Japan to bar new foreign arrivals over COVID-19 variant

Japan will ban the entry of foreigners from around the world starting from November 30 as a precaution against the new coronavirus variant. (AFP)
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Updated 09 December 2021

Japan to bar new foreign arrivals over COVID-19 variant

  • Decision that reverses a measure to allow some business travelers and students into Japan

TOKYO: Japan announced plans Monday to bar all new foreign travelers over the omicron variant of COVID-19, joining a growing list of countries trying to erect virtual fortresses against the heavily mutated new strain.

G7 health ministers are set to meet later in the day to discuss the new strain — first detected in South Africa — and the fresh challenge it poses to global efforts to battle the pandemic.

The Japanese government has become the latest country to reinstate strict border controls that many had hoped would be a thing of the past, barring all new foreign arrivals just weeks after announcing it would finally allow some visa holders to enter the country.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the country was “in a stronger position against the omicron variant than other countries,” citing voluntary mask-wearing and self-restraints about risk behaviors.

The Philippines also said it would temporarily suspend plans to allow fully vaccinated tourists entry, in a bid to prevent the variant taking off in a country where most of the population remains unvaccinated.

Manila had hoped to revive the country’s battered economy by allowing jabbed tourists entry as of Wednesday.

The variant is also throwing a tentative opening-up into doubt in Australia, where the government is now reconsidering plans to relax border restrictions further in just two days.

But with three omicron cases confirmed in people flying into Australia from southern Africa — two landing in Sydney and one in the northern city of Darwin — Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared reluctant to re-impose the kinds of strict lockdowns seen earlier this year.

“We don’t just need to learn to live alongside COVID, we need to learn to live alongside the variants as well,” he said.

Much of the uncertainty surrounds just how infectious omicron is and how resistant it is to existing vaccines.

The prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome on Sunday released the first “image” of the new strain and confirmed there were many more mutations than seen in the Delta variant, though said that does not mean it is more dangerous.

But European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday governments faced a “race against time” to understand the strain and that vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations.”

A long list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including key travel hub Qatar, as well as the United States, Britain, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands.

Israel has announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all foreigners just four weeks after reopening to tourists following a prolonged closure.

Angola on Sunday became the first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbors Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.

South Africa has strongly protested the new restrictions, with its foreign ministry claiming it is being “punished” for first identifying a strain that has now been detected everywhere from the Netherlands to the UK, Canada to Hong Kong.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday urged countries to lift the travel bans “before any further damage is done to our economies,” while his counterpart in Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, accused Western countries of “Afrophobia” for shutting their borders.

The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than impose flight bans in a bid to contain the new COVID strain.

“With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti said.

But in a sign of optimism, Singapore and Malaysia eased coronavirus travel restrictions on one of the world’s busiest land borders after nearly two years.

As of Monday, vaccinated citizens, those holding permanent residency status and work permits can cross the one-kilometer causeway separating the countries without having to quarantine.

And despite the new threat, tens of thousands rallied in Austria to protest the government’s recent introduction of compulsory vaccination — the first EU country to do so.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said it was “a minor interference” compared to the alternative for a country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe.


2 key UK Cabinet ministers quit Boris Johnson’s government

Updated 05 July 2022

2 key UK Cabinet ministers quit Boris Johnson’s government

  • Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other
  • Sunak and Javid have been seen as possible leadership contenders within the Conservative Party if Johnson is forced out

LONDON: Two of Britain’s most senior Cabinet ministers resigned on Tuesday, a move that could spell the end of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership after months of scandals.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other after a day in which the prime minister was forced to acknowledge he had to change his story on the way he handled allegations of sexual misconduct by a senior member of his government.
“It is with enormous regret that I must tell you that I can no longer, in good conscience, continue serving in this government,’’ Javid said in his resignation letter. “I am instinctively a team player but the British people also rightly expect integrity from their government.’’
Sunak said “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously.”
“I recognize this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning,” he added.
Both Sunak and Javid have been seen as possible leadership contenders within the Conservative Party if Johnson is forced out. Their departures were a huge blow to the prime minister, because both were in charge of two of the biggest issues facing Britain right now — the cost of living crisis and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest scandal saw Johnson hit by allegations he failed to come clean about a lawmaker who was appointed to a senior position despite claims of sexual misconduct.
Johnson has faced pressure to explain what he knew about previous misconduct allegations against lawmaker Chris Pincher, who resigned as deputy chief whip Thursday amid complaints that he groped two men at a private club.
Minutes before the resignations of Javid and Sunak were announced, Johnson told reporters that Pincher should have been fired from the government after a previous 2019 incident.
Asked if it was an error to appoint Pincher to the government, Johnson said “I think it was a mistake and I apologize for it. In hindsight it was the wrong thing to do.”
“I apologize to everybody who has been badly affected by it. I want to make absolutely clear that there’s no place in this government for anybody who is predatory or who abuses their position of power,” Johnson said.
The government’s explanation shifted repeatedly over the past five days. Ministers initially said Johnson wasn’t aware of any allegations when he promoted Pincher to the post in February.
On Monday, a spokesman said Johnson knew of sexual misconduct allegations that were “either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.”
That account didn’t sit well with Simon McDonald, the most senior civil servant at the UK Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020. In a highly unusual move, he said Tuesday that the prime minister’s office still wasn’t telling the truth.
McDonald said in a letter to the parliamentary commissioner for standards that he received complaints about Pincher’s behavior in the summer of 2019, shortly after Pincher became a Foreign Office minister. An investigation upheld the complaint, and Pincher apologized for his actions, McDonald said.
McDonald disputed that Johnson was unaware of the allegations or that the complaints were dismissed because they had been resolved or not made formally.
“The original No. 10 line is not true, and the modification is still not accurate,” McDonald wrote, referring to the prime minister’s Downing Street office. “Mr. Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation.
Hours after McDonald’s comments came out, Johnson’s office changed its story again, saying the prime minister forgot he was told that Pincher was the subject of an official complaint.
The latest revelations have fueled discontent within Johnson’s Cabinet after ministers were forced to publicly deliver the prime minister’s denials, only to have the explanation shift the next day.
The Times of London on Tuesday published an analysis of the situation under the headline “Claim of lying puts Boris Johnson in peril.”
Johnson’s authority had already been shaken by a vote of no confidence last month. He survived, but 41 percent of Conservatives voted to remove him from office.
The prime minister’s shifting responses to months of allegations about lockdown-breaking parties in government offices that ultimately resulted in 126 fines, including one levied against Johnson, fueled concerns about his leadership.
Two weeks later, Conservative candidates were badly beaten in two special elections to fill vacant seats in Parliament, adding to the discontent within Johnson’s party.
When Pincher resigned last week as deputy chief whip, a key position in enforcing party discipline, he told the prime minister that he “drank far too much” the previous night and had “embarrassed myself and other people.”
Johnson initially refused to suspend Pincher from the Conservative Party, but he relented after a formal complaint about the groping allegations was filed with parliamentary authorities.
Critics suggested Johnson was slow to react because he didn’t want to be in the position of forcing Pincher to resign his Parliament seat and setting up the Conservatives for another potential special election defeat.
Even before the Pincher scandal, suggestions were swirling that Johnson may soon face another no-confidence vote.
In the next few weeks, Conservative lawmakers will elect new members to the committee that sets parliamentary rules for the party. Several candidates have suggested they would support changing the rules to allow for another vote of no confidence. The existing rules require 12 months between such votes.
Senior Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a long-standing critic of Johnson, said he would support a change of the rules of the Conservative 1922 Committee.
“Mr. Johnson has for three days now been sending ministers — in one case a Cabinet minister — out to defend the indefensible, effectively to lie on his behalf. That cannot be allowed to continue,” Gale told the BBC. “This prime minister has trashed the reputation of a proud and honorable party for honesty and decency, and that is not acceptable.”


Five Italian climbers still missing after glacier collapse

Updated 05 July 2022

Five Italian climbers still missing after glacier collapse

  • At least seven people are known to have been killed in the avalanche on Sunday on the Marmolada
  • Toll could rise given that five people remain unaccounted for despite searches with helicopters and drones over the past two days

CANAZEI, Italy: Five Italian climbers were still missing more than 48 hours after the deadly collapse of part of a mountain glacier in the Alps, a tragedy that is being blamed on rising temperatures.
At least seven people are known to have been killed in the avalanche on Sunday on the Marmolada, which at more than 3,300 meters (10,830 feet) is the highest peak in the Dolomites, a range in the eastern Italian Alps straddling the regions of Trento and Veneto.
That toll could rise given that five people remain unaccounted for despite searches with helicopters and drones over the past two days.
“When we arrived we saw a disaster, we realized the dimensions of this enormous avalanche,” said Stefano Coter, head of the local alpine rescue team and one of the first people to reach the scene.
“We found injured people in need of help and other people who were dead,” he added.
Much of Italy has been baking in an early-summer heatwave and scientists said climate change was making previously stable glaciers more unpredictable.
Maurizio Fugatti, president of the Trento region, confirmed the death toll and the numbers missing at a news conference on Tuesday evening.
With the peak still unstable, rescuers have been using drones and helicopters to look for victims or try to locate them through their mobile phone signals. The teams found human remains or climbing gear at three or four sites on Tuesday.
Rescue coordinators said a layer of dust and debris was limiting the effectiveness of drone searches and they hoped to send a team of experts and search dogs to the lower part of the site on Thursday when the weather is forecast to be clearer.
The Marmolada will remain closed to tourists for the time being to allow rescue teams to operate, Giovanni Bernard, the mayor in the local town of Canazei, said earlier on Tuesday.
Hikers in the area said they were in any case frightened and would try to stick to safer routes.
“Right now after what happened I feel a bit scared because two days ago we were about to walk just near the glacier. It could have happened to us,” said Mikael Bouchard, a 29-year-old from Lyon.


Rebel land mine wounds 7 soldiers in central Philippines

Updated 05 July 2022

Rebel land mine wounds 7 soldiers in central Philippines

  • The government will file criminal complaints against rebel leaders for the attack and the use of internationally banned types of land mines

MANILA: A land mine set by suspected communist guerrillas wounded seven soldiers in the central Philippines on Tuesday, in one of the insurgents’ first known attacks since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office last week.
Army troops were checking reports from villagers of anti-personnel mines laid by New People’s Army rebels along a village trail in Mapanas town in Northern Samar province when an explosion wounded the seven soldiers, regional army commander Maj. Gen. Edgardo de Leon said.
Two of the wounded soldiers were in critical condition, he said, adding that no villagers were injured.
“Some of the soldiers were tossed away because the rebels have been using really powerful land mines,” de Leon said.
The government will file criminal complaints against rebel leaders for the attack and the use of internationally banned types of land mines, de Leon told reporters.
The soldiers were not able to open fire at the rebels, who fled after the attack and were being hunted by government forces, he said.
On Friday, a day after Marcos Jr. was sworn in after winning a landslide victory in a May 9 election, government troops assaulted eight communist rebels, killing one, in a brief gunbattle in central Negros Oriental province, the army said.
Marcos Jr. must deal with decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies, along with longstanding territorial disputes with China and other claimants in the South China Sea.
During the campaign, he said he would pursue peace talks with communist insurgents and expressed support for a government task force established under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, to fight the insurgency by bringing infrastructure, housing and livelihood projects to the poverty-stricken countryside.
The task force has drawn criticism for linking several left-wing activists and government critics to the communist insurgency, in what Duterte’s opponents said was baseless “red-tagging” aimed at muzzling legitimate dissent.
Despite battle setbacks, infighting and factionalism, the communist insurgency has continued to rage, mostly in rural areas, for more than half a century in one of Asia’s longest-running rebellions. It currently has an estimated 2,700 armed fighters.
The new president is the son of the late leader Ferdinand Marcos, whose counterinsurgency program was known for killings, torture and disappearances of suspected rebels, left-wing activists and their supporters.
The elder Marcos was overthrown in an army-backed 1986 “People Power” pro-democracy uprising that drove him and his family into US exile.
After Marcos died in Hawaii in 1989, his widow and children returned to the Philippines, where they achieved a stunning political comeback by whitewashing the family image on social media, critics say.


US F-35 fighters arrive in South Korea as joint military drills ramp up

Updated 05 July 2022

US F-35 fighters arrive in South Korea as joint military drills ramp up

  • The six F-35As will be in South Korea for 10 days, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement

SEOUL: US Air Force F-35A stealth fighters arrived in South Korea on Tuesday on their first publicly announced visit since 2017 as the allies and nuclear-armed North Korean engage in an escalating cycle of displays of weapons.
Joint military drills had been publicly scaled back in recent years, first in 2018 because of efforts to engage diplomatically with North Korea and later because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has sought to increase public displays of allied military power, including exercises, to counter a record number of missile tests conducted by North Korea this year.
North Korea also appears to be preparing to test a nuclear weapon for the first time since 2017.
The six F-35As will be in South Korea for 10 days, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
“The purpose of this deployment is to demonstrate the strong deterrent and joint defense posture of the US-ROK alliance while at the same time improving the interoperability between the ROK and US Air Force,” the ministry said, referring to South Korea by the initials of its official name.
The aircraft deployed from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, US Forces Korea (USFK) said in a statement.
A USFK spokesperson said it was the first public deployment of the 5th generation fighter aircraft to South Korea since December 2017, but did not elaborate whether there had been unannounced visits.
A former senior US official previously told Reuters that during diplomatic talks many drills had in fact continued but had not been publicized.
South Korea has purchased 40 of its own F-35As from the United States, and is looking to buy another 20. The South Korean air force F-35As will be among the aircraft participating in the joint drills, USFK said.
North Korea has denounced joint exercises as well as South Korea’s weapons purchases as an example of “hostile policies” that prove US offers to negotiate without preconditions are hollow.


NATO launches ratification process for Sweden, Finland membership

Updated 05 July 2022

NATO launches ratification process for Sweden, Finland membership

  • A NATO summit in Madrid last week endorsed that move by issuing invitations to the two

BRUSSELS: The process to ratify Sweden and Finland as the newest members of NATO was formally launched on Tuesday, the military alliance’s head Jens Stoltenberg said, marking a historic step brought on by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“This is a good day for Finland and Sweden and a good day for NATO,” Stoltenberg told reporters in a joint press statement with the Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers.

“With 32 nations around the table, we will be even stronger and our people will be even safer as we face the biggest security crisis in decades,” he added.

The NATO secretary general was speaking ahead of a meeting in which the ambassadors from NATO’s 30 member states were expected to sign the accession protocols for the two Nordic countries, opening a months-long period for alliance countries to ratify their membership.

 

“We are tremendously grateful for all the strong support that our accession has received from the allies,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.

“We are convinced that our membership would strengthen NATO and add to the stability in the Euro Atlantic area,” she added.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Sweden and Finland in parallel announced their intention to drop their military non-alignment status and become part of NATO.

A NATO summit in Madrid last week endorsed that move by issuing invitations to the two, after Turkey won concessions over concerns it had raised and a US promise it would receive new warplanes.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had accused Sweden and Finland of being havens for Kurdish militants he has sought to crush, and for promoting “terrorism.”

He also demanded they lift arms embargoes imposed for Turkey’s 2019 military incursion into Syria.

But Erdogan has kept the rest of NATO on tenterhooks by saying he could still block Sweden and Finland’s bids if they fail to follow through on their promises, some of which were undisclosed, such as possible extradition agreements.

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