Britain surged past the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday, as other European nations looked to tighten their borders, hoping to keep out new more transmissible virus strains.
More than a year since it first emerged, the coronavirus is still running rampant in many parts of the world, with a global death toll at 2.1 million and infections fast approaching 100 million.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “hard to compute” the loss felt by British families after his country became the first European country to surpass 100,000 Covid-19 deaths.
But he said his government, which faced criticism over its initial response to the outbreak, “did everything that we could to minimise suffering and minimise loss of life”.
The UK has struggled to counter a brutal third wave blamed on a new variant that emerged there before Christmas before spreading to dozens of countries around the world.
Neighbouring Ireland said Tuesday it would enact mandatory travel quarantines for the first time, as well extending its third national lockdown until March 5.
Among other European nations looking to strengthen border controls was Germany, which said it is considering almost completely halting flights into the country.
“The danger from the numerous virus mutations forces us to consider drastic measures,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told the Bild newspaper.
Iceland meanwhile became the first Schengen country to issue vaccination certificates to ease travel for those who have had both required doses.
The new measures came as anger rises over grinding anti-coronavirus restrictions, with the Netherlands rocked by nightly riots since it imposed a curfew on Saturday.
More than 400 people were arrested after the worst unrest to hit the country in four decades, but the Dutch government said it would not back down.
“You don’t capitulate to people who smash shop windows,” Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said, calling the rioters “scum”.
Israeli police also clashed with protesters, arresting 14 people after ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrated against lockdown measures.
As the world turns its hopes towards vaccines to break the gloom, bickering over access to doses has steadily intensified.
Tensions have in particular mounted between the European Union and pharmaceutical firms over delays to deliveries.
“Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen told the virtual World Economic Forum (WEF). “And now, the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligations.”
Europe’s vaccination campaign stumbled after British-Swedish drugs company AstraZeneca warned it would not be able to meet promised targets on EU shipments – a week after US group Pfizer said it was also delaying delivery volumes.
The widening gap for vaccine supplies between rich and poor countries led both South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to lash out at “vaccine nationalism”.
Ramaphosa told WEF that low- and middle-income countries were being shouldered aside by wealthier nations able to acquire “up to four times what their population needs”.
For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged a “fair” distribution of vaccines across the world.
In the face of the global shortage, WHO experts have cautiously backed delays of second “booster” doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for up to a maximum of six weeks after the first jab in “extraordinary” cases.
‘What scares me is poverty’
The row over inequality of access to vaccines at the WEF – normally held at the Swiss ski resort of Davos – comes as the pandemic compounds economic inequality across the world.
Despite Lebanon being under one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, father-of-six Omar Qarhani told AFP he was still selling vegetables on the side of a road in Tripoli because he is desperate to support his family.
“I’m not scared of corona – what scares me is being in need and poverty,” he said.
And the economic toll of the pandemic continues to build, with the IMF predicting a “cumulative output loss” of $22 trillion — the equivalent of the entire US economy – over 2020-25.
Nevertheless, optimism that vaccines will bring the pandemic under control and allow economic activity to resume, coupled with stimulus in major economies, has boosted the IMF’s growth forecast this year to 5.5 percent.
Also on Tuesday, virus deaths in Mexico passed the 150,000 mark just a day after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he tested positive, while Indonesia topped one million infections.
And Portugal registered a record 291 deaths in 24 hours, with the government saying it would seek assistance from other EU countries to cope with a rise in hospitalisations.