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New coronavirus hotspots slow to emerge as countries look to loosen restrictions

Spain has allowed some workers to return to their jobs, while the Veneto region in Italy has moved to ‘lockdown light’.

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Commuters wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at Atocha railway station in Madrid (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Commuters wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at Atocha railway station in Madrid (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Commuters wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at Atocha railway station in Madrid (Bernat Armangue/AP)

The absence of fresh coronavirus hot spots has a yielded a ray of optimism in global efforts against the disease, although a return to normality is unlikely anytime soon.

Officials around the world are worried that halting quarantine and social distancing measures could easily undo hard-earned progress but there are signs countries are looking in that direction.

Spain has permitted some workers to return to their jobs, a hard-hit region of Italy has loosened its lockdown restrictions and grim predictions that the virus would move with equal ferocity from New York to other parts of the US have yet to materialise.

As Covid-19 throws millions out of work and devastates economies worldwide, Governments are struggling with the delicate balance between keeping people safe from a highly contagious disease and making sure they can still make a living or have enough to eat.

The decisions are complicated because each nation is on its own coronavirus arc.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the extension of France’s strict lockdown until May 11, on his third televised address to the nation on the virus crisis from the Elysee palace.

France has been under lockdown since March 17.

Mr Macron said he sees “hopeful signs” as the spreading of the virus in the country appears to be stabilising. But he urged the French to keep respecting strict confinement rules for the moment.

Starting from May 11, schools will reopen “progressively”, he said. Restaurants, cafes, hotels, cinemas, museums and concert halls will remain closed and no big gatherings will be allowed until mid-July, he added.

French health authorities reported on Monday a drop in numbers of people in intensive care for the fifth straight day.

The country registered 574 deaths over the past 24 hours in hospitals and nursing homes, bringing the total number of deaths to 14,967 since the outbreak began in France.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his Government must balance its response to the virus crisis that “threatens to destroy lives and at the same time destroy the economic and social fabric of our country”.

Seeking to restart manufacturing, Spain’s Government is allowing workers to return to some factory and construction jobs.

The country reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks on Monday.

Shops and services remain closed, while office workers are strongly encouraged to keep working from home.

A prohibition on people leaving home for anything other than groceries and medicine will remain for at least two weeks under the state of emergency.

But Health Minister Salvador Illa said the Government will move carefully on allowing others to end their self-isolation.

He said officials will proceed with “the utmost caution and prudence – and always based on scientific evidence”.

Some health experts and politicians argue it is premature to ease the lockdown in a nation that has suffered almost 17,500 deaths and reported more than 169,000 infections, second only to the United States’ 557,000 infections.

Italy recorded its lowest daily virus death toll in three weeks at 431, putting its total deaths at more than 19,800.

In Veneto, one of the country’s most infected regions, officials are loosening some restrictions on movement as they enter a phase the governor, Luca Zaia, termed ‘”lockdown light”.

Mr Zaia is expanding the 200-metre from home radius for physical fitness and allowing open-air markets from Tuesday.

At the same time, masks or other face coverings will be mandatory outside the home – not just in supermarkets or on public transport as was previously the case.

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Vladimir Putin has emphasised the need to prepare for the outbreak worsening in Russia (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)

Vladimir Putin has emphasised the need to prepare for the outbreak worsening in Russia (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)

AP/PA Images

Vladimir Putin has emphasised the need to prepare for the outbreak worsening in Russia (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)

Russian president Vladimir Putin said on Monday that the nation is facing a surge in the number of seriously ill patients and urged officials to mobilise resources for worst-case scenarios.

Speaking in a conference call, Mr Putin emphasised the need to prepare for moving medical personnel, ventilators and protective gear between regions to respond to the rapidly changing situation.

Russia has recorded more than 18,000 coronavirus cases and 148 deaths.

Moscow and the surrounding region have accounted for about two-thirds of all infections.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has urged a cautious approach to any loosening of restrictions, will hold a video conference with regional leaders on Wednesday.

It comes after the head of the state with the most infections called for a “road map” to return to normality.

Armin Laschet, minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, said “the willingness for restrictions also needs the prospect of normalisation”.

His government came up with a plan for gradually easing the restrictions imposed on March 22, when public gatherings were limited to only two people.

The pandemic’s new epicentre is now the US, which has had more than 22,000 deaths, the world’s highest.

About half have been in the New York metropolitan area but the rate of new patients attending hospitals is slowing in the state, while other indicators suggest lockdowns and social distancing are working.

New York’s coronavirus death toll has topped 10,000 but the state’s 671 new deaths on Sunday marked the first time in a week that the daily toll dipped below 700.

More than 1.8 million coronavirus infections have been reported and more than 114,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The figures understate the true size and toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and deliberate under-counting by some governments.

PA