Moscow closes schools and Putin authorises week-long holiday as many resist getting vaccinated
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Regions across Russia have reintroduced severe anti-coronavirus restrictions as the country faces record deaths and new infections amid a lacklustre vaccination campaign.
Schools, dine-in cafes and many offices in Moscow will be closed until 7 November, and Vladimir Putin has authorised a week-long holiday period for all Russians that is seen as a creeping lockdown to fight surging Covid numbers, with records for numbers of cases and deaths being broken on a daily basis.
The latest wave of infections in Russia has put the Kremlin in the difficult position of admitting a national failure at halting the disease’s spread but also distancing itself from tough new lockdown measures that are extremely unpopular among ordinary Russians, nearly half of whom have said they do not plan to get vaccinated.
On Thursday, the government reported 1,159 deaths from coronavirus in the past 24 hours, a record since the outbreak began in 2020. More than 40,000 infections were reported, also a daily record for Russia.
Neighbouring Ukraine has also reported record numbers of deaths and new Covid cases, as both countries struggle with widespread vaccine hesitancy. Some of those required to vaccinate, such as teachers, have sought to avoid the restriction by buying fake vaccination certificates, officials have complained.
A record 734 deaths from coronavirus were reported in Ukraine on Tuesday. The health minister, Viktor Lyashko, has called the surge in hospital admissions “rampant”. “I call on all of you to get your vaccine,” he said during a briefing on Wednesday. “We can and must stop these sad statistics.” Just over 16% of Ukraine’s population has been fully vaccinated against coronavirus, according to state data, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
Under pressure on Thursday, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denied there were plans for compulsory vaccinations in Russia and also denied reports that the Kremlin would relaunch its fledgling pro-vaccination media campaign. Just over 30% of Russians have received two doses of one of Russia’s domestically produced vaccines, according to government data. The Kremlin’s initial target was 60% fully vaccinated by the end of summer.
“Until we attain our goal and achieve the public immunity threshold, we will deem all our efforts to be insufficient,” Peskov said during a telephone briefing with journalists. “These conditions are very simple: an unvaccinated person may die, an unvaccinated person will find one’s life uncomfortable. Harsh conditions are dictated by the circumstances.”
Enforcement of the new lockdowns has largely fallen to regional officials, who have taken on the unpopular task of temporarily closing local businesses or reintroducing the use of unpopular QR codes that were described last year as a “cybergulag.”
“The situation in Moscow is developing according to the worst-case scenario,” the Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, wrote on his blog as he announced the anti-coronavirus restrictions last week. Advising Muscovites to go to the park or spend a few days at a country house, he wrote: “Let’s relax a bit and we’ll help to save the lives and health of many people. And then the city can get back to normal life.”
Past restrictions have been criticised by Moscow’s small business owners who have lost revenue from customers while seeing little financial support from the government.
Locals in Moscow flocked to bars and restaurants on Wednesday evening before closures took place, while others planned to travel to resorts to avoid staying in Moscow during the impromptu holiday. Cities around Russia, including St Petersburg and Sochi, have braced themselves for an influx of Muscovites hoping to avoid the restrictions. Areas of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, have set up checkpoints for vaccination certificates or negative PCR tests.
Under the guidelines, schools in Moscow will be closed, restaurants and cafes will be limited to providing takeout orders, offices will be largely restricted and most in-person government services will be suspended.
Putin this week also confirmed a decision to ban restaurants and bars nationwide from staying open between the hours of 11pm and 7am.
Earlier this week, the head of the Russian laboratory that developed the Sputnik V vaccine said most Russians who claimed they had been vaccinated and then fell ill had bought fake vaccine certificates to avoid getting the jab. “People spend money, and then they get sick and die for their own money,” said Alexander Gintsburg, the head of the Gamaleya centre. “They deceive themselves.”