Russia ends workplace shutdown but COVID numbers stay high

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Most Russians went back to work on Monday for the first time in more than a week as a nationwide workplace shutdown was lifted across most regions, even though the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths are hovering near record daily highs.

President Vladimir Putin announced last month that Oct. 30 to Nov. 7 would be paid “non-working days” – an attempt to slow the surge in cases by imposing the strictest nationwide restrictions since the early months of the pandemic last year.

But officials on Monday reported 1,190 nationwide coronavirus-related deaths in the last 24 hours, higher than in the days before the enforced work break and just five short of the record reported last Thursday.

There were 39,400 new COVID-19 cases, down from a peak of 41,335 on Saturday.

The Kremlin said it was early to judge the impact of the shutdown yet, but it cited Moscow’s mayor, a close Putin ally, as saying the epidemic in the capital was stabilizing.

Despite developing one of the first vaccines against COVID-19 infection last year, Russia has failed to persuade swathes of the population to accept it. Only around 40 percent of the population is immunized.

Immunologist Nikolay Kryuchkov told Reuters he was skeptical of the effectiveness of the work pause, which only a handful of Russia’s more than 80 regions have chosen to extend into this week.

“I think it will either have a weak effect or a very weak effect,” Kryuchkov said. “It has to be longer and fuller… This is not the same as a European lockdown. It’s a much softer version.”

While people were not meant to work during the lockdown, there was nothing to stop them socializing or travelling in Russia or abroad. Travel agents reported a boom in people flying off on foreign beach holidays.

In Moscow, all shops apart from pharmacies and supermarkets were meant to close, but some pubs and beauty salons were still working.

Kryuchkov said rather than relaxing the curbs, regions such as Moscow and St Petersburg should be expanding them and keeping them in place for longer.

“I fear there is going to be a significant period in which we stay at the same point (in the pandemic) and then it will go down and the rate is going to slowly fall. That is not a very good scenario,” he said.

The Kremlin has said it is up to regional authorities to tailor their lockdowns to match the severity of the outbreaks they face.

Many regions that have lifted the workplace shutdown will now require visitors to present a QR code on their mobile phones when visiting cafes, restaurants or shopping centers to prove they have been vaccinated or previously had the virus.

The situation in the region surrounding Moscow remained “tense”, but the number of people being rushed to hospital has stabilized over the last week, a senior local health official was quoted by TASS news agency as saying.

The recent surge in COVID-19 inpatients has put oxygen supplies under strain, and the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet said it had handed over five tonnes of liquefied oxygen to help treat hospital patients, the Interfax news agency reported.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Gleb Stolyarov, Maria Kiselyova, Polina Nikolskaya; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Peter Graff)

Russian regions extend workplace shutdown, Moscow to lift curbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Four Russian regions said on Wednesday they would extend a one-week workplace shutdown that took effect nationwide on Oct. 30 in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases, as the death toll from the country’s epidemic hit a record high.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the shutdown last month, giving regional authorities the option of extending it.

Authorities in the Kursk and Bryansk regions, which border Ukraine, the Chelyabinsk region near the Ural mountains and Tomsk in Siberia said their shutdowns would be prolonged.

“The tense epidemiological situation forces us to extend the period of non-working days by another week,” Tomsk governor Sergei Zhvachkin said in a statement. “One non-working week is not enough to stop the chain of infection.”

Russia’s daily COVID-19 death toll rose to a record 1,189 on Wednesday as the government coronavirus task force also reported 40,443 new infections in the last 24 hours.

Moscow authorities, meanwhile, said businesses there would reopen on Monday.

“The spread of the disease has stabilized in terms of its detection and its severe forms requiring hospitalization,” RIA news agency quoted the capital’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, as saying.

Other measures, including a requirement that companies have at least 30% of their staff work from home, would remain in place, Sobyanin said.

The health consumer watchdog in Moscow said it had recorded violations of COVID-19 regulations at more than a quarter of the businesses it inspected last week.

The Moscow region, which includes the small cities and towns surrounding the city, also said it would not prolong the shutdown.

The Novgorod region announced on Monday it was extending its shutdown by a week.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Gleb Stolyarov; editing by John Stonestreet)

Putin approves week-long Russian workplace shutdown as COVID-19 surges

By Alexander Marrow and Darya Korsunskaya

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday approved a government proposal for a week-long workplace shutdown at the start of November to combat a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Coronavirus-related deaths across Russia in the past 24 hours hit yet another daily record at 1,028, with 34,073 new infections.

Speaking at a televised meeting with government officials, Putin said the “non-working days” from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, during which people would continue to receive salaries, could begin earlier or be extended for certain regions.

“The epidemiological situation is developing differently in each region,” Putin said. “In light of this, the heads of regions are given the right to impose additional measures.”

Authorities have stepped up the urgency of their efforts to slow the pandemic as they confront widespread public reluctance to get injected with the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. Moscow’s mayor announced four months of stay-home restrictions for unvaccinated over-60s on Tuesday.

The mayor’s office was seeking to force shopping centers to connect their security cameras to a centralized facial recognition system that would allow authorities to enforce protective mask-wearing in public, the Kommersant daily reported.

Half of Moscow’s 600 shopping centers have not connected to the system, Kommersant cited Bulat Shakirov, president of the Union of Shopping Centers, as saying.

“But now, due to growing infections, authorities have decided to tighten control,” he said, adding that shopping centers that failed to comply could be ordered to close.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said the healthcare system was operating under great strain. Around 650,000 medical professionals across Russia were involved in treating patients suffering from COVID-19, Interfax news agency cited Murashko as saying on Wednesday.

Russia began a revaccination campaign in July, one of the first countries to do so, but Putin has yet to receive a booster shot, the Kremlin said on Wednesday.

“The president has not been revaccinated yet,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. “He will do this when doctors and specialists tell him to.”

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Alexander Marrow, Darya Korsunskaya, Gleb Stolyarov, Dmitry Antonov and Maria Kiselyova; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Timothy Heritage)