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China jabs deal hailed as England presses ahead with ‘Freedom Day’

GENEVA: A global initiative to distribute coronavirus jabs to poorer countries was boosted on Monday by a deal to buy 110 million Chinese shots, as the British government confirmed it was axing most restrictions in England on the back of a strong vaccination rollout.

The virus has killed more than four million people since first emerging in China in late 2019, and attempts to halt its spread have been hampered by its ability to mutate, with the highly contagious Delta variant fuelling outbreaks in many parts of the world.

Vaccines are still seen as the best way to allow economies to reopen while keeping the public safe, but many poorer nations are still lagging far behind their richer counterparts — tens of millions in Asian cities are now once again living in lockdown.

Seth Berkley, who heads the Gavi alliance — one of the partners behind the Covax initiative to get jabs to poorer countries — hailed the agreement with Sinovac and Sinopharm for 110 million shots.

“Thanks to this deal, and because these vaccines have already received WHO Emergency Use Listing, we can move to start supplying doses to countries immediately,” he said in a statement.

Covax has delivered more than 100 million jabs so far, well short of its aims after India halted exports of AstraZeneca vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India to address its own domestic demands.

England’s ‘Freedom Day’

Across Asia, governments are struggling to keep a lid on the spread, with Bangkok joining a growing list of major cities under lockdown.

The heads of UNICEF and UNESCO, responsible for children’s issues and education, warned that “a generational catastrophe” was in the making as schools remained shut in 19 countries due to Covid-19.

The situation was markedly different in Britain, where the government confirmed it would press ahead with “Freedom Day” on July 19 by lifting most curbs in England despite a surge in cases.

Scientists are fretting that ending measures such as mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing spells trouble.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid conceded that the caseload could reach 100,000 a day in the coming months, but stressed that with two-thirds of the adult population fully jabbed, the link to hospitalisations and deaths was “severely weakened”.

From the onset of the pandemic, politicians and the public have been grappling with the need to stay safe while ensuring economies are not too badly hit.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised on Monday for easing restrictions too soon as daily infection rates rocketed to peak levels.

New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern announced Asia-Pacific leaders would hold an emergency conference on the Covid response on Friday, with US President Joe Biden and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin among those attending.

She said it was the first such meeting in the history of regional grouping APEC, and demonstrated the level of concern about an economic slump that has shed 81 million jobs in the area.

French President Emmanuel Macron is meanwhile set to address the nation on his ideas for weathering the onslaught from new variants.

He is expected to announce requirements for people to show a “health pass” to get into restaurants and other places and mandatory jabs for reluctant health workers. In Greece, authorities have ordered that all health workers, including those working in retirement homes, be vaccinated by August 16.

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