Coronavirus live news: UK expands trial on mixing vaccines; France stops all flights from Brazil over variant fears

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Coronavirus live news: UK expands trial on mixing vaccines; France stops all flights from Brazil over variant fears” was written by Jedidajah Otte (now) and Martin Belam, Helen Sullivan (earlier), for theguardian.com on Wednesday 14th April 2021 11.04 UTC

Covid-19 case numbers in Scotland are being underestimated by more than half, according to a leading expert in infectious disease.

Professor Mark Woolhouse said data from SPI-M, a sub group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), shows there is a “persistent problem in Scotland and indeed the whole of the UK with missing Covid-19 cases”, PA reports.

Prof Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said official figures show Scotland had around 2,000 cases per day in late December and early January.

But data from SPI-M and the Office for National Statistics shows the true figure to be 4,000-5,000 daily infections.

He told an online symposium by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh:

What those numbers imply is that we’re consistently underestimating in Scotland the size of our epidemic terms of case numbers by roughly 50 or 60%. That’s quite a large disparity, and it’s a problem.

He said as these infectious people will not be having their contacts traced and may not be self-isolating, it is “handicapping our ability to control the spread of infection”.

By expanding the range of coronavirus symptoms that people should report, “you can pick up perhaps at least half of the missing cases”, he said.

There is a “need for much wider testing, mass testing, basically, in order to find these missing cases”, he added.

Japan, for the first time in nearly four months, recorded more than 4,000 new cases on Wednesday, while its Osaka Prefecture reported a record 1,130 daily coronavirus cases, as the area struggles with a surge in infections driven by a highly contagious variant of the virus amid concerns that the country has entered a fourth wave of infections.

The Japan Times reports:

Osaka logged 1,099 Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, topping 1,000 for the first time.

Also on Wednesday, the nationwide daily tally of new cases surpassed 4,000 for the first time since late January.

The same day, the head of the government’s coronavirus panel acknowledged that Japan had entered the fourth wave and urged more of a sense of crisis over the situation.

Shigeru Omi, an infectious disease expert who chairs the government’s subcommittee, said in parliament the government should expand areas subject to tougher anti-virus measures due to rising cases “in an extremely swift and nimble manner.”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, however, took a cautious stance as to whether the country has entered the new phase of infections, playing down concerns at an Upper House plenary session.

“I don’t see a big wave (of infections) nationwide,” he said.

Omi’s warning came as the government is considering adding some prefectures to the list of areas requiring the quasi-state of emergency that involves shorter business hours for restaurants and bars, among other anti-virus steps.

The quasi-state of emergency is already in place in six prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka. The capital on Wednesday reported 591 new infections and Hyogo Prefecture, which neighbors Osaka Prefecture, reported a record 507 cases. Okinawa Prefecture, meanwhile, confirmed 137 cases, topping 100 for the second straight day.

The figure in the capital was the highest since the government’s second state of emergency ended on March 21 and more than the last two Wednesdays — 555 on April 7 and 414 on March 31.

People wearing face masks walk near a train station in Osaka, western Japan, Wednesday, 14 April, 2021.
People wearing face masks walk near a train station in Osaka, western Japan, Wednesday, 14 April, 2021.
Photograph: Hiro Komae/AP

Asked when the British government will announce which countries will be in which categories for foreign travel rules, aviation minister Robert Courts told MPs: “I anticipate that at the early part of May we’ll be able to give more detail.”

He insisted “we are giving as much notice as we can” and acknowledged “there is a logistics issue” in giving customers and business enough time to prepare for the potential resumption of foreign holidays from England on 17 May.

Courts added:

I accept this is a cautious unlocking of international travel. It is meant to be because it’s meant to be robust and it’s meant to be something that is sustainable and that protects public health and ensures that we don’t have to go backwards again.

So it is intended to enable people to travel, but to do so in a way that is safe, secure and not reversible.

Most popular European holiday destinations such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal should be on the UK government’s “green list” for foreign travel, the boss of budget airline easyJet said on Wednesday.

PA reports:

Chief executive Johan Lundgren said he “would expect almost all major European countries” to be put in the low-risk category when overseas holidays from the UK are allowed to resume.

Under the new traffic light system, people arriving in the UK from a “green” country will not be required to self-isolate, but those entering from an “amber” destination must quarantine for 10 days.

Existing rules for arrivals from “red” locations will continue, including the mandatory stay in a quarantine hotel.

Everyone returning to or visiting the UK will be required to take at least one coronavirus test prior to departure and after they arrive.

The earliest date that foreign holidays could be permitted for people in England under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s road map for easing restrictions is May 17.

Mr Lundgren was asked if he expects destinations such as France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Cyprus and Turkey to be on the “green list”.

He replied: “Yes, by the time we open up for travel on the 17th of May and if the government continues to have the plan in place on the two-test system.

“I wouldn’t see a reason why you wouldn’t have the majority of the countries of Europe in there.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin has received the second shot of a Russian Covid-19 vaccine, the Interfax news agency cited him as saying on Wednesday.

The Kremlin said last month that Putin had received the first shot without disclosing details or providing photographs, Reuters reports.

It has not said which of Russia’s three vaccines, the most well-known of which is Sputnik V, he has received.

Denmark to stop use of AstraZeneca vaccine permanently

Denmark will permanently cease to administer AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, broadcaster TV 2 reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed sources.

The move will delay Denmark’s vaccination roll-out by a few weeks, TV 2 said.

The Copenhagen Post reports:

Without the J&J and AstraZeneca jabs, experts warn that Denmark’s vaccination program might not be completed before the end of the year.

J&J accounted for 8.2 million of Denmark’s vaccinations. Even better, only one jab is necessary to vaccinate. On its own, it could have covered the whole country … and Latvia. Its withdrawal was unthinkable.

But its departure leaves Denmark with only Pfizer and Moderna in its arsenal.

“We can get to the finish line with Pfizer and Moderna,” Professor Jan Pravsgaard Christensen from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen told DR.

“But then I think we will not be completely vaccinated until the end of 2021.”

I’m Jedidajah Otte and will be taking over for the next few hours. Feel free to get in touch with tips and updates, I’m on Twitter @JedySays or you can email me.

Updated

Today so far…

  • A major UK study examining whether Covid vaccines can be safely mixed with different types of jabs for the first and second doses is to be expanded. Launched in February to investigate alternating doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, it will now also include the Moderna and Novavax vaccines.
  • The latest figures from the ONS suggest an estimated 54.9% of people in private households in England were likely to have tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies in the week to 28 March – largely unchanged on the previous two weeks. The presence of Covid-19 antibodies suggests someone has had the infection in the past or has been vaccinated.
  • People aged under 60 who have been given a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in Germany will receive a different jab for their second dose, federal and regional health ministers agreed
  • France is suspending all flights to and from Brazil to contain the spread of a highly contagious new Covid-19 variant picked up in the country.
  • Brazil’s senate, meanwhile, has launched an investigation into President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Ireland is considering extending the gap between injections of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to more than four weeks to keep its vaccine programme on track while other vaccines are restricted.
  • Poland will reopen kindergartens and allow open-air sports from 19 April, but other restrictions will be extended by a week.
  • Romania’s prime minister Florin Cîtu has fired health minister Vlad Voiculescu after weeks of mounting tensions over how to handle the pandemic.
  • Denmark will allow people from countries in the European Union and Schengen Area to enter the country from May if they have been vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • Rising case numbers in India have not stopped the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival. The inspector general of police at the festival said around 650,000 people had bathed in the Ganges on Wednesday morning. “People are being fined for not following social distancing in non-crowded ghats (bathing areas), but it is very hard to fine people in the main ghats, which are very crowded,” he said.
  • Thailand reported on Wednesday 1,335 new Covid cases, the biggest daily rise since the start of the pandemic and the third record rise this week, as the country struggles with a new wave of infections.
  • Australia’s national cabinet will begin meeting twice a week from Monday, marking a return to a “war footing” in the country’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic amid turmoil in its national vaccination programme. The country has fallen to 100th in the world for the number of Covid-19 vaccinations administered for every hundred residents, and is only 44th in total doses administered.

That is it from me, Martin Belam, in London this morning. I will be back with you tomorrow. Jedidajah Otte is here now to take you through the rest of the day’s global and UK coronavirus news…

Australia should make Covid vaccine rollout ‘top priority’, Anthony Fauci says

Covid vaccination must be “top priority” and allocated significant resources, the chief medical adviser to the White House, Dr Anthony Fauci, has said when asked what Australia could learn from the US rollout.

So far in the US, more than 35% of the population has received their first dose since the program began in December. In Australia, just 1.3m doses have been administered.

“What president [Joe] Biden did is that he made it the very, very top priority,” Fauci said. “What he’s done, for example, is open up community vaccine centres, get vaccines to the pharmacies, develop mobile units to go out to get the people who are in poorly accessible areas, and got people who would be administering the vaccine out into the field as fast as he could.

“Those are retired physicians, military personnel, nurses, medical students, as many people as you possibly can to get out there and administer it. So it was really making it the highest priority to get vaccine into people’s arms – and it works.”

The US on Monday performed a record 4.6m vaccinations in a single day. As of 12 April, about 57 vaccination doses had been administered for every 100 people in the US population.

“If we keep doing that over the next few months I believe we will finally get the overwhelming majority of the people vaccinated, which I hope will then turn things around and get that level of daily infections down to a manageable level,” Fauci said.

Fauci made the comments during the inaugural David Cooper Lecture for the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW. It was pre-recorded on Tuesday and broadcast on Wednesday night.

Read more of Melissa Davey’s report here: Australia should make Covid vaccine rollout ‘top priority’, Anthony Fauci says

Eleanor Morgan writes for us this morning on her experience spending four months helping administer the vaccination programme in the UK:

When I saw an advert for people willing to train as vaccinators in early January, I applied at once. The idea of being an active part of a historic vaccination rollout was thrilling. I have clinical experience as an assistant psychologist, can put people at ease and was very ready for a meaningful break from spending 10 hours a day looking at a screen alone in my flat. The training was delivered by a group of witty, absolutely zero-bullshit female clinicians wearing Crocs. The conversation was sharp; I adored them immediately. We covered infection control (including a sobering experiment with UV gel; trust me, you need to clean your thumbs), PPE, life support and, of course, learning to inject. I remember a surreal moment, looking around a room full of lawyers, medical students, psychotherapists, cycling instructors and shop managers in full PPE, all bound by the shared purpose of wanting to do something.

On my first shift, vaccinators were led to the pharmacy where an enormous fridge buzzed away. The only contents were two slim boxes on the middle shelf: the vaccine. It was the centre’s opening day and only a modest number of patients were booked in. The pharmacist joked about the anticlimax of seeing something so inconspicuous, but inwardly, I was squeaking. The pain, isolation, loss, boredom and fear people have experienced during the pandemic is complex and individual, but the hope of freedom sat in those vials, each containing a few crystalline millilitres of scientific brilliance. When I signed out my first vial, I stared at the label and grinned.

My stomach lurched when I welcomed my first patient into my vaccination “pod”. I was supervised by a nurse until she was comfortable with my technique, but the floor was mine. I felt the patient deserved to be greeted with an air of confidence and hoped that my face, flushed and clammy with emotion, didn’t give me away. In a year that has been defined by the lack of touch for so many, the moment my hand felt the warmth of this stranger’s skin felt profound. The first injection went well. So did the next 20. I was sad to leave when my shift ended, but so tired I could have fallen asleep standing up. That tiredness was delicious; the feeling of having made myself useful, after a year of feeling anything but. I kept my purple “vaccinator” lanyard on for my cycle home.

Read more here: Hope, humour and zero-hours contracts: what four months as a vaccinator has taught me

Ireland is considering extending the gap between injections of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to more than four weeks to keep its vaccine programme on track while other vaccines are restricted, the health minister said on Wednesday.

Conor Humphries for Reuters reports that Stephen Donnelly told journalists: “We are looking for options for how we can keep the pace of the vaccine programme going given the news we’ve had. Certainly extending the interval for Pfizer beyond the four weeks is something that is being looked at,” he said.

Busaba Sivasomboon reports for Associated Press a little more detail from Thailand, which recorded more than 1,300 new Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, setting another daily record. The numbers are adding pressure on the government to speed up a nearly nonexistent vaccination drive, and to do more to control a surge that comes amid mass travel as the country celebrates its traditional New Year festival.

The 1,335 new infections brings the number of new cases to nearly 7,000 since 1 April, when a cluster linked to nightclubs and bars in central Bangkok was found. Most of the new cases reported today were yet again in Bangkok, but also seeing hefty increases were the northern province of Chiang Mai and the southern seaside province of Prachuap Khiri Khan.

A health worker checks the temperature of a man falling in line for a Covid-19 swab test in Khaosan Road in Bangkok, Thailand.
A health worker checks the temperature of a man falling in line for a Covid-19 swab test in Khaosan Road in Bangkok, Thailand.
Photograph: Somchai Chanjirakitti/AP

Many of the new infections are a more contagious variant of the virus first found in the UK and that coupled with widespread travel for the Songkran festival, or Thai new year, is fuelling the surge, said Dr Opas Karnkavinpong, the director general of the Disease Control Department. The festival officially began Tuesday and lasts for three days, but many people travel for a week.

Large daily increases in new infections had been rare for Thailand, which has weathered the pandemic far better than many nations through measures including strict border controls that have damaged the country’s lucrative tourism industry.

With millions of Thais moving around the country – often from urban areas to rural villages – for Songkran, prime minister Prayauth Chan-ocha and his government have faced questions as to why they didn’t prevent people from traveling as they did last year, when they canceled the festival at a time when the country was reporting far fewer infections.

Opas said that Thailand’s policy of hospitalizing all infected patients whether they have symptoms or not needed to continue as the “main strategy” to control the current surge. “We cannot risk more infections caused by those who break their home quarantine and wander to other places,” he said at a daily press briefing.

People queue to pour water on a Buddhist statue as they celebrate Songkran at Wat Pho temple in Bangkok, Thailand.
People queue to pour water on a Buddhist statue as they celebrate Songkran at Wat Pho temple in Bangkok, Thailand.
Photograph: Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

The policy coupled with the pace of new infections has caused shortages of hospital beds for Covid-19 patients in major cities including Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Rewat Wisutwet, the deputy chief of the opposition political party Sereeruamthai and a former Health Ministry official, said increasing the vaccination rate was critical to blunting the spread of the virus.

“Thailand’s rate of vaccination is very low – too low to be effective in prevention. And we might eventually see the country’s healthcare system fail if the number of infections keeps rising quickly,” he told AP by phone. “The government must find the money to spend on vaccines … and do it fast..”

So far, Thailand has been using a relatively small supply of the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines, until a local plant can start producing and distributing the AstraZeneca vaccine mid-year.

Updated

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is pointing his Twitter followers to our report from Josh Nicholas this morning on how Australia’s coronavirus vaccine rollout compares with other countries.

Rudd, who was prime minister from 2007-2010 and again in 2013 said: “100th in the world … Under Morrison’s bungled Covid vaccine rollout, Australia has slipped tragically through the ranks. Sourcing vaccines is Morrison’s responsibility exclusively. Not the states’.”

You can read the report on our datablog here: How Australia’s coronavirus vaccine rollout really compares with other countries

Updated

Some very strong words from George Monbiot on our opinion pages today –Apparently just by talking about it, I’m super-spreading long Covid:

Rejoice! A mystery has been solved. We now have an explanation for long Covid, a condition afflicting many thousands of people. A super-spreader has been identified. Important as this finding is, I’m reluctant to call for the vector to be eradicated. Why? Because it’s me.

In a presentation to the reinsurance giant Swiss Re, Michael Sharpe, a professor of psychological medicine at the University of Oxford and founder of a long Covid clinic, proposed that one of the causes of the syndrome was “social factors”. The social factor at the top of his list was an article I wrote for the Guardian, describing the suffering of patients with the condition.

I listed the symptoms of long Covid and compared some of them to myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), the debilitating condition that afflicts around a quarter of a million people in the UK. Press coverage like this, Sharpe claimed, as well as the work of support groups and sympathetic doctors, could induce people to believe they had the illness, thereby spreading it. Long Covid, he appeared to suggest, is partly a psychological condition, so “the best treatment is psychologically informed rehabilitation”. This, we can only hope, will cure people of the fearful pox of Guardian journalism.

I was bemused by the fact that none of the references he gave at the end of the presentation supported these claims. So I wrote to Sharpe asking for his sources. He told me the evidence consisted of “patient reports”, and that “we are seeing many improve with reassurance about the absence of damage and with supported rehabilitation”. But assertions like this do not meet the standard of scientific evidence. Unfortunately, he told me, “I am unable to engage in further correspondence”.

A scientific assessment of the use of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a form of “psychological rehabilitation” that Sharpe has repeatedly championed – suggests that it’s of no use in treating other post-viral syndromes, and is unlikely to “reduce disability or lead to objective improvement in long Covid”.

But what if, despite the lack of evidence, he happens to be right? What if, by discussing the problem, I’ve caused it? As I look back on my work, my heart sinks. I’ve covered many terrible issues, and the more I’ve written about them, the worse they’ve got. I might be responsible for more human suffering than the entire cast of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Read more here: George Monbiot – Apparently just by talking about it, I’m super-spreading long Covid

Poland to reopen kindergartens and allow open-air sports from 19 April

Poland will reopen kindergartens and allow open-air sports from 19 April, but other restrictions will be extended by a week, Reuters reports.

Hotels will remain closed until 3 May, health minister Adam Niedzielski also said this morning.

Updated

Iman Amrani writes for us this morning on how as Britain starts to open up, Ramadan begins. For her, it feels like perfect timing:

It might be that we’ve been in lockdown for too long, but on a personal level the timing feels divine. Just as the UK nations are starting to open up, a holy month begins that centres on discipline, restraint, community and charity – a welcome antidote as the floodgates of consumerism reopen.

Religion has become incredibly unfashionable in recent decades. But lockdown has made a lot of us think a little harder about the big questions. What’s it all about and how can we be happier, better people? How do we decide what we value and then live in a way that might protect the things we hold dear?

One thing that has been consistently in my mind this year is the overarching importance of intention. An intention is different to a goal. It is like the energy that guides you in a process: the objective that continues even when the goalposts move, or that can overcome the challenges or obstacles you encounter along the way.

Several times this year I’ve deactivated my Instagram account and come off Twitter because social media feels like the antithesis of intention-setting. You scroll aimlessly and allow whatever you see to affect your mood and energy, often as a result of boredom, or trying to make sense of what is going on. Reading is the obvious answer to this. As you pick up a book, you make an intention – whether it is escapism or knowledge that you are reaching for.

Read more here: Iman Amrani – As Britain starts to open up, Ramadan begins. It feels like perfect timing

PA Media has the latest figures from the ONS, which suggest an estimated 54.9% of people in private households in England were likely to have tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies in the week to 28 March – largely unchanged on the previous two weeks.

The presence of Covid-19 antibodies suggests someone has had the infection in the past or has been vaccinated.

The ONS said antibody positivity has levelled off in England, Wales and Scotland.

In Wales, the latest estimate is 49.1% and for Scotland it is 46.0%. In Northern Ireland, an estimated 54.5% of people were likely to have Covid-19 antibodies in the week to 28 March – up from 50.0% in the previous week.

Updated

France suspending all flights to and from Brazil over Covid variant fear

France is suspending all flights to and from Brazil to contain the spread of a highly contagious new Covid-19 variant picked up in the country.

Prime minister Jean Castex said the so-called Brazilian variant, known as P.1, is extremely virulent and partly to blame for fuelling the third coronavirus wave in France last month.

“We have noted that the situation is becoming worse, which is why we have decided to suspend all flights between Brazil and France until further notice,” Castex told MPs in the Assemblée Nationale.

The P.1 variant was first picked up in travellers from Brazil who were tested when they arrived at a Japanese airport in early January. In Brazil, the official death toll from Covid-19 has risen from 200,000 to more than 35,000 since the start of the year. France reported four cases of P.1 variant in early February.

All travellers embarking in Brazil must already have a negative Covid tests before leaving and upon arrival in France and are required to self-isolate for 10 days.

On Tuesday, health minister Olivier Véran said the Brazilian and South African variants were “less contagious than the English variant”. Véran told MPs more than 80% of new cases in France were what is known in the UK as the “Kent variant”.

The Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been criticised for his handling of the Covid crisis in his country that has one of the highest infection rates in the world after the US and India. The Brazilian Senate has opened an inquiry into what has gone wrong in the South American country.

Updated

Here’s more on the latest situation in India from Rafiq Maqbool and Aniruddha Ghosal at the Associated Press. They report that India’s worst-hit and richest state Maharashtra will impose stricter restrictions for 15 days from today in an effort to stem the surge of coronavirus infections that is threatening to overcome hospitals.

Top state officials stressed that the closure of most industries, businesses, public places and limits on the movement of people didn’t constitute a lockdown.

Last year, a sudden, harsh, nationwide lockdown left millions jobless overnight. Stranded in cities with no income or food, thousands of migrant workers walked on highways to get home. Since then, state leaders have repeatedly stressed that another lockdown wasn’t on the cards.

Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said that most public places, shops and establishments will be shut starting 8pm Wednesday, except for essential services such as grocery shops and banks.

Although the state has announced a relief package of $728m (£527m) that will include assistance for the poor, industry experts say that the new restrictions might prove fatal for businesses that were only just recovering from last year’s economic recession.

“Livelihoods are important, but life is more important,” Thackeray said, echoing a difficult choice faced by other states in India.

The scenes playing out in Maharashtra in the past week mirror those developing in other parts of the country which confirmed a national one-day record of 184,000 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours today: patients gasping for air turned away from hospitals that are running out of oxygen and weeping families waiting their turn to bid farewell to their loved ones at crematoria.

Updated

Romania’s health minister fired over handling of Covid pandemic

Romania’s prime minister Florin Cîtu said this morning he has fired health minister Vlad Voiculescu after weeks of mounting tensions over how to handle the new coronavirus pandemic.

Reuters report deputy prime minister Dan Barna has been appointed interim health minister, Citu said in a statement.

Updated

Matthew Snape, associate professor in paediatrics and vaccinology at the University of Oxford and chief investigator on a trial exploring whether different vaccines can be safely mixed for the first and second doses, has told Times Radio this morning his research was planned at the end of 2020.

Asked about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has been delayed across Europe following concerns in the US about a small number of blood clots, he said: “We knew that there was a high chance of unpredictable things happening, whether it be a problem with aa manufacturer, or various supply to different countries, or things such as these safety signals.”

He added: “So it kind of emphasises the need for these kinds of studies that look at how do you bring great flexibility and resilience to the immunisation schedule by looking at all possible combinations.”

PA Media reports that he also said that research on animals gives some suggestion that combining doses of different coronavirus vaccines may provide a better immune response. He was asked why it might be the case that mixing vaccines is a good or bad thing.

He responded: “Ultimately, they are all actually generating an immune response against the spike protein and it’s being delivered by different platforms. So we think, actually, it is likely that you will see a good response with these different combinations, but we don’t know until we look at it.

Prof Snape added: “We need the evidence before we can make those decisions to whether or not it’s the right thing to do. There’s some suggestions from animal studies in mice that actually you may get a better immune response if you, for example, combine the AstraZeneca-type vaccines with an RNA-type vaccine, and that actually seems to generate in some aspects a better immune response.

“So it will be interesting to see if we see that in humans also.”

Updated

Germany is gripped by a third wave of the pandemic, which has brought an increased number of infections of the more contagious British variant and left many younger patients sick. “The third wave is clearly upon us,” 42-year-old Thomas Marx, medical director of a hospital in Freising, Bavaria, told AFP.

Of the clinic’s 14 intensive care beds, five are occupied by Covid-19 patients. The patients are also younger now, with most of them “between 40 and 60”, according to Marx. “They often have to be intubated and then face a long fight with the virus,” the doctor sighed, adding that one in four do not survive their battle with Covid-19.

In one bed at the intensive care unit, a man of about 40 looked exhausted as he struggled to breathe through an oxygen tube. “We were ready to intubate him a few days ago, but we managed to avoid it,” said Marx. Nevertheless, his recovery will still take a long time, the doctor explained at the man’s bedside.

Senior doctor Thomas Marx puts on his personel protective gear before he enters the room of a patient infected with Covid-19 in an intensive care unit at the hospital in Freising, southern Germany.
Senior doctor Thomas Marx puts on his personel protective gear before he enters the room of a patient infected with Covid-19 in an intensive care unit at the hospital in Freising, southern Germany.
Photograph: Lennart Preiss/AFP/Getty Images

After coming through the first wave of the pandemic relatively unscathed, Germany has been rocked by a rough third wave. The number of hospitalised patients aged 35 to 49 has “strongly increased” lately, said Lothar Wieler, the head of the RKI infections disease control agency.

Despite repeated warnings from health workers about the urgency of the situation, German authorities remain entangled in a fierce political debate over restrictions imposed to fight the pandemic.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel has been pushing for tougher measures to keep the population home and avoid contagion, some of the country’s powerful regional leaders are refusing to sign up.

Fed up with the dithering states, Merkel’s government agreed a law change which would give Berlin more centralised power to impose tougher measures such as night-time curfews in hard-hit areas.

Senior doctor Thomas Marx (L) talks to a patient infected with the novel coronavirus Covid-19 in an intensive care unit at the hospital in Freising.
Senior doctor Thomas Marx (L) talks to a patient infected with the novel coronavirus Covid-19 in an intensive care unit at the hospital in Freising.
Photograph: Lennart Preiss/AFP/Getty Images

“When I look at the news and I see that the measures are not enough, it’s difficult to take,” admitted Marx.

Marx voiced fears about the days ahead. “It’s not just a question of treating those with Covid-19, it’s also about dealing with all the other patients and making sure we don’t reduce the quality of their care,” he said.

Updated

Denmark will reopen borders to some fully vaccinated people from 1 May

A quick snap from Reuters here that Denmark will allow people from countries in the European Union and Schengen Area to enter the country from May if they have been vaccinated against Covid-19, the foreign ministry said in a statement late last night.

Denmark’s government agreed with parliament late on a plan to gradually reopen the Nordic country’s borders, starting on 21 April.

As of 1 May, fully vaccinated people, including tourists, in EU or Schengen countries with low infection rates will be allowed to enter Denmark with no demand that they present a negative Covid-19 test or go into quarantine.

Updated

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, MP for Chingford on the outskirts of London, who before Christmas was repeatedly in the media arguing against stricter lockdown measures – he for example described putting London into tier 3 just before Christmas as a “blunt instrument” with “a horrifying amount of collateral damage” – has been on the airwaves this morning crediting January’s lockdown with saving many lives. He said:

In the earliest stages, the lockdown before people were vaccinated in anything like the numbers they have been vaccinated, back in January, of course it was the lockdown that had probably the biggest impact at that particular stage. The reality was at the beginning, maybe, certainly the lockdown had an effect. Professor Spiegelhalter was on, I heard him earlier on today saying that it was in the early stages, definitely the lockdown.

However, his main thrust was that the prime minister was wrong to credit lockdown as the main reason for the drop in cases – it was, he said, vaccines.

Those quotes from Spiegelhalter he referenced were probably these from the Today programme earlier [see 7.40am]:

It is the lockdown that has caused the major drop, of course, because we’ve seen that happen in the huge reduction in the people who haven’t been vaccinated. We’ve estimated that the vaccination programme has maybe saved 10,000 lives – a fantastic success. But that is not what has brought the enormous reduction since earlier in the year – that is lockdown.

Updated

‘Testing is going to be a major barrier to travel this summer’ – UK travel industry spokesperson

There is plenty of lobbying on UK media this morning about the government’s proposed plans for allowing limited foreign travel in the summer. Latest on the airwaves is Luke Petherbridge, Abta’s director of public affairs. Abta is the Travel Association, which was formerly known as the Association of British Travel Agents.

He has told Sky News that the travel industry feels “an overriding sense of frustration” with the “lack of detail” in the UK government’s recent report on how international travel could safely return. PA Media reports him saying that the sector needs to know the criteria by which countries are going to be assessed to determine their risk levels.

Petherbridge said: “Testing is going to be a major barrier to travel this summer – we need the government to engage with the industry on how we can bring down the cost of testing.”

Commenting on the recommended approach to potentially low-risk countries, he said: “We cannot understand why countries in the green category should require a PCR test. We believe a double lateral flow test approach would be a more proportionate approach to follow in that category.”

He also highlighted that the recent report “doesn’t say anything about the treatment of vaccinated individuals and whether or not they will be exempted from testing requirements. It doesn’t talk about whether children will require a test or not.”

Brian Strutton, the general secretary of pilots’ union Balpa, has chipped in with another comment on Sky News, saying: “I think the government should kick-start the whole of international travel by offering all the tests free to our frontline key workers – they deserve that, they deserve a holiday. It would be a really good way to get this initiative under way.”

Updated

My colleague Sarah Marsh has a fuller report on the UK study into mixing Covid vaccines between jabs being expanded. Particularly worth noting are the words of Professor Jeremy Brown, a member of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

He has told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that people will eventually “have to” mix Covid-19 jabs.

It’s practically going to have to be that way because, once you’ve completed a course of, say, the Moderna or Pfizer or the AstraZeneca with two doses, in the future it’s going to be quite difficult to guarantee you get the same type of vaccine again.

You can read more here: UK study on mixing Covid vaccines between jabs to be expanded

Prof Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has been out doing the morning media round in the UK. He urged people “not to go wild” after restrictions were eased, warning that it could lead to the variant first identified in South Africa becoming “more prevalent”.

“From a vaccine point of view the South African variant is of concern”, he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

“We know from studies that none of the vaccines are as effective against the South African variant – though the vaccines still prevent against severe disease and death even with the South African variant.

“The problem is, they may not protect against infection which allows infection to transmit, and if we allow transmission through the community in large numbers with high infection rates then we could see other variants emerging.”

PA Media reports she added: “We’ve all been desperate for our freedoms – and it has been great this week when we can get out to the pub gardens and enjoy the outside space – but we must not go wild.

“If we start going wild and completely ignore all the basic rules then we will see more transmission and things like the South African variant will become more prevalent.”

Updated

Raimundos Oki in Dili, Timor-Leste, reports for us as part of our Pacific Islands project this morning:

The former prime minister of Timor-Leste Xanana Gusmão has been filmed slapping family members of a man who died in the capital, Dili, in what the government said was the country’s second Covid-related death.

Gusmão – the young country’s first president and a national hero – disputes the government’s assertion that Armindo Borges, who died aged 47 on Sunday night, died from Covid-19, with Gusmão claiming he died from a stroke. Borges’s body has been kept in the Covid isolation room at the Vera Cruz health centre.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the health centre on Monday, including Borges’s son. A video shows Gusmão arriving at the centre and repeatedly slapping the son in the face and also repeatedly and angrily slapping a woman, believed to be Borges’s sister. She is weeping as he hits her.

Gusmão said he had hit them because he believed their angry protests outside the hospital were not the way to get the action they wanted. “You guys don’t scream here,” Xanana told local television channel RTTL he explained to Borges’s son. “Please be quiet, don’t make a fuss. You also don’t scream, have to be quiet. Your father is dead, and you must not scream.”

Xanana said he did not accept the government’s explanation that Borges died from Covid. “To convince the public to believe in Covid-19, the government must work well,” he said. “Otherwise the people will say we lied to them …

“I am also following the development of Covid-19 in the world, I know, but the situation that is happening here makes me disbelieve.”

Timor-Leste has recorded two deaths and just shy of 1,100 cases of Covid, according to the World Health Organization, with cases escalating dramatically since the beginning of March.

Read more of Raimundos Oki’s report here: Former president of Timor-Leste slaps mourners and sleeps in street outside hospital in Covid-19 protest

Whether people in the UK will be able to take summer holidays abroad this year has been a repeated question for government ministers.

Budget airline easyJet has said this morning it is ready to “ramp up” services for the summer holiday season as it prepares to start offering more flights from late May after restrictions ease.

PA Media reports the carrier said it expects to fly up to 20% of 2019 capacity levels between April and June, with most countries planning to resume flying at scale in May. It flew just 14% of its 2019 flight programme between October and the end of March.

Johan Lundgren, chief executive of easyJet, said: “We welcome the confirmation by the UK government that international travel is on track to reopen as planned in mid-May. EasyJet was founded to make travel accessible for all and so we continue to engage with government to ensure that the cost of the required testing is driven down so that it doesn’t risk turning back the clock and make travel too costly for some.”

Ministers say that from 17 May at the earliest international travel for leisure may be able to resume, and that countries would be placed in a traffic light system, with green, amber and red lists that would set out the rules for things such as testing and quarantining for those returning to England:

Green: passengers will not need to quarantine on return (unless they receive a positive result) but must take a pre-departure test as well as a PCR test on arrival back in the UK.

Amber: travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days, as well as taking a pre-departure test and two PCR tests (on day two and day eight) with the option of paying for a private Covid-19 test on day five (the test to release scheme) to end self-isolation early.

Red: arrivals will be subject to restrictions currently in place for red list countries, which include a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel, as well as pre-departure testing and and two PCR tests.

The government says it is too early to predict which countries will be on which list over the summer. It has promised to set out “by early May” which countries will fall into which category, as well as confirming whether international travel can definitely resume from 17 May.

Which list a country is put on will depend on a number of factors including the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated, infection rates and the prevalence of “variants of concern”.

The plans have already been criticised by some in the travel industry, who said they risked creating a period when only the wealthy could afford to travel.

Rupert Jones

 

Brian Strutton, the general secretary of pilots’ union Balpa, has been less impressed with the government’s efforts. He told Sky News this morning: “Airlines, aviation and the whole travel sector are on their knees, being crippled by the coronavirus crisis.”

He said passengers had been hoping that the findings from the government’s global travel taskforce would reveal when they could go on holiday abroad this summer. “But the report that came out the other day, the government called it a roadmap, but I’ve never seen a roadmap with all the destinations blanked out,” Strutton added.

“We won’t know until next month which countries the government say are on this so-called green list that it’s OK to travel to, or on a red list or an amber list. People are going to have to take expensive tests.

“People actually want to know when they can go and where they can go, those are the answers we need.”

Updated

The rising case numbers in India have not stopped the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival.

Saurabh Sharma and Sumit Khanna report for Reuters that hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus gathered to bathe in the Ganges river on the festival’s third key day.

Naga Sadhus, or Hindu holy men participate in a procession to take a dip in the Ganges river during Kumbh Mela today.
Naga Sadhus, or Hindu holy men participate in a procession to take a dip in the Ganges river during Kumbh Mela today.
Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Sanjay Gunjyal, the inspector general of police at the festival, said around 650,000 people had bathed on Wednesday morning.

“People are being fined for not following social distancing in non-crowded ghats (bathing areas), but it is very hard to fine people in the main ghats, which are very crowded,” he said.

Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the Ganges river.
Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the River Ganges.
Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

There was little evidence of social distancing or mask-wearing, according to a Reuters witness. More than a thousand cases have been reported in Haridwar district, where the festival is located, in the last two days, according to government data.

You can read more about India’s Covid crisis from my colleague Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi here: ‘A tsunami of cases’: desperation as Covid second wave batters India

Updated

You can imagine that the arguments around lockdown scepticism will rage for years, but this morning on the radio in the UK, Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, has expressed no doubts about their effectiveness.

PA Media reports him telling the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that prime minister Boris Johnson has been right to suggest lockdown had played a significant part in reducing coronavirus infection levels.

He said: “It is the lockdown that has caused the major drop, of course, because we’ve seen that happen in the huge reduction in the people who haven’t been vaccinated. We’ve estimated that the vaccination programme has maybe saved 10,000 lives – a fantastic success. But that is not what has brought the enormous reduction since earlier in the year – that is lockdown.

“We only have to look over the Channel to mainland Europe to see this huge surge going throughout the continent – case rates are 10 times as high in Germany, 20 times as high in Sweden, death rates 10 times as high in France and Italy and going up.

“I think there is, quite reasonably, an anxiety about what might happen, but there is definitely a considerable caution at the moment because ministers have said they are not going backwards, and so I think that is dictating the caution of the policy and does seem to have considerable public support.”

Updated

We mentioned earlier an expansion of the trial in the UK to mix vaccines to see if they improve protection against the coronavirus [see 6.26am]. The programme, which was already mixing shots of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs, will be extended to include the Moderna and Novavax vaccines.

It’s not the only trial of its kind in the world – China has already been carrying out a similar effort in Hong Kong, as Grady McGregor noted for Fortune magazine earlier this week:

One mixed trial involving a Chinese vaccine is already underway on Chinese soil in Hong Kong. In March, Hong Kong University’s Department of Medicine announced that it was recruiting participants for a trial that would mix doses of China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine and Germany’s BioNTech vaccine.

The trial, which will involve roughly 150 volunteers over the age of 18, will give participants four different vaccine regimens. One group will get a BioNTech dose followed by the Sinovac dose, while other groups will get full regimens of either BioNTech’s vaccine, Sinovac’s shot, or placebo jabs.

Dr Ivan Hung, a professor at Hong Kong University and adviser to the city’s Covid-19 response, said in late March that the research will be important to determine if mixing the vaccine jabs boosts immunity against Covid-19. But he said that because of a lack of clinical data he does not recommend that Hong Kong mix vaccine doses.

The outcome of the trial may have implications for China. China has secured 100m doses of BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine, but regulators have yet to approve it for distribution within China even though the shot has been approved in Hong Kong and dozens of other countries around the world.

Updated

Brazil senate to push forward with probe of Bolsonaro’s Covid response

Brazil’s senate has launched an investigation into President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Maria Carolina Marcello reports for Reuters that the congressional investigation, known by its Portuguese acronym as a CPI, can result in a number of actions, including the referral of possible wrongdoing to law enforcement. In practice, the inquiry is more of a political headache for Bolsonaro, who is already facing record disapproval amid Brazil’s worst coronavirus wave.

Overnight, senate leader Rodrigo Pacheco said that a congressional inquiry into the federal response to the pandemic would be combined with an investigation into how federal resources were distributed to states.

President of Brazil’s Senate Rodrigo Pacheco looks on during a session of the Federal Senate in Brasilia, earlier this year.
President of Brazil’s senate Rodrigo Pacheco looks on during a session of the Federal Senate in Brasilia, earlier this year.
Photograph: Adriano Machado/Reuters

That hasn’t pleased everybody. Some Bolsonaro-aligned lawmakers had pushed for an inquiry to investigate how states and municipalities have handled the pandemic, though Pacheco argued such a move could infringe on the jurisdiction of state assemblies.

The Covid-19 pandemic is pushing Brazil’s medical system to the limit in many parts of the country, partly due to the so-called P1 variant, which many medical experts believe is particularly infectious and deadly. The country registered 3,808 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday and 82,186 further coronavirus cases, according to data released by the country’s health ministry.

Updated

That’s it from me, Helen Sullivan, for today.

P.S. why not read about donkeys:

Updated

Australia returns to ‘war footing’ amid vaccine challenges

Australia’s national cabinet will begin meeting twice a week from Monday, marking a return to a “war footing” in the country’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic amid turmoil in its national vaccination programme, Reuters reports.

No new cases have been reported on most days this year and officials have swiftly contained small outbreaks, but the country’s vaccination programme has hit major roadblocks.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday the return to more frequent meetings of the group of federal and state government leaders was necessary to address “serious challenges” caused by patchy international vaccine supplies and changing medical advice.

UK expands trial on mixing vaccines

A study looking at whether the Oxford/Astrazeneca and Pfizer coronavirus vaccines can be safely mixed for the first and second doses will be expanded to include two additional jabs, PA reports.

Researchers running the Com-Cov study, launched in February to investigate alternating doses of the first two jabs to be rolled out across the UK, have announced the programme will be extended to include the Moderna and Novavax vaccines.

Led by the University of Oxford, the extra study will seek to recruit adults aged over 50 who have received their first vaccination in the past eight to 12 weeks.

Matthew Snape, associate professor in paediatrics and vaccinology at the University of Oxford, who is chief investigator on the trial said: “The focus of both this and the original Com-Cov study is to explore whether the multiple Covid-19 vaccines that are available can be used more flexibly, with different vaccines being used for the first and second dose.

“If we can show that these mixed schedules generate an immune response that is as good as the standard schedules, and without a significant increase in the vaccine reactions, this will potentially allow more people to complete their Covid-19 immunisation course more rapidly.

“This would also create resilience within the system in the event of a shortfall in availability of any of the vaccines in use.”

The volunteers, who will have received either the Oxford/AstraZeneca, or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, will be randomly allocated to receive either the same vaccine for their second dose, or a dose of the jabs produced by Moderna or Novavax.

Updated

Thailand posts national record daily case rise

Thailand reported on Wednesday 1,335 new Covid cases, the biggest daily rise since the start of the pandemic and the third record rise this week, as the country struggles with a new wave of infections.

No new deaths were reported. The new cases took the total number of infections to 35,910, with deaths remaining at 97.

100 days to go until Tokyo Olympics

When Japan won the bid to host the Olympic Games eight years ago, it billed Tokyo as a reliable and secure location, contrasting it with rivals struggling with finances and political instability, Reuters reports.

But 100 days before the start of the Olympics, the organisers face a deluge of challenges and growing uncertainty as the pandemic rages around the world, affecting decisions on everything from athlete safety to spectator numbers to ticket sales.

The biggest headache is the resurgent coronavirus, with countries like India and Brazil battling new variants and a fresh rise in cases. In Japan, vaccinations have been the slowest among developed economies, as Tokyo has lurched in and out of soft lockdowns. Infections are on the rise, and experts worry the city is on the cusp of an “explosive” jump in cases.

As a result, foreign spectators have been barred, parts of the torch relay have been re-routed, and the organisers are yet to decide what to do with the domestic audience. This has caused major challenges for sports venues and travel agencies, already grappling with restrictions to block the virus.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games mascot Miraitowa and Buddhist monks wearing protective face masks attend a ceremony to unveil a display of Olympic Symbol on Mt. Takao in Hachioji, west of Tokyo, Wednesday, 14 April 2021, to mark 100 days before the start of the Olympic Games.
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games mascot Miraitowa and Buddhist monks wearing protective face masks attend a ceremony to unveil a display of Olympic Symbol on Mt. Takao in Hachioji, west of Tokyo, Wednesday, 14 April 2021, to mark 100 days before the start of the Olympic Games.
Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/AP

“The situation is constantly shifting. Even in the last few months the coronavirus situation has changed massively, and it will continue to do so, and it’s very challenging to continue preparations when we don’t know what the situation will be in the future,” said Hidemasa Nakamura, the top organising committee official overseeing logistical preparations for the Games.

His team has created the first “playbook” with Covid countermeasures, including rules banning visits to shops and restaurants. If visiting athletes break protocol, it could result in their being barred from competing.

But Nakamura pledged to overcome the challenges as “one team” and told Reuters it was “important to show what we have now, receive feedback, and finalise the playbook step by step, not to have these discussions behind closed doors.”

The next update to the rules is expected this month, he said.

Updated

India posts record new cases

India has confirmed a national one-day record of 184,000 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours, according to government ministry figures. The previous record was 168,900 cases in a single day.

The country’s infection total now stands at 13.87 million.

At least 1,027 people died, bringing the total death toll to 172,085.

Germany to give different second jab to AstraZeneca recipients under 60

People aged under 60 who have been given a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in Germany will receive a different jab for their second dose, federal and regional health ministers agreed Tuesday, AFP reports.

Germany announced on March 30 that it would no longer offer the two-dose AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged under 60 due to concerns over a possible link to rare cases of blood clots.

DPA news agency said ministers agreed at a meeting that people in the younger age group who received a first AstraZeneca dose before the March 30 announcement will be offered either the BioNTech-Pfizer jab for their second dose, or the Moderna vaccine.

“The solution that has been found will offer a good level of protection,” Bavarian Health Minister Klaus Holetschek told DPA.

The new policy is in line with recommendations released last week by Germany’s vaccine commission, which also recommended the second injection be given 12 weeks after the initial AstraZeneca dose.

Germany is among numerous countries that have restricted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to older people after rare blood clots were detected in a small number of younger people who had received the jab.

The European Medicines Agency last week said that unusual blood clots should be listed as a very rare side effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine, while stressing that overall benefits in preventing Covid-19 outweighed the risks.

There were 222 cases of these atypical thromboses out of 34 million AstraZeneca injections carried out in the European Economic Area (EU, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein) and Britain, as of April 4, according to the EMA. And there were 18 deaths, as of March 22.

Most of the cases reported were in women under 60 years of age within two weeks of vaccination.

According to Germany’s health ministry some 2.2 million people aged under 60 have received an AstraZeneca dose in recent weeks.

Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine has come under similar suspicion for the same issue, with US health authorities recommending Tuesday that it be paused while they investigate six cases of clotting.

The World Health Organization has said it cannot recommend switching vaccine between two doses as a protection against Covid-19, due to insufficient data showing the effects.

Summary

Hello and welcome to today’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with me, Helen Sullivan.

People aged under 60 who have been given a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in Germany will receive a different jab for their second dose, federal and regional health ministers agreed Tuesday.

Germany announced on 30 March that it would no longer offer the two-dose AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged under 60 due to concerns over a possible link to rare cases of blood clots.

Meanwhile India has again posted a national record number of new coronavirus cases, with 184,00 in a single day, according to the health ministry.

Here are the other key developments from the last few hours:

  • The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it was reviewing cases of rare blood clots in women who had taken Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine after US federal health authorities recommended pausing the use of the shot.
  • Johnson & Johnson has made the decision to “proactively delay the rollout of our vaccine in Europe”, the company said.
  • Canada said it had recorded its first case of blood clotting with low platelets after someone received the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, according to a health ministry statement. The person, who was not identified and who received the inoculation produced at the Serum Institute of India, is at home and recovering.
  • Canada is to reinstate enhanced screening measures for travellers who have been in Brazil in the previous 14 days, Reuters reports.
  • A Brazilian Supreme Court justice has ordered health regulator Anvisa to decide within 30 days whether it would approve the emergency import of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine by the government of Maranhao state, Reuters reports.
  • South Africa has temporarily suspended the rollout of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, its health minister said on Tuesday, after US federal health agencies recommended pausing its use because of rare cases of blood clots.
  • Turkish president Tayyip Recep Erdogan announced several new restrictions and a “partial closure” for the first two weeks of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to curb a rise in coronavirus infections.

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