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)

Residents take coronavirus surveillance into their own hands

By Thin Lei Win and Beh Lih Yi

ROME/KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A week after Malaysia ordered a partial lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, construction supervisor Hafi Nazhan saw residents in his affluent Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood jogging outside.

He took photos of people flouting the stay-at-home order and published them on Twitter, receiving hundreds of shares. Hafi’s followers informed the police, who subsequently arrested 11 joggers in his neighbourhood.

They were charged with violating the movement restriction order and each fined 1,000 ringgit ($230) in court.

“I was upset some people did not take this stay-at-home order seriously. These are well-educated people,” Hafi, 26, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that police were spurred into taking action after his tweets went viral.

As governments around the world urge citizens to stay indoors to contain the deadly virus, concerned communities are taking surveillance matters into their own hands, reporting alleged breaches of quarantine and questioning anyone they deem suspicious.

The respiratory disease – which emerged in China late last year – has infected roughly 1.2 million people and killed about 65,000, according to a global tally by Johns Hopkins University.

In Singapore, a Facebook post by a man sharing a photo of himself enjoying a bowl of bak kut teh – pork rib soup – in a restaurant when he should be self-quarantining at home was so widely circulated that officials stepped in.

Singapore’s law minister ordered an investigation and the immigration authorities told local media the man was likely to be charged, although they did not respond to requests seeking comment.

In New Zealand, which is under a one-month shutdown, a police website set up to allow residents to report their neighbours who break isolation rules crashed hours after going live.

The website has received about 14,000 reports in less than a week since its March 29 launch, New Zealand police said in an email. They reportedly include people playing frisbee and holding parties.

In Italy, which has been under lockdown for weeks, fraying tempers have led to people being insulted from balconies or photographed and put on social media.

In Spain, locals have also begun posting videos of people going for a run, walking in the park, riding a bike – all prohibited activities – on social media.

HEALTH VS. PRIVACY

Such tip-offs and videos have sparked a debate over digital ethics with some arguing that normal privacy rules do not apply in a health emergency because the information is in the public interest.

“When we are all threatened with the risk of catching a lethal, incurable disease I see no reason why individuals should not report their legitimate concerns to the authorities,” said David Watts, former privacy commissioner for Australia’s Victoria state.

“There is not much point having privacy rights when you are dead,” added Watts, who now teaches information law and policy at Melbourne-based La Trobe University.

For David Lindsay, law professor at the University of Technology Sydney, privacy is “not an absolute right and must always be balanced against other rights and interests”.

“The balance struck obviously depends upon circumstances, and a global pandemic is an extreme event,” he said.

Still, both Watts and Lindsay said the balance between privacy and surveillance should be reset when the pandemic is over.

Others, like Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, fear surveillance measures ranging from facial recognition to phone tracking could outlast the current crisis.

“Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week.

STIGMA AND FEAR

Community surveillance could also end up being used “in a malicious way, particularly to replicate prejudice or bias”, warned Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at digital rights group Access Now.

“Often the people who might be reported on will be the least privileged, or might be belong to, in the case of India, lower caste communities or people who have to work outside,” he said.

Human rights experts worry that the tens of thousands of migrant workers who returned to Myanmar after a shutdown in neighbouring Thailand’s left them jobless will come under intense scrutiny.

In a village in central Myanmar, locals would not allow a young man who returned from Thailand to stay in his home, said Khin Zaw Win, a Yangon-based political analyst.

Foreigners have also been targeted on social media, with a Facebook video showing agitated residents in a neighbourhood in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, who described barging into a building after seeing Chinese visitors coughing.

Filmed Tuesday night, it has received more than 1 million views and 10,000 shares.

“The public is being very sensitive at the moment … when the key in this kind of situation is that you should help each other,” said Khin Zaw Win.

“Some of it have to do with the narrative that (coronavirus) was brought here from abroad. I think the panic is even scarier than the virus,” he added.

Myanmar so far has about 20 confirmed cases of the virus, with the health ministry warning of a “major outbreak” after the return of migrant workers from Thailand.

Officials have also reminded the public that failure to report people suspected of being infected could lead to jail sentences of up to a month.

“From the point of view of public health, surveillance and tracking is essential. The faster and the more effectively you can enforce it, the better,” said Sid Naing, Myanmar country director for health charity Marie Stopes International.

“But it should not be done in a way that breeds hatred and fear. It should be done based on understanding and support,” he said.

“At the moment, the state cannot provide full surveillance so people started doing it themselves because they are terrified … but there are stigma and discrimination behind the fear and those are the problems.”

(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink and Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, additional reporting from Sophie Davies in Barcelona, editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Probes into New Zealand volcano tragedy to take months and carry criminal penalties

Probes into New Zealand volcano tragedy to take months and carry criminal penalties
By Praveen Menon and Charlotte Greenfield

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that official inquiries into last week’s fatal volcano eruption could take up to a year, and will carry potential criminal penalties of up to five years in jail.

Ardern also announced a NZ$5 million ($3.2 million) fund to help small businesses affected by the eruption, after New Zealanders held a minute of silence to honor the victims a week on from the tragedy.

The official death toll from the surprise eruption on White Island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, stands at 16. Two people whose bodies are believed to be in the waters around the island are still officially listed as missing.

A further 26 people remain in hospitals in New Zealand and Australia, many in critical condition with severe burn injuries.

“There remains now questions to be asked and questions to be answered,” Ardern told reporters in Wellington after she led the country in a minute of silence for the dead and injured, who included tourists from United States, Germany, China, Britain and Malaysia.

There has been growing criticism that people were allowed on the island, a popular destination for day-trippers, given the risks of an active volcano. That has led to speculation the tragedy could foretell major changes for New Zealand’s thrillseeker tourism economy.

WorkSafe, New Zealand’s primary regulator for workplace related incidents, has opened a health and safety investigation, Ardern said, while the coroner is conducting a separate inquiry.

Worksafe can prosecute individuals and companies for breaches of health and safety laws, with penalties including fines of up to NZ$3 million and jail terms of up to five years, Ardern said.

A coronial investigation is automatically triggered in the event of a sudden, violent or unnatural death. A coroner can also make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

Ardern said the Worksafe investigation could take a year, while the coronial inquiry was “also likely to continue for some time.”

The NZ$5 million support fund is expected to be distributed among businesses in Whakatane, the mainland coastal town that serves as the jumping off point for trips to Whakaari. Asked if operators of tours to the island would be among the beneficiaries, Ardern said that specifics had not yet been determined.

SEARCH ONGOING

At White Island, recovery teams again conducted aerial searches in a bid to locate the bodies of the last two people known to have been on the island.

Six bodies were retrieved from the island on Friday, and officials believe the remaining two bodies are now likely to be in the surrounding waters. Naval divers are scheduled to continue the search on Tuesday.

“We will continue the operation for as long as we have a chance of recovering those bodies,” New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush told Radio New Zealand.

Many of dead and injured were Australians on a day tour from a Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd <RCL.N> ship. The 16-deck Ovation of the Seas docked back in Sydney on Monday, with some passengers disembarking in tears as they were reunited with family members.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with her New Zealand counterpart in Wellington on Monday to express Australia’s thanks to emergency and medical crews.

Legal experts said last week they expected to see lawsuits filed in the U.S. courts by injured passengers and families of those who died. Royal Caribbean’s potential liability for the deadly excursion could hinge on whether the eruption was an unforeseeable “act of God,” maritime lawyers told Reuters.

“We will to continue to provide ongoing support and services to them and their families during this difficult time,” a spokeswoman for the company said in an emailed statement on Monday.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington, additional reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; editing by Jane Wardell)

Royal Caribbean liability for volcano deaths may turn on ‘act of God’ defense

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd’s potential liability for a deadly excursion to a volcanic island in New Zealand could hinge on whether the eruption was an unforeseeable “act of God,” according to maritime lawyers.

Cruise ship passengers were among the tourists on White Island on Monday when it erupted. While no lawsuits have yet been filed, legal experts said they expected action in U.S courts by injured passengers and families of those who died.

There were 47 people on the island at the time. Eight have been officially declared dead and more than 20 are being treated for severe burns. The New Zealand military was carrying out an operation to recover eight other bodies still on the island.

Royal Caribbean ticket terms posted on its website spell out that the company is not liable for any injury, death or loss of property caused by an act of God, as well as war, terrorism or other events beyond the company’s control.

Royal Caribbean will likely argue the disaster was an extraordinary event no one could reasonably foresee, said Robert Kritzman, an attorney with Baker Donelson in Miami.

“If a volcano were to erupt, clearly that isn’t negligence on anyone’s part, that’s nature,” said Kritzman, a former general counsel with Norwegian Cruise Line.

Royal Caribbean did not respond to questions about missing passengers or whether it told passengers of the risks of visiting the island.

“We grieve this tragic loss. We will to continue to offer our support and services to the families during this difficult time,” the company said in an email.

Part of the case will turn on what the cruise line knew or should have known and what they told passengers about indications of increased volcanic activity.

“There are tremors, there are earthquakes and people monitor that,” said Carlos Llinás Negret, an attorney with Nelson & Fraenkel who represents passengers. “It all depends on what the cruise knew, and when they knew it.”

Geological hazard tracker GeoNet raised the alert level for the White Island volcano in November and said on Dec. 3 that “the volcano may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal.”

The cruise line described White Island as “one of the most active volcanoes in the world,” according to a cached version of its website. “Get close to the drama: Gas masks help you get near roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and the amazing lake of steaming acid,” it promised.

Virginia parents of one woman who was severely burned told a TV station that her daughter said she believed Royal Caribbean would not have let her visit the island if it were not safe.

The experts said in a typical shore excursion accident the cruise line tries to put blame on the third party that is hired to run the tour. On its website, Royal Caribbean does not identify the company that ran the White Island excursion.

Passengers would have to show Royal Caribbean did not take proper care to vet the operator, lawyers said.

But lawsuits face the added challenge of overcoming the argument the eruption was unforeseeable.

Norwegian Cruise Line was able to fend off a class action lawsuit about a large “freak wave” hitting one of its ships in 2005 by arguing it was an unforeseeable event. Regulators had concluded there was no wrongdoing by Norwegian.

Royal Caribbean is using the act of God defense against a class action about a powerful storm in 2016 that hit the ship Anthem of the Seas off the eastern United States. Passengers said the company knew of the risks of the storm, but tried to outrun it.

The dramatic description of the White Island tour on Royal Caribbean’s website will likely be a focus of any lawsuit, with lawyers seizing on it to show the company knew a disaster was possible, legal experts said. The company could argue passengers were fully informed of the dangers and received proper safety equipment.

“If they hand out gas masks that says automatically you know you have a risk,” said Bob Parks, a Miami attorney who represents passengers.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)

Six bodies retrieved from New Zealand volcanic island, two still missing

Six bodies retrieved from New Zealand volcanic island, two still missing
By Charlotte Greenfield and Praveen Menon

WHAKATANE/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – A New Zealand military team in gas masks and hazmat suits recovered six bodies on Friday from the volcanic island that fatally erupted earlier this week, as doctors worked to save badly burned survivors.

An eight-person bomb disposal squad set off before dawn and spent four hours on White Island, which experts said could erupt again.

Six of the eight bodies on the island were successfully retrieved and taken to a naval patrol vessel for transfer to the mainland for disaster victim identification.

“Today was all about returning them to their loved ones,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a media conference in Whakatane, the mainland coastal town where about 100 family and local community members prayed and sang together.

“We know that reunion won’t ease that sense of loss, of suffering because I don’t think anything can but we felt an enormous sense of duty as New Zealanders to bring their loved ones home.”

The team was unable to find and recover the remaining two bodies as the cumbersome protective equipment they needed to wear slowed down the tricky operation.

Police said dive teams deployed in the waters around the island, which is also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, had not found anything and would try again on Saturday.

“It’s not over yet,” New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush told reporters in Whakatane, some 50 km (30 miles) west of the island.

Pictures showed pairs of military personnel wearing breathing apparatus scouring the lunar-like landscape as inflatable dinghies and a police launch waited offshore.

The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash, steam and gases over the island. Among the 47 people on the island at the time were Australian, U.S., German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.

The official death toll stands at eight as the bodies on the island have been classified as missing until they are formally identified. More than two dozen more people are in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.

A blessing was held at sea with the victims’ families before the mission was launched.

Locals Boz Te Moana, 24 and Michael Mika, 28, came to support families gathered at the marae, a Maori community center, in Whakatane.

“Where we come from we don’t leave anyone behind, no one gets left behind,” Te Moana said of his Maori community. “We all move as one.”

Relatives sat among the coffins of those who were recovered on Friday, not knowing which belonged to their family member, senior legislator Kelvin Davis told reporters.

“But it was just an opportunity, as they said, regardless of whether we’re from Australia or New Zealand or wherever, that the moment we’re one whanau (family) and will mourn everybody as if they are our own.”

GRAPHIC: Volcanic Eruption in New Zealand (https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4PR2DX/nzl-volcano.jpg)

SKIN SUPPLIES

Australians made up the majority of the tourists visiting the island at the time of the explosion and those recovered on Friday.

Many of them were passengers on a Royal Caribbean Cruises ship on a day tour to the island.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said 11 injured Australians have been transferred from overloaded burns units in New Zealand, with one more to be repatriated in the “coming days”.

Peter Haertsch, the doctor in charge of the burns unit caring for the returned Australians, said they been exposed to fast-moving clouds of very hot volcanic gas, pumice and ash.

“They have suffered severe contact skin burns with severe injuries due to inhalation of gas and ash, and we are looking at extensive and intensive care for these patients, some of whom are still in a life-threatening condition,” Haertsch said in an emailed statement.

Payne said Australia was working with the United States and other countries to source some of the urgently needed 1.2 million square cms (186,000 square inches) of skin, an amount that far exceeds annual donations in New Zealand and Australia.

“It’s jarring for us to hear just the sheer scale of that need because it amplifies just how horrific some of the injuries are,” Ardern told ABC Radio.

QUESTIONS OVER RISK

Authorities had faced growing pressure in recent days from families of some victims to recover the bodies as soon as possible.

There has also been criticism that tourists were allowed on the island at all, given the risks of an active volcano.

Pressed to discuss whether the island should have been open, Ardern said she didn’t want to preempt an inquiry which has been launched.

“I think families would be best served by that, rather than speculation.”

GRAPHIC: Volcanic alerts for White Island since 1995 (https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4Q22ES/New-Zealand-Volcano-Alerts.jpg)

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Whakatane, Praveen Menon and John Mair in Wellington and Colin Packham in Sydney; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Questions mount over tours to deadly New Zealand volcano

By Charlotte Greenfield and Praveen Menon

WHAKATANE/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Tourists caught in the deadly blast at New Zealand’s White Island were there despite a recent increase in volcanic activity, although experts said precise predictions on eruptions were all but impossible.

Five people were killed, eight are still missing and more than 30 were injured when the White Island volcano, one of the most active in New Zealand, erupted in a steam and gas explosion on Monday. Many of the visitors were on a day tour from a cruise trip in a nearby port.

Geological hazard tracker GeoNet raised its alert level for the island near the middle of a six-point scale in mid-November because of an increase in volcanic activity. But tour companies were not required to keep their dozens of customers that day away from the volcano, operators and agencies say.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said the government would investigate the incident.

“I have to say that I’m very surprised to hear there were visitors there today, because scientists seem to have been well aware that White Island was entering a phase of heightened activity,” said Drexel University volcanologist Loÿc Vanderkluysen. “I’ve been to White Island before, but I don’t think I would have been comfortable being there today.”

Local tourism authorities market White Island, or ‘Whakaari’, as it is known in the Maori language, as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano”.

The volcano attracts volcanologists and thrill-seekers from around the world to walk across the island’s wild landscape, which features active geothermal steam vents and bubbling mud pools.

The privately owned island runs daily tours, and more than 10,000 people to visit every year.

“The eruption was unfortunate but not completely unexpected,” said Jessica Johnson, lecturer in Geophysics at the University of East Anglia in the UK. “The most that the scientists can do is continue to monitor the volcano and issue information when it is available.”

The regional government monitors the volcano’s activity through GeoNet and other agencies. Tour operators, which must have government permits to take people to the island, can shut down access based on that data, tour companies said.

“The safety instructions, the discussion before you go, makes it very clear to you that this is an active volcano, there are risks, when you get handed over gas masks, so the tour companies go to great lengths to make sure people do understand exactly what this is,” said Anne Tolley, local leader and parliament member from the East Coast.

Experts said it was difficult to predict exactly when a volcano would erupt. New Zealand uses a scale of 0-5 to rank volcano eruption risk, with 0 being no activity and 5 being a large eruption. On Monday, White Island was level 2.

Although there are signs scientists can watch for, they are more of an indicator of risk rather than predictive tools, said Toshitsugu Fujii, Head of the Mount Fuji Research Institute in Yamanashi, Japan.

“With a steam explosion it can be hard to see the signals until right before it happens,” Fujii said. “It seems that the volcano was getting more active and they raised the alert level, so they were paying attention. But you can’t tell, even so, if it’ll erupt today, next week or next month.”

Paul Quinn, chairman of Ngāti Awa Holdings, which owns White Island Tours, told Radio New Zealand that the alert levels over the last few weeks did not meet the company’s threshold for stopping operations.

He did not say what specific criteria the company considered, but said that at level 3 it would “liaise more directly” with the government about whether to continue tours.

 

LIVE VOLCANO

Ardern acknowledged that tourism on White Island had been going on safely for decades.

“It has been a live volcano throughout that time and at various time has been level 2 but it is a very unpredictable volcano,” she said.

There are dozens of volcanoes across New Zealand. The country’s largest city, Auckland, sits on a volcanic field made up of about 50 volcanic cones and craters that have erupted over the past 250,000 years. Some get daily tours.

Mount Ruapehu on the central North Island has erupted several times in recent years but is still a major tourist attraction, with ski resorts on its slopes.

Injuries and deaths are rare for volcano tourism anywhere, data show. White Island’s last eruption was in 2016, but no one was affected. A volcano on the Italian tourism island of Stromboli killed one person when it erupted in July.

When Japan’s Mount Ontake erupted in a steam explosion September 2014, the peak was packed with hikers out on a weekend to admire autumn foliage. 63 were killed, the highest toll for an eruption in 90 years. Japan constantly monitors 50 peaks.

Tristan Vine, a Whakatane businessman, told Reuters that New Zealand’s volcano tours are a big draw and that many businesses in the town rely on them.

“There’s obviously plenty of other things to be done but White Island is built on the foundation of that. So it’s quite critical for the town,” Vine said.

Graphic: Volcanoes in New Zealand (https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4PY2EJ/New-Zealand-Volcano-Map.jpg)

(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies in Tokyo. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Spitting volcano keeps search parties off New Zealand island, death toll rises to six

By Charlotte Greenfield

WHAKATANE, New Zealand (Reuters) – Fearing a volcano could erupt again, search parties were unable to set foot on New Zealand’s White Island for eight people still missing on Tuesday, as police raised the death toll to six from the eruption a day earlier.

Police doubted whether any more survivors would be found. They said the latest victim died in hospital, having been among more than 30 people injured in the eruption on the uninhabited island, a popular sightseeing excursion for tourists.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said reconnaissance flights showed no signs of life on the ash covered island, as eyewitnesses detailed the horrific burns suffered by those caught up in Monday’s eruption.

“The scale of this tragedy is devastating,” Ardern said in parliament. “To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow and we are devastated.”

Police said 47 people were on White Island at the time of the eruption.

Twenty-four came from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and the Britain and one from Malaysia.

“I would strongly suggest that there is no one that has survived on the island,” police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said of the eight people still missing.

Most of the injured had suffered greater than 71% body surface burns, said Peter Watson, the government’s chief medical officer, warning that some might not survive.

Burn units across the South Pacific nation of 4.5 million are full to capacity, he added.

Relatives of missing tour guide Tipene Maangi held onto hopes that the 23-year-old man had survived, unsure whether he was among those in hospital.

“We are all standing strong, standing together, holding the fort together, and like I said in prayer with faith… we are just staying strong for one another until we actually know for sure,” said his aunt Ronnie.

Police said an investigation into the deaths on White Island had been launched but clarified it was not a criminal investigation.

New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The volcano’s last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulphur miners.

Yet, daily tours bring more than 10,000 visitors to the privately owned island every year, marketed as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano”.

“I have to say that I’m very surprised to hear there were visitors there today, because scientists seem to have been well aware that White Island was entering a phase of heightened activity,” said Drexel University volcanologist Loÿc Vanderkluysen.

“I’ve been to White Island before, but I don’t think I would have been comfortable being there today.”

A crater rim camera owned and operated by GeoNet showed one group of people walking away from the rim inside the crater just a minute before the explosion.

“It’s now clear that there were two groups on the island – those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption,” Ardern said at a morning news conference in Whakatane, a town on the mainland’s east coast, about 50 km (30 miles) from White Island.

INCREDIBLY BRAVE

Later, in parliament, she paid tribute to the pilots of four helicopters that landed on White Island in the aftermath of the eruption.

“In their immediate efforts to get people off the island, those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extremely dangerous circumstances,” Ardern said.

Since then, rescuers have been unable to access the island, which is covered in gray ash. GNS Science, New Zealand’s geoscience agency, warned there was a 50/50 chance of another eruption in the coming 24 hours, as the volcano vent continued to emit “steam and mud jetting.”

The Buttle family have owned the island for over 80 years, and a spokesman said they were devastated by the tragic event.

“We wish to thank everyone involved in the rescue effort, including the first responders, medical personnel and the locals who helped evacuate people from the island,” Peter Buttle said. “Their efforts have been both courageous and extraordinary.”

Royal Caribbean confirmed several passengers on its 16-deck cruise liner, Ovation of the Seas, were on a day trip to the island but did not provide further information.

Janet Urey, 61, a nurse from Richmond, Virginia, said her son Matthew, 36, and his wife, Janet, 32, were cruise passengers injured in the eruption while on their honeymoon.

“The phone rang at midnight. Then I heard a voicemail come on. It was my son. He said, ‘Mom … this is not a joke. A volcano erupted while we were on the island. We’re at the hospital with severe burns.'”

Urey said she was frustrated by the lack of information from the cruise ship he was on and from authorities.

“I have not heard a word from the cruise people,” she said.

A New Zealand man, Geoff Hopkins, whose tour group was just leaving the island at the time of the eruption, said he helped pull critically injured survivors into a boat.

Hopkins, 50, who was given the tour as a birthday gift, said many of the survivors had run into the sea to escape the eruption.

“People were in shorts and T-shirts so there was a lot of exposed skin that was massively burnt,” he told the NZ Herald newspaper.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said three Australians were feared to be among the confirmed fatalities, with 13 among the injured.

A website managed by the New Zealand Red Cross listed 17 Australians as missing though some could be among those in hospital.

Malaysia’s high commission in New Zealand said one Malaysian was among the dead, while Britain’s high commissioner to New Zealand confirmed two British women were among the injured.

Russell Clark, an intensive care paramedic with a helicopter team, said the early scenes were overwhelming.

“Everything was just blanketed in ash,” he told Reuters. “It was quite an overwhelming feeling.”

‘Whakaari’, as it is known in the Maori language, is New Zealand’s most-active cone volcano, built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years, according to GeoNet.

(GRAPHIC – Volcanic Eruption in New Zealand – https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4PR2DX/nzl-volcano.jpg)

(GRAPHIC – Volcano map of New Zealand – https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4PY2EJ/New-Zealand-Volcano-Map.jpg)

(GRAPHIC – Volcanic alerts for White Island since 1995 – https://graphics.reuters.com/NEW%20ZEALAND-VOLCANO/0100B4Q22ES/New-Zealand-Volcano-Alerts.jpg)

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Whakatane and Praveen Menon in Wellington, additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Jane Wardell and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore)