France suspends 3,000 unvaccinated health workers; Putin says dozens in Kremlin inner circle have Covid; China fully vaccinates more than 1bn people

Friday, Sep 17, 2021

Beijing: China has fully vaccinated more than one billion people against the coronavirus -- 71 percent of its population -- official figures showed on Thursday.

The country where the virus was first detected has mostly curbed the virus within its borders, but is racing to get the vast majority of its population vaccinated as a new outbreak flickers in the southeast.

"As of September 15, 2.16 billion vaccine doses have been administered nationwide," said National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng at a press briefing. Chinese health authorities said late last month that 890 million people in China had been fully vaccinated and two billion doses administered. The government has not publicly announced a target for vaccination coverage, but top virologist Zhong Nanshan said last month that the country is likely to have 80 percent of its population inoculated by the end of the year, reaching herd immunity.

China is currently battling an outbreak of the Delta variant in the southeastern province of Fujian that has infected almost 200 people so far in three cities, dozens of whom are schoolchildren.

The Fujian cluster is the biggest rebound in weeks and comes after the country declared the Delta variant under control, in a test of China’s "zero-case" approach to the pandemic. China reported 49 new domestic transmissions on Thursday, the vast majority in Fujian.

Authorities said the cluster’s suspected patient zero was a man who had recently returned from Singapore to the city of Putian, and developed symptoms after completing a 14-day quarantine and initially testing negative for the virus.

The man’s 12-year-old son and a classmate were among the first patients detected in the cluster last week, shortly after the new school term began. The variant then raced through classrooms, infecting more than 36 children including 8 kindergartners, city authorities said Tuesday, in the first major school-linked spread the country has seen since the start of the pandemic.

Despite rolling out its vaccine campaign to include minors aged 12-17 in July, most young children remain unvaccinated in China, sparking fears that the latest Fujian outbreak could hit the most vulnerable people in the country disproportionately.

Meanwhile, thousands of health workers across France have been suspended without pay for failing to get vaccinated against Covid-19 ahead of a deadline this week, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday.

France’s national public health agency estimated last week that roughly 12 percent of hospital staff and around six percent of doctors in private practices have yet to be vaccinated. "Some 3,000 suspensions were notified yesterday to employees at health centres and clinics who have not yet been vaccinated," Veran told RTL radio.

He added that "several dozens" had turned in their resignations rather than sign up for the jabs. That compares with 2.7 million health workers overall, Veran said, adding that "continued healthcare is assured."

"A large number of these suspensions are only temporary" and mainly concern support staff, with "very few nurses" among those told to stay home, he said.

Based on figures provided by individual hospitals, the actual number of suspended employees could be higher. The Paris hospital system said Thursday that 340 workers had been suspended. Local press reports have cited large numbers at hospitals in smaller cities -- up to 450 in Nice and 100 in Perpignan.

Available figures point to nearly 1,500 suspensions Thursday at just over a dozen hospitals, according to an AFP tally, with dozens more elsewhere across France. President Emmanuel Macron gave staff at hospitals, retirement home workers and the fire service an ultimatum in July to get at least one shot by September 15 or face unpaid suspension.

France has also made a Covid "health pass" mandatory for entering cafes, restaurants and many other public places, prompting weekly protests by tens of thousands of people who claim they are being discriminated against.

Many healthcare workers are still avoiding jabs, citing safety or efficacy concerns, raising the spectre of disruptions to services in facilities forced to suspend staff without pay. Overall, 70 percent of the French have received both doses required to be fully vaccinated, which are available to everyone over age 12 -- one of the highest rates in the world.

But 74 percent have had one dose only, suggesting that many people are holding out against the jabs despite their widespread availability -- and as the more contagious Delta variant spreads worldwide.

In a related development, dozens of people in Vladimir Putin’s entourage have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Russian leader said on Thursday, as his country struggles with high infection rates and a vaccine-sceptic population.

Earlier this week, 68-year-old Putin cancelled all in-person events and said he was self-isolating after announcing an outbreak in the Kremlin. "Cases of the coronavirus were detected in my inner circle. Not just one or two but several dozen people," Putin said, speaking via video link at a meeting of a Moscow-led security alliance.

Putin had been due to attend the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe in person, but said Tuesday he would instead join remotely. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday told reporters that the outbreak was mainly among members of Putin’s security detail.

He added that "practically everybody" who works with Putin is vaccinated. While it remains unclear how long Putin will be in quarantine, Peskov said he will be self-isolating for "at least" another week.