from March through October. In mid-April, it resembled a ghost city.

Shuttered luxury resorts towered over a long, sandy, empty coastline. Beach towns normally bursting with crowds of British tourists were silent, with boarded up shops, tavernas and bars.

Many have been closed since 2020, when just 7.4 million people visited Greece, fewer than any year in its decade-long economic crisis and down from a record 31.3 million in 2019.

From hotels to restaurants and daily cruise boats, the many businesses surviving on state aid cannot afford another lost summer.

“Most of them feel the country cannot survive another crisis,” Rhodes’s deputy mayor for tourism, Konstantinos Taraslias, said.

Nearly 600,000 tourists visited Rhodes last year, down from 2.3 million in 2019. Just over half its 650 hotels opened, the hoteliers’ association said.

WIDESPREAD TESTING

Greece says it is better placed this summer thanks to widespread testing, quarantine hotels and plans to vaccinate islanders and tourism workers.

“We’ve done everything within our power to have a better season,” said George Hatzimarkos, governor of Greece’s most popular region, the south Aegean islands, which besides Rhodes includes Mykonos and Santorini.

“We’ll be absolutely ready,” by mid-May, Hatzimarkos said.

But bookings are few and most for August to October, said the president of Rhodes’ hoteliers, Manolis Markopoulos, forecasting a year of last-minute reservations.

“We can understand it because guests really want to be sure that they will fly,” he said. “But that does not mean that we will not get bookings later.”

While Greece fared better than much of Europe in containing the first wave of the pandemic, a continuous rise in infections has forced it to impose several lockdowns to protect its strained health service.

Tourists will be subject to lockdown restrictions, which include night-time curfews. Restaurants and bars have been closed since November.

Giannis Chalikias, who manages nine businesses on Rhodes, said only one is open and struggling to meet the obligations of the remaining eight.

“We’re going through an unprecedented situation,” he said. “We’re waiting day by day for people to get vaccinated… so that we can open and have a normal season.”

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

EU official urges Greece to investigate asylum-seeker pushbacks

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece “can do more” to investigate allegations that it is pushing asylum-seekers, including children, back to Turkey, the European Union’s top migration official said on Monday.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has said it has received a growing number of reports in recent months suggesting asylum-seekers may have been pushed back to Turkey at sea or immediately after reaching Greek soil, or left adrift at sea.

Greek officials have always rejected the reports.

“I am very concerned about the UNHCR report and there are some specific cases that I really think need to be looked into closer,” Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, said during a visit to the island of Lesbos.

“I think the Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigating these alleged pushbacks.”

Greek Minister Notis Mitarachi, speaking at a news conference with Johansson, said Greece adhered to European and international law.

“We strongly deny that the Greek coast guard has ever been involved in pushbacks,” he said.

“We understand we are causing a loss of tens of millions of euros to smuggling networks, and that could have played a role in the kind of fake news we hear about the Greek coast guard,” he said.

Mitarachi said independent investigations, including by the Greek judiciary and by the EU’s border agency Frontex, had not found violations.

In 2015 Greece, and Lesbos in particular, was at the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis with nearly a million people, mostly Syrians fleeing war, arriving by boat from Turkey.

Numbers have decreased dramatically since the EU struck a deal with Ankara a year later and just over 16,000 people arrived in Greece last year, according to U.N. data.

Mitarachi said about 14,000 migrants were currently in camps on five islands, down from about 42,000 in 2019. About 58,000 were in camps across Greece, down from 92,000 in 2019.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Giles Elgood)

In silence, Greek city buries coronavirus dead

THESSALONIKI, Greece (Reuters) – Authorities in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki have dug dozens of graves for the victims of COVID-19 after a sharp increase in the number of deaths.

Greece has ordered a second nationwide lockdown after a spike in cases of the new coronavirus. By Thursday, it had recorded 111,537 cases and 2,706 deaths.

Thessaloniki, a city of about one million and where the first nationwide cases surfaced in February, has been particularly hard hit during the second wave.

“We didn’t encounter many cases in the first lockdown .. There were very few cases (then) and it wasn’t every day. These days it’s daily,” said funeral services provider Stavros Chatzivaritis.

“There are between five and eight funerals, almost every day.”

At the Resurrection of the Lord Cemetery in Thessaloniki, on the eastern side of Greece’s second largest city, many new graves have been opened. The Greek Orthodox chapel in the compound conducts funeral services, with pallbearers in full protective clothing.

The silence in its graveyard is punctured by the gentle chant of an Orthodox priest, or by the thud of the shovelled earth hitting the coffin, wrapped in plastic.

There are flowers, but grieving relatives are kept to a minimum and at a distance. “To my beloved,” wrote one on a wreath.

(Reporting by Alexandros Avramidis; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S., Greece call for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in east Mediterranean

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – The United States and Greece called on Monday for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the east Mediterranean as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a two-day trip to Greece amid increased regional tension over energy resources.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey, at loggerheads on a range of issues, have agreed to resume exploratory talks over contested maritime claims following weeks of tensions.

“The United States and Greece … reaffirmed their belief that maritime delimitation issues should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law,” the United States and Greece, also NATO allies, said in a joint statement after Pompeo met his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias.

The United States also welcomed Greece’s readiness to seek maritime agreements with its neighbors in the region, they said after meeting in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Tensions escalated last month after Turkey dispatched the Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel, escorted by gunboats, into a disputed area thought to be rich in energy resources, following a maritime agreement signed between Greece and Egypt.

Turkey has said the pact infringes on its own continental shelf. The agreement also overlaps with maritime zones Turkey agreed with Libya last year, decried as illegal by Greece.

Ankara recalled the Oruc Reis this month, saying it wished to give diplomacy a chance.

Pompeo has previously said the United States is “deeply concerned” about Turkish actions in the east Mediterranean.

ENERGY TIES

The United States also hopes to build up its energy ties with Greece, which seeks to become an energy hub in the Balkans and help Europe to diversify its energy resources.

Athens already imports large quantities of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is developing a floating LNG storage and regasification unit off the port of Alexandroupolis, which is expected to channel gas to Bulgaria via the Interconnector Greece – Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline and from there to central Europe by early 2023.

ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Greece’s Hellenic Petroleum have set up a joint venture that will look for gas and oil off the Greek island of Crete.

The United States has also expressed interest in the privatization of the ports of Alexandroupolis and Kavala in northern Greece.

Pompeo and Greek Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis also signed on Monday a science and technology agreement. The two countries want to collaborate on artificial intelligence, cyber security, 5G and privatization of strategic infrastructure, their joint statement said.

Pompeo was due to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and to visit the Souda military base on Crete on Tuesday.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

Greece blocks 35,000 migrants, plans to deport arrivals after March 1

By Lefteris Papadimas and Bulent Usta

KASTANIES, Greece/EDIRNE, Turkey (Reuters) – Greece has repulsed nearly 35,000 migrants trying to cross onto its territory illegally since Turkey opened its border nearly a week ago, government sources said on Thursday, as it prepares to deport hundreds of others who made it through.

Thousands of migrants have made for Greece since Ankara said on Feb. 28 that it would let migrants cross its borders into Europe, reneging on a commitment to hold them on its territory under a 2016 deal with the European Union.

Ankara has accused Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants. A charge rejected by Athens, which says Turkish forces are helping the migrants to cross the border. Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post on Wednesday.

Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, visited Edirne province bordering Greece on Thursday and announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants toward its territory.

Soylu, who said on Wednesday that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of migrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing back nearly 5,000 into Turkey.

Greece on Thursday banned vessels from sailing around the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. They are all close to the Turkish coast and a regular target for dinghies packed with migrants trying to enter the EU.

The ban exempts merchant ships and vessels of the EU’s border agency Frontex.

The Aegean Sea remained choppy on Thursday and there were no further sightings of dinghies carrying migrants.

Lesbos already hosts more than 20,000 asylum seekers, many of them living in filthy conditions in overcrowded camps.

The situation at the Kastanies border crossing was calm on Thursday. Migrants – many of whom are from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Syria and other Arab nations – huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border.

HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS

Greek border guards rebuffed nearly 7,000 attempts in the last 24 hours alone, taking the total since Feb. 29 to 34,778 and the number of arrests of those who got through to 244, the Greek government sources said.

Migrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on Wednesday.

“Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he told the Athens News Agency.

Mitarachi said migrants who entered Greece prior to Jan. 1, 2019 and are living on its Aegean islands would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days.

Athens announced on March 1 that it would not accept any new asylum applications for a month following the build-up of migrants at the border. This has triggered criticism from human rights agencies.

“It’s very sad that we have seen again human beings treated as political weapons… This is unacceptable,” said Francesco Rocca, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on a visit to the Greek-Turkish border where he struggled to hold back tears.

The U.N. migration agency, the IOM, also urged all countries to respect the migrants’ human rights.

“… international legal obligations must be upheld, in particular with respect to those who may be in need of international protection,” it said in a statement.

Greece and the EU accuse Turkey of deliberately goading the migrants to cross the border as a way of pressuring Brussels into offering more money or supporting Ankara’s geopolitical aims in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and faces another influx amid increased fighting in northwest Syria, says it cannot take in any more and that the EU must do more.

President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the migrant issue with senior EU officials in Ankara on Wednesday but his spokesman said the Europeans had made “no concrete proposition” on how to resolve the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Athens and Istanbul bureaux and by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; writing by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Gareth Jones)

EU pledges aid to Greece as migrants mass on border with Turkey

By Lefteris Papadimas and Alkis Konstantinidis

KASTANIES/LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – European Union officials on Tuesday promised more cash for Greece during a visit to its border with Turkey which tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have been trying for days to breach.

The officials urged Turkey to abide by a 2016 deal which requires it to keep the migrants on its soil in return for EU aid. After an upsurge in fighting in Syria last week, Ankara says it will no longer stop migrants who want to reach Europe.

Greek riot police have used tear gas against the migrants at its Kastanies border post, while the coastguard has tried to stop boats transporting migrants to Greece’s Aegean islands. A Syrian boy died on Monday after his boat capsized in the area.

“The situation at our border is not only an issue for Greece to manage, it is the responsibility of Europe as a whole,” the head of the EU’s executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told a news conference at Kastanies.

“We will hold the line and our unity will prevail,” she said after touring the area with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the heads of the European Council and Parliament.

Von der Leyen announced additional aid of 700 million euros to help Greece deal with the migrant crisis.

Migrants walk next to the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, near Edirne, Turkey, March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Brussels is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2015-16 crisis, when more than a million migrants entered the EU from Turkey via the Balkans, straining European security and welfare systems and boosting support for far-right parties.

Greek troops and riot police remained on high alert along the Turkish border on Tuesday, though there were no reports of significant new clashes with the migrants.

“There were only a few attempts today (to cross the border). Let’s hope they get the message,” a machine gun-toting army officer told Reuters at the Kastanies border post.

Army jeeps patrolled the area and roads leading to the Evros river which marks the Greek-Turkish border remained shut.

GREECE, TURKEY AT LOGGERHEADS

The crisis has badly strained ties, never good, between Ankara and Athens.

Mitsotakis accused Ankara of deliberately encouraging migrants to head to the border in order to “promote its geopolitical agenda and divert attention from the situation in Syria”.

He also said these migrants were not fleeing the latest flareup of fighting in Syria’s Idlib province but were people “who have been living safely in Turkey for a long period of time”. Many speak fluent Turkish, he added.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also accused Turkey on Tuesday of using the refugees to “blackmail” Europe.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan infuriated Mitsotakis on Monday by accusing Greek border guards of killing two migrants and wounding a third, a claim denied by Athens.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Greek forces were shooting migrants “in the back as they are running away”, but he provided no evidence.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria’s civil war and faces another possible big influx as the fighting drags on there, says it cannot take in any more.

Human Rights Watch said it had received multiple reports that Greek border guards were pushing people back into Turkey, which could violate the right to claim asylum as well as a ban on returning people to where they would be unsafe, both of which are enshrined in international law.

The mood toward migrants on Greek islands such as Lesbos – once relatively welcoming – has soured since the 2015-16 crisis amid a sense that the Athens government and the EU are not providing sufficient support.

“It used to be the island of solidarity but it seems like the locals are exhausted,” said Charlie Meyers, a U.S. aid worker on Lesbos.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas in Kastanies, Alkis Konstantinidis on Lesbos, George Georgioupoulos and Foo Yun Chee in Athens: Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Geert de Clercq in Paris; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Janet Lawrence)