New Zealand to ban cigarette sales for future generations

(Reuters) -New Zealand plans to ban young people from ever buying cigarettes in their lifetime in one of the world’s toughest crackdowns on the tobacco industry, arguing that other efforts to extinguish smoking were taking too long.

People aged 14 and under in 2027 will never be allowed to purchase cigarettes in the Pacific country of five million, part of proposals unveiled on Thursday that will also curb the number of retailers authorized to sell tobacco and cut nicotine levels in all products.

“We want to make sure young people never start smoking so we will make it an offence to sell or supply smoked tobacco products to new cohorts of youth,” New Zealand Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall said in a statement.

“If nothing changes, it would be decades till Māori smoking rates fall below 5%, and this government is not prepared to leave people behind.”

Currently, 11.6% of all New Zealanders aged over 15 smoke, a proportion that rises to 29% among indigenous Maori adults, according to government figures.

The government will consult with a Maori health task force in the coming months before introducing legislation into parliament in June next year, with the aim of making it law by the end of 2022.

The restrictions would then be rolled out in stages from 2024, beginning with a sharp reduction in the number of authorized sellers, followed by reduced nicotine requirements in 2025 and the creation of the “smoke-free” generation from 2027.

The package of measures will make New Zealand’s retail tobacco industry one of the most restricted in the world, just behind Bhutan where cigarette sales are banned outright. New Zealand’s neighbor Australia was the first country in the world to mandate plain packaging of cigarettes in 2012.

The New Zealand government said while existing measures like plain packaging and levies on sales had slowed tobacco consumption, the tougher steps were necessary to achieve its goal of fewer than 5% of the population smoking daily by 2025.

The new rules would halve the country’s smoking rates in as few as 10 years from when they take effect, the government said.

Smoking kills about 5,000 people a year in New Zealand, making it one of the country’s top causes of preventable death. Four in five smokers started before age 18, the country’s government said.

Vaping, often seen as a safer alternative to smoking and a useful aid to quitting, is also tightly regulated with sales only allowed to over 18s.

“CRIME WAVE”

Health authorities welcomed the crackdown, while retailers and tobacco companies expressed concern about the impact on their businesses and warned of the emergence of a black market.

“We welcome the New Zealand government’s recognition that excessive excise increases disproportionately impact smokers on lower incomes,” tobacco group Imperial Brands said, adding it was concerned about proposals to reduce nicotine levels and eventually prohibit sales.

“Prohibitions of any kind tend to play into the hands of criminal traders who peddle unregulated illicit products,” it also said.

Dunhill maker British American Tobacco (BAT) and Marlboro maker Philip Morris, which has previously said it would stop sales in the country if required by law, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to brokerage Citi, BAT is the market leader in New Zealand, with a 67% share by volume, while Imperial Brands, which sells JPS, Riverstone and Horizon cigarettes, accounts for 21%, generating about 1-2% of its group earnings before taxes.

The government did not detail how the new rules would be policed or whether they would apply to visitors to the country.

“Cigarette smoking kills 14 New Zealanders every day and two out of three smokers will die as a result of smoking,” said New Zealand Medical Association chair Alistair Humphrey in a statement.

“This action plan offers some hope of realizing our 2025 Smokefree Aotearoa goal, and keeping our tamariki (Maori children) smoke free.”

However, the Dairy and Business Owners Group, a lobby group for local convenience stores, said while it supported a smoke-free country, the government’s plan would destroy many businesses.

“This is all 100 per cent theory and zero per cent substance,” the group’s chairman, Sunny Kaushal, told Stuff.co.nz. “There’s going to be a crime wave. Gangs and criminals will fill the gap with ciggie houses alongside tinnie houses.”

(Reporting by Byron Kaye in Sydney and Siddharth Cavale in Bengaluru; editing by Jane Wardell, Kirsten Donovan)

New Zealand should only reopen border in early 2022, panel advises

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand should keep its borders shut until early 2022 and reopen only after the vast majority of its adults have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, a government-appointed panel said on Wednesday.

It said the country, which last reported a local case of COVID-19 transmission in February, needs to stick to its strategy of eliminating the virus to avoid straining its health system, with the virus rapidly mutating overseas.

“The advisory group considers that an elimination strategy is not only viable, but also the best option at this stage of the pandemic,” the panel said in a report.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has won global plaudits for containing local transmission of COVID-19 through tough lockdowns and shutting the border in March 2020. The country has recorded just 2,500 cases and 26 deaths.

The government is set to announce plans this week for reopening, based on the experts’ advice.

“The challenge of dealing with regular importations of the virus through our borders should not be underestimated,” the panel said in a report.

“Hence we support the idea that re-opening of the borders in 2022 should start in a carefully planned, phased way…”

The panel recommended New Zealand’s vaccination program should be completed before reopening. So far only 21% of the country has been fully vaccinated.

“We need to do more to further strengthen our borders and bolster our health defenses, including through the vaccine rollout, before we can safely open the border further, and that will take a little more time to properly prepare,” Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall said in a statement.

She said the panel’s advice had evolved due to the emergence of the highly infectious Delta variant.

Businesses and public sectors facing worker shortages have called for a more rapid opening up, but the panel said that would make the country vulnerable to infection.

Ardern last week opened one-way quarantine-free travel for seasonal workers from Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu to address labor shortages in the horticulture industry.

New Zealand suspended a quarantine-free travel “bubble” with Australia in July following outbreaks of the Delta variant there.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Writing by Sonali Paul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. and allies accuse China of global hacking spree

By Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and its allies accused China on Monday of a global cyberespionage campaign, mustering an unusually broad coalition of countries to publicly call out Beijing for hacking.

The United States was joined by NATO, the European Union, Britain, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada in condemning the spying, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said posed “a major threat to our economic and national security.”

Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Justice charged four Chinese nationals – three security officials and one contract hacker – with targeting dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the United States and abroad.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials have previously said China is also a victim of hacking and opposes all forms of cyberattacks.

While a flurry of statements from Western powers represent a broad alliance, cyber experts said the lack of consequences for China beyond the U.S. indictment was conspicuous. Just a month ago, summit statements by G7 and NATO warned China and said it posed threats to the international order.

Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, called Monday’s announcement a “successful effort to get friends and allies to attribute the action to Beijing, but not very useful without any concrete follow-up.”

Some of Monday’s statements even seemed to pull their punches. While Washington and its close allies such as the United Kingdom and Canada held the Chinese state directly responsible for the hacking, others were more circumspect.

NATO merely said that its members “acknowledge” the allegations being leveled against Beijing by the U.S., Canada, and the UK. The European Union said it was urging Chinese officials to rein in “malicious cyber activities undertaken from its territory” – a statement that left open the possibility that the Chinese government was itself innocent of directing the espionage.

The United States was much more specific, formally attributing intrusions such as the one that affected servers running Microsoft Exchange earlier this year to hackers affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. Microsoft had already blamed China.

U.S. officials said the scope and scale of hacking attributed to China has surprised them, along with China’s use of “criminal contract hackers.”

“The PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain,” Blinken said.

U.S. security and intelligence agencies outlined more than 50 techniques and procedures that “China state-sponsored actors” use against U.S. networks, a senior administration official said.

Washington in recent months has focused heavy attention on Russia in accusing Russian hackers of a string of ransomware attacks in the United States.

The senior administration official said U.S. concerns about Chinese cyber activities have been raised with senior Chinese officials. “We’re not ruling out further action to hold the PRC accountable,” the official said.

The United States and China have already been at loggerheads over trade, China’s military buildup, disputes about the South China Sea, a crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

Blinken cited the Justice Department indictments as an example of how the United States will impose consequences.

The defendants and officials in the Hainan State Security Department, a regional state security office, tried to hide the Chinese government’s role in the information theft by using a front company, according to the indictment.

The campaign targeted trade secrets in industries including aviation, defense, education, government, health care, biopharmaceutical and maritime industries, the Justice Department said.

Victims were in Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“These criminal charges once again highlight that China continues to use cyber-enabled attacks to steal what other countries make, in flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments,” Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in the statement.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

Hundreds evacuated in New Zealand’s Canterbury region floods

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Hundreds of people were evacuated overnight and many more face the risk of abandoning their homes in New Zealand’s Canterbury region as heavy rains raised water levels and caused widespread flooding.

At least 300 homes in Canterbury were evacuated overnight as water levels rose in rivers across the region in a “one-in-100-year deluge,” local media reports said on Monday.

Several highways, schools and offices were closed and New Zealand’s Defense Forces deployed helicopters to rescue some people stranded in floods in the Ashburton area.

Ashburton’s Mayor Neil Brown said “half of Ashburton” would need to be evacuated if the river’s levees broke but there was “still quite a bit of capacity” in the river.

“We need it to stop raining to let those rivers drop,” said Brown, according to the New Zealand Herald.

New Zealand’s MetService had issued a red warning on Sunday for heavy rain for Canterbury and multiple warnings elsewhere.

The government announced NZ$100,000 ($72,500) towards a Mayoral Relief Fund to support Canterbury communities impacted by the flooding, Kris Faafoi, the acting minister for emergency management said in a statement.

“While it is still very early to know the full cost of the damage, we expect it to be significant and this initial contribution will help those communities to start to get back on their feet,” said Faafoi.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Diane Craft)

New Zealanders urged to evacuate after third earthquake triggers tsunami warnings

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Tsunami warning sirens sounded on Friday and thousands of New Zealanders on the North Island’s east coast evacuated to higher ground after a third earthquake.

Workers, students and residents fled in areas like Northland and Bay of Plenty. Civil defense officials were on the ground to help people evacuate as authorities said tsunami waves could reach three meters (10 feet) above tide levels.

The latest quake had a magnitude of 8.1 and struck the Kermadec Islands, northeast of New Zealand’s North Island. This came shortly after a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in the same region. Earlier, a large 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck about 900 kilometers (540 miles) away on the east of the North Island. There were no reports of damage or casualties from the quakes.

New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said the first waves would arrive on New Zealand’s north shores by about 9:45 a.m. It said areas under threat were from the Bay of Islands to Whangarei, from Matata to Tolaga Bay including Whakatane and Opotiki, and the Great Barrier Island.

“We want everyone to take this threat seriously. Move to high ground,” Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai told state broadcaster TVNZ.

Warnings were also issued for other Pacific islands like Tonga, American Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Hawaii and others.

Australia issued a marine tsunami threat for Norfolk Island but said there was no threat to the mainland. Chile said it could experience a minor tsunami.

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck off the east of New Zealand’s North Island was felt by more than 60,000 people across the country with many describing the shaking as “severe”. Aftershocks were still being recorded in the area.

“People near the coast in the following areas must move immediately to the nearest high ground, out of all tsunami evacuation zones, or as far inland as possible. DO NOT STAY AT HOME,” NEMA said on Twitter.

“The earthquake may not have been felt in some of these areas, but evacuation should be immediate as a damaging tsunami is possible,” it added.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Byron Kaye in Sydney; Editing by Nick Macfie, Chizu Nomiyama, Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)

Nearly 100 whales die after mass stranding in New Zealand

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – About 100 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins have died in a mass stranding on the remote Chatham Islands, about 800 km (497 miles) off New Zealand’s east coast, officials said on Wednesday.

Most of them were stranded during the weekend but rescue efforts have been hampered by the remote location of the island.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) said in total 97 pilot whales and three dolphins died in the stranding, adding that they were notified of the incident on Sunday.

“Only 26 of the whales were still alive at this point, the majority of them appearing very weak, and were euthanized due to the rough sea conditions and almost certainty of there being great white sharks in the water which are brought in by a stranding like this,” said DOC Biodiversity Ranger Jemma Welch.

Mass strandings are reasonably common on the Chatham Islands with up to 1,000 animals dying in a single stranding in 1918.

Mass whale strandings have occurred throughout recorded modern history, and why it happens is a question that has puzzled marine biologists for years.

In late September, several hundred whales died in shallow waters off the Australian coast in one of the world’s biggest mass whale strandings.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

Factbox: Latest on the worldwide spread of coronavirus

(Reuters) – Coronavirus infections slowed in Australia and New Zealand, while Britain said it was at a “tipping point” on COVID-19 as European countries mulled tightening restrictions to curb a sharp resurgence in cases.

EUROPE

* Britain is at a tipping point on COVID-19, health minister Matt Hancock said, warning that a second national lockdown could be imposed if people don’t follow government rules designed to stop the spread of the virus.

* The Czech government could declare a state of emergency if a recent spike in cases continues in the coming days, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said.

* Protesters in some poorer areas of Madrid that are facing a lockdown to stem a soaring infection rate took to the streets on Sunday to call for better health provisions, complaining of discrimination by the authorities.

* Russia reported 6,148 new cases on Sunday, the second straight day when the daily number of cases exceeded 6,000.

* French health authorities reported 10,569 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Sunday, down from the previous day’s record increase of 13,498.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* Schools in Seoul and nearby areas resumed in-person classes for the first time in almost a month after daily cases dropped to the lowest levels since mid-August.

* Australia’s coronavirus hotspot of Victoria reported on Monday its lowest daily rise in infections in three months, although state Premier Daniel Andrews said there were no plans yet to ease restrictions sooner than expected.

* New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lifted all coronavirus restrictions across the country, except in second-wave hotspot Auckland, as the number of new infections slowed to a trickle.

AMERICAS

* The United States set a one-day record with over 1 million coronavirus diagnostic tests being performed, but the country needs 6 million to 10 million a day to bring outbreaks under control, according to various experts.

* Brazil and Argentina, Latin American nations seeking more time to commit to the global COVID-19 vaccine facility known as COVAX, said they intend to do so as soon as possible after missing Friday’s deadline.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* Morocco signed a deal with Russia’s R-Pharm to buy a COVID-19 vaccine produced under a license from Britain’s AstraZeneca, the health ministry said, as its total number of cases approached 100,000.

* Israel entered a second nationwide lockdown at the onset of the Jewish high-holiday season, forcing residents to stay mostly at home amid a resurgence in new cases.

MEDICAL DEVELOPMENTS

* Moderna Inc said it was on track to produce 20 million doses of its experimental coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year, while maintaining its goal of readying 500 million to 1 billion doses in 2021.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

* British manufacturers see no evidence of a ‘V’-shaped recovery from the pandemic underway and many are planning to slash investment, a business survey showed.

(Compiled by Devika Syamnath and Alex Richardson; Edited by Shounak Dasgupta)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Global records

India reported 78,512 new novel coronavirus infections on Monday, slightly fewer than its record set the previous day when it posted the biggest, single-day tally of infections of any country in the pandemic. On Sunday, India’s total of 78,761 new cases exceeded the previous record of 77,299 in the United States on July 16, a Reuters tally of official data showed.

Despite the surging case numbers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing for a return to normalcy to lessen the economic pain of the pandemic, having earlier imposed strict lockdowns of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus surpassed 6 million on Sunday as many states in the Midwest reported increasing infections, according to a Reuters tally. While the United States has the most recorded infections in the world, it ranks tenth based on cases per capita.

More than eight months into the pandemic, the United States continues to struggle with testing. The number of people tested has fallen in recent weeks. Public health officials believe the United States needs to test more frequently to find asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Mutation found in Indonesia

A more infectious mutation of the new coronavirus has been found in Indonesia, the Jakarta-based Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology said on Sunday, as the Southeast Asian country’s caseload surges.

The “infectious but milder” D614G mutation of the virus has been found in genome sequencing data from samples collected by the institute, deputy director Herawati Sudoyo told Reuters, adding that more study is required to determine whether that was behind the recent rise in cases.

The strain, which the World Health Organization said was identified in February and has been circulating in Europe and the Americas, has also been found in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

Vaccine approval and use underway in China

Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s coronavirus vaccine candidate CoronaVac was approved for emergency use as part of a program in China to vaccinate high-risk groups such as medical staff, a person familiar with the matter said.

China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a unit of state-owned pharmaceutical giant China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), also said it had obtained emergency use approval for a coronavirus vaccine candidate in social media platform WeChat last Sunday. CNBG, which has two vaccine candidates in phase 3 clinical trials, did not say which of its vaccines had been cleared for emergency use.

China has been giving experimental coronavirus vaccines to high-risk groups since July, though officially it has given little details on which vaccine candidates have been given to high-risk people under the emergency use program and how many people have been vaccinated.

Lighter traffic in Seoul; masks on in Auckland

Private tuition centers shut for the first time and traffic was lighter in South Korea’s capital on Monday, the first working day of tighter social-distancing rules designed to halt a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks.

The decision came after earlier restrictions on movement failed to prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections from erupting at churches, offices, nursing homes and medical facilities.

Meanwhile in Auckland, schools and businesses reopened on Monday after the lifting of a lockdown in New Zealand’s largest city to contain the resurgence of the coronavirus, but face masks were made mandatory on public transport across the country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was confident the new measure would be taken up across New Zealand, adding that “a bit of smiling with the eyes behind the mask” and kindness to Aucklanders in particular, would help get the country through the latest outbreak.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Pelosi wants COVID-19 deal ‘now’

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Democrats in Congress are willing to cut their coronavirus relief bill in half to get an agreement on new legislation.

“We have to try to come to that agreement now,” Pelosi said in an online interview with Politico. “We’re willing to cut our bill in half to meet the needs right now.”

A senior House Democratic aide said Pelosi was reiterating a standing call by Democrats for the White House and Republicans to meet them “half way” on coronavirus relief.

The Democratic-led House passed legislation with more than $3 trillion in relief in May. Democrats offered this month to reduce that sum by $1 trillion, but the White House rejected it.

Mass testing in UK

Britain plans to bring in regular, population-wide testing for the novel coronavirus so it can suppress its spread and limit restrictions that have crippled one of the worst-hit countries in the world.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government was carrying out trials of a range of new, faster tests that can give instant results and hoped to roll them out towards the end of the year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been heavily criticized for its handling of the pandemic, with critics saying it was too slow to go into lockdown and too slow to roll out testing to know how far the virus had spread.

Church outbreaks spread in South Korea

South Korea reported its highest daily rise in novel coronavirus cases since early March as outbreaks from churches around the capital spread, prompting a warning of a nationwide wave of infections.

The 297 new infections mark the sixth straight day of triple-digit increases in a country that has managed to blunt several previous outbreaks.

At least 166 of the new infections are linked to the Sarang Jeil Church, taking the number of cases from it to 623.

Some members of the church, which is run by a radical conservative preacher, are reluctant to come forward and get tested, or to self-isolate, officials have said.

Part of NZ lockdown illegal

A New Zealand court found the first nine days of a hard lockdown put in place by the government this year requiring people to isolate at home was justified, but unlawful, as an order imposing stay-at-home restrictions was not passed until April 3.

“In the end, the measures taken by the government worked to eliminate COVID-19, save lives and minimize damage to our economy,” Attorney General David Parker said after the ruling.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday she would increase the number of defense personnel at quarantine facilities and borders to beat any spread of the virus, as five new cases in the community were reported.

A warning from the Pope

Rich countries should not hoard a coronavirus vaccine and should only give pandemic-related bailouts to companies committed to protecting the environment, helping the most needy and the “common good”, Pope Francis said on Wednesday.

“It would be sad if the rich are given priority for the COVID-19 vaccine. It would be sad if the vaccine becomes property of this or that nation, if it is not universal and for everyone,” Francis said at his weekly general audience.

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that any nation that hoards possible vaccines while excluding others would deepen the pandemic.

“The pandemic is a crisis and one never exits from a crisis returning to the way it was before,” Francis said.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes and Karishma Singh; Editing by Robert Birsel)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Concern over U.S. autumn resurgence

The United States surpassed 170,000 coronavirus deaths on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally.

U.S. public health officials and authorities are concerned about a possible resurgence in cases in the autumn at the start of the flu season, which will likely exacerbate efforts to treat the coronavirus.

The United States has at least 5.4 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the highest in the world and likely an under count as the country still has not ramped up testing to the recommended levels. Cases are falling in most states except for Hawaii, South Dakota and Illinois.

Pandemic spreads in India

India’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 50,000 on Monday and the total number of recorded cases neared 2.65 million as the outbreak spread further into smaller towns and rural areas, government data showed.

The world’s second-most populous country recorded 57,981 new infections in the last 24 hours, raising the total to 2,647,663, while an additional 941 deaths raised the overall death toll to 50,921.

India is only the third country, behind the United States and Brazil, to record more than 2 million infections. Experts have said India’s testing rates are far too low.

South Korea battles worst outbreak in months

South Korea warned of a looming coronavirus crisis as new outbreaks flared, including one linked to a church where more than 300 members of the congregation have been infected but hundreds more are reluctant to get tested.

The outbreak linked to the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul is the country’s biggest in nearly six months and led to a tightening of social distancing rules on Sunday.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 197 new cases as of midnight on Saturday, most in the Seoul metropolitan area, marking the fourth day of a three-digit tally. “We’re seeing the current situation as an initial stage of a large-scale transmission,” KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing.

New Zealand postpones election

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern postponed the general election by a month to Oct. 17, bowing to pressure after some parties complained they could not campaign with nearly a third of New Zealand’s 5 million people under lockdown in Auckland.

Ardern’s opponents accuse her of using the pandemic to shore up support as she appears on television nearly every day to reassure New Zealanders, while other party leaders struggle to get attention. Her rivals are hoping Ardern loses some of her appeal once economic hardships caused by the lockdown begin to bite.

“Shocking” rise in Lebanon

Lebanon must shut down for two weeks after a surge in infections, the caretaker health minister said on Monday, as the country reels from the massive Beirut port blast.

“We are all facing a real challenge and the numbers that were recorded in the last period are shocking,” Hamad Hassan said. “The matter requires decisive measures.” Intensive care beds at state and private hospitals were now full, he added.

Lebanon on Sunday registered a record 439 new infections and six more deaths from the virus in 24 hours.

The country, already deep in financial crisis, was struggling with a COVID-19 spike before the Aug. 4 blast that killed at least 178 people, wrecked swathes of the capital and pushed the government to resign.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes and Karishma Singh; Editing by Nick Macfie)