China seals off city as worst coronavirus outbreak in a year grows

China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic has escalated with dozens more cases around the country, the sealing-off of one city and the punishment of its local leaders. Since the initial outbreak was tamed last year, China’s people had lived virtually free of the virus, with strict border controls and local distancing and quarantine measures stamping out scattered flare-ups. Now the country is on high alert as an outbreak connected to the international airport in the eastern city of Nanjing touched at least 17 provinces. China reported 71 new cases of Covid-19 from local transmission on Wednesday, more than half of them in coastal Jiangsu province, of which Nanjing is the capital. In Wuhan, the central city where the world’s first cases of Covid-19 were identified in late 2019, mass testing has shown some of its newly reported cases have a high degree of similarity to cases discovered in Jiangsu province. Those cases have been identified as being caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant that first was identified in India. Another hotspot was emerging in the city of Zhangjiajie, near a scenic area famous for sandstone cliffs, caves, forests and waterfalls that inspired the on-screen landscape in the Avatar films. The city ordered residential communities sealed on Sunday, preventing people from leaving their homes. In a subsequent order on Tuesday, officials said no one could leave the city. The city government’s Communist Party disciplinary committee on Wednesday issued a list of local officials who “had a negative impact” on pandemic prevention and control work who would be punished. The city itself has only recorded 19 cases since last week, three of whom were people with no symptoms, which are counted separately. However, individual cases linked to Zhangjiajie’s outbreak have spread to at least five provinces, according to Shanghai government-owned newspaper The Paper. Far higher numbers were reported in Yangzhou, a city next to Nanjing, which had recorded 126 cases by Tuesday. After announcing last week that they were suspending issuing of passports for travellers except those with an urgent need, officials at the National Immigration Administration reiterated the message on Wednesday at a press briefing. As of Tuesday, China has given more than 1.71 billion vaccine doses to its population of 1.4 billion. It is not clear how many of those are first or both doses, but at least 40% of the population is fully protected, according to earlier announcements. Chinese companies have not publicly shared real-world data on how effective their vaccines are against the Delta variant, though officials have said the vaccines prevent severe disease and hospital admissions. In addition to the 71 cases of local transmission, 25 travellers from overseas have Covid-19 and have entered quarantine, making the total for Wednesday 96 new cases. The National Health Commission also said 15 people tested positive for the virus but have no symptoms. China has reported 4,636 deaths and 93,289 cases of Covid-19 overall, most of them from the original outbreak in Wuhan that peaked early last year.

Firefighting planes resume flights over wildfire north of Athens

Firefighting planes have resumed operations to tackle a major forest fire on the northern outskirts of Athens that forced thousands to flee their homes on Tuesday amid the country’s worst heatwave in decades. The fire in the Varibobi and Tatoi suburbs of the Greek capital was the worst of 81 wildfires that broke out around the country in 24 hours from late on Monday. Five water-dropping planes and nine helicopters were helping more than 500 firefighters, soldiers and numerous volunteer groups on the ground, the fire department said. “It was another exceptionally difficult night,” Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said while visiting a fire department mobile co-ordination centre on Wednesday morning. He said firefighters had reduced four active fire fronts to one overnight. “There is still a lot of work to be done,” he added. The fire was fuelled by tinder-dry conditions caused by a protracted heatwave that began last week and sent temperatures soaring to 45C. There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries. The fire burned homes, businesses and vehicles, and sent a large cloud of smoke over Athens on Tuesday night. The government announced it would provide hotel rooms for local residents for as long as they are unable to return to their homes. On Tuesday, residents left the area in cars and on foot, while riding schools in the area raced to move horses from the path of the flames. The leafy suburbs of Varibobi and Tatoi lie at the foot of Mount Parnitha, next to large forests of mainly pine trees. The fire, which began on Tuesday afternoon inside the forest, quickly raced through the flammable pine and reached the main square of Varibobi. Some nearby residents took to social media to offer shelter for animals affected by the fire. Apart from the fire north of Athens, two more major forest fires were still burning on Wednesday morning, one on the island of Evia and one in the south-western Peloponnese. The fire department said 95 firefighters, two aircraft, four ground teams and 35 vehicles were battling the flames in Evia, while 74 firefighters, three ground teams, 22 vehicles and one helicopter were operating in the Messinia area of the Peloponnese. As the heatwave scorching the eastern Mediterranean intensified, temperatures reached 42C in parts of the capital. The extreme weather has also fuelled deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy and Albania. The heatwave is forecast to continue in Greece until the end of the week.

Missouri governor pardons gun-waving St Louis couple

Missouri governor Mike Parson announced on Tuesday he had fulfilled his promise to pardon a couple who gained notoriety for pointing guns at social justice demonstrators as they marched past the couple’s home in a luxury St Louis suburb last year. Mr Parson, a Republican, on Friday pardoned Mark McCloskey, who pleaded guilty in June to misdemeanour fourth-degree assault and was fined 750 dollars (£538), and Patricia McCloskey, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanour harassment and was fined $2,000 dollars (£1,440). “Mark McCloskey has publicly stated that if he were involved in the same situation, he would have the exact same conduct,” the McCloskeys’ lawyer Joel Schwartz said on Tuesday. “He believes that the pardon vindicates that conduct.” The McCloskeys, both lawyers in their 60s, said they felt threatened by the protesters, who were passing their home in June 2020 on their way to demonstrate in front of the mayor’s house nearby in one of hundreds of similar demonstrations around the country after George Floyd’s death. The couple also said the group was trespassing on a private street. Mark McCloskey emerged from his home with an AR-15-style rifle, and Patricia McCloskey waved a semi-automatic pistol, according to the indictment. Photos and cellphone video captured the confrontation, which drew widespread attention and made the couple heroes to some and villains to others. No shots were fired, and no one was hurt. Special prosecutor Richard Callahan said his investigation determined that the protesters were peaceful. “There was no evidence that any of them had a weapon and no one I interviewed realised they had ventured onto a private enclave,” Callahan said in a news release after the McCloskeys pleaded guilty. Several Republican leaders — including then-President Donald Trump — spoke out in defence of the McCloskeys’ actions. The couple spoke on video at last year’s Republican National Convention. Mark McCloskey, who announced in May that he was running for a US Senate seat in Missouri, was unapologetic after the plea hearing. “I’d do it again,” he said from the courthouse steps in downtown St Louis. “Any time the mob approaches me, I’ll do what I can to put them in imminent threat of physical injury because that’s what kept them from destroying my house and my family.”

Jack Grealish’s girlfriend says she received ‘200 death threats a day’

The girlfriend of Jack Grealish has said she was sent 200 death threats a day as she faced a barrage of abuse on social media. Sasha Attwood said social media is “toxic” and it is “really sad” that teenagers as young as 13 are growing up thinking it is OK to send abuse online. Ms Atwood, who made the comments in a video on her YouTube channel, said she keeps things private and off social media “because people are mean”. In the video, highlighted by The Sun newspaper, Ms Attwood said: “This whole thing since it’s come out has just shown me that people are literally so mean. “Genuinely, I was receiving, like, 200 death threats a day. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that. “So many messages, every single day, and I still get them now, all day every day: ‘I hope you die’, ‘I hope you get cancer and die’, ‘I hope your whole family die’, ‘I hope the next time when you’re in the car you crash it and die’, ‘I hope after Wembley you die’.
“I never realised how bad it actually was, and the scary thing is it’s young girls. “I’d go on these girls’ accounts who have sent me stuff and they’re literally like 13, 14, and it’s so sad. “I try and put it down to age, but then I think I was never like that at that age. I never sent a message like that. “I just think it’s so toxic, social media, and it’s really sad that these generations are growing up thinking that it’s OK to say things like that.” The Sun said Instagram has launched an investigation following Ms Attwood’s remarks. The newspaper also said TikTok confirmed it had removed comments highlighted by The Sun, and added that its community guidelines make clear this behaviour is not acceptable.

DaBaby offers second apology after homophobic comments

US rapper DaBaby has offered another apology after facing a heavy backlash over crude and homophobic remarks he made at a music festival. The Grammy-nominated performer said he was misinformed for his comments about HIV/Aids, in a social media post a day after he was cut from Lollapalooza’s line-up in Chicago. On Monday, New York City’s Governors Ball and Day N Vegas in Las Vegas each announced the rapper had been dropped from their line-ups. Baby, whose real name is Jonathan Kirk, apologised to the LGBTQ+ community for his “hurtful and triggering” comments. “Social media moves so fast that people want to demolish you before you even have the opportunity to grow, educate and learn from your mistakes,” he wrote. “As a man who has had to make his own way from very difficult circumstances, having people I know publicly working against me – knowing that what I needed was education on these topics and guidance – has been challenging.” It is the second time DaBaby has apologised following his remarks at Miami’s Rolling Loud Festival. While on stage, he used crude language and asked attendees who were not gay men or people not affected by HIV or Aids to raise their mobile phone flashlights. He then incorrectly said the disease would “make you die in two or three weeks”. DaBaby’s remarks caused an immediate storm for the rapper, whose song Rockstar was one of the biggest hits last year. He was nominated for a Grammy for record of the year. In recent days, several artists including Madonna, Questlove and Sir Elton John have denounced his remarks. Dua Lipa, who collaborated with DaBaby on the popular remix of her song Levitating, said she was “surprised and horrified” by his comments.

Jussie Smollett lawyers get more time to prepare arguments

A judge has granted lawyers for Jussie Smollett more time to prepare arguments on several issues, including whether they can introduce a key witness’s previous conviction for battery. Cook County Judge James Linn Linn scheduled the next hearing in the case for August 26. But Judge Linn also urged lawyers for Smollett and the special prosecutor’s office to prepare for a trial or other resolution to the charges that the actor staged a racist and homophobic attack on himself in 2019. Progress in the case was slowed by accusations that one of Smollett’s lawyers, Nenye Uche, had spoken to the two men the actor allegedly hired to help him carry out the attack. Special prosecutor Dan Webb argued that was a conflict of interest. Judge Linn on Friday ordered that Mr Uche could remain on the case but prohibited him from questioning the two brothers, Abinbola and Olabinjo Osudairo, if the case goes to trial. Mr Uche told the judge on Monday that he needed more time to prepare arguments on several pre-trial motions, including the defence’s hope to introduce evidence about the older brother’s prior conviction. Smollett, who was starring in the television show Empire at the time of the incident, has been charged with felony counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing false police reports about what happened. He has denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. Smollett attended Monday’s virtual hearing and told the judge he was in New York City.

84-year-old German fined over wartime weapons collection including tank

A German court has convicted an 84-year-old man of illegal weapons possession for having a personal arsenal that included a Panther tank, an anti-aircraft cannon and other items of Second World War-era military equipment. The state district in the northern city of Kiel handed the man a suspended prison sentence of 14 months and ordered him to pay a fine of 250,000 euros (£213,000), the German news agency dpa reported. It also ordered the defendant, whose name was not given in line with German privacy laws, to sell or donate the 45-ton tank and the flak gun to a museum or a collector within the next two years. Authorities discovered the illegal military arsenal during a 2015 raid of the collector’s storage facility in northern Germany in an investigation into black market Nazi-era art which turned up two bronze horse statues which once stood in front of Adolf Hitler’s chancellery. Those items were in another man’s possession. During the raid of the defendant’s property, authorities also seized machine guns, automatic pistols and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Local media reported at the time that the man made no secret of his weapons collection and even brought the tank out during a bad winter to use as a snow plough. Before the court’s verdict was announced, the defendant’s lawyer read out a confession on his client’s behalf, dpa said.

China orders mass testing in Wuhan as Covid-19 outbreak spreads

China has suspended flights and trains, cancelled professional basketball games and announced mass coronavirus testing in Wuhan as widening outbreaks of the Delta variant reached the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019. While the total number of cases is still in the hundreds, they are far more widespread than anything China has dealt with since the initial outbreak that devastated Wuhan in early 2020 and spread to the rest of the country and the world. China has not eliminated but largely curbed Covid-19 at home with quick lockdowns and mass testing to isolate infected people whenever new cases pop up. Most previous outbreaks did not spread far beyond a city or province. This time, cases have been confirmed in more than 35 cities in 17 of China’s 33 provinces and regions. The cities of Nanjing and Yangzhou have cancelled all domestic flights, and Beijing has halted long-distance trains from 23 stations. The Chinese Basketball Association said matches in its men’s professional league will be suspended. Wuhan, a provincial capital of 11 million people in central China, is the latest city to undergo city-wide testing. Three cases were confirmed there on Monday, its first non-imported cases in more than a year. They were among 90 new cases confirmed nationwide the previous day, the National Health Commission said. Of those, 61 were locally spread and 29 were among people who had recently arrived from abroad. Most of the local cases are still in Jiangsu province, where an outbreak started at the airport in Nanjing, the provincial capital, and has spread to other parts of the province and beyond. Authorities reported 45 new cases: five in Nanjing and 40 in the city of Yangzhou, 65 miles away, where a second round of mass testing was under way. Five other provinces and the cities of Beijing and Shanghai reported new local cases in single digits. In Shanghai, the nation’s largest city, a driver working at one of its two main airports tested positive. Beijing has reported a total of five cases in recent days. The Nanjing outbreak, traced to the Delta variant, is the source of the cases in most other places. Delta outbreaks in two other places have been linked to neighbouring Myanmar, which has seen a sharp rise in infections. An outbreak in Zhengzhou, a city hit by flooding that killed about 300 people last month, started with people who arrived from Myanmar by air. A third outbreak, the one that started the earliest, spilled into Yunnan province from its border with Myanmar. Government-affiliated scientists have said Chinese vaccines are less effective against the new strains of the coronavirus but still offer some protection. Only Chinese vaccines are being given in China, where authorities say more than 1.6 billion doses have been administered.

Qantas furloughs 2,500 staff amid lockdowns in Australian cities

Australia’s Qantas Group says it expects Sydney’s Covid-19 lockdown to last for at least another two months and it will furlough 2,500 staff due to an associated downturn in domestic flights. Sydney and Brisbane, Australia’s biggest and third-biggest cities respectively, are in lockdown due to growing clusters of the Delta variant. Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said on Tuesday that 2,500 staff from Qantas Airways and budget subsidiary Jetstar would be furloughed for an estimated two months. The airlines employ 26,000 staff in Australia. Mr Joyce said that based on current daily tallies of new infections, “it’s reasonable to assume that Sydney’s borders will be closed for at least another two months”. Sydney, where Qantas is headquartered, and surrounding cities in the state of New South Wales have been locked down since June 26. The lockdown will continue until at least August 28. New South Wales on Tuesday reported 199 new cases in the latest 24-hour period. Brisbane and surrounding municipalities in Queensland state locked down on July 31 until August 8. On Tuesday Queensland reported 16 new cases in the latest 24 hours. Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison, meanwhile, has dismissed an opposition proposal to pay people to be vaccinated as an insult to Australians. Only 19% of Australian adults had been fully vaccinated by Monday. Most would prefer Pfizer, which is in short supply. Many are concerned about the slight risk of blood clotting caused by AstraZeneca, the only alternative in Australia.

Death toll in central China floods now exceeds 300

More than 300 people died in recent flooding in central China, authorities said, three times the previously announced toll. The Henan provincial government said 302 people died and 50 remain missing. The vast majority of the victims were in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, where 292 died and 47 are missing. Ten others died in three other cities, officials said at a news conference in Zhengzhou. Record rainfall inundated the city on July 20, turning streets into rushing rivers and flooding at least part of an underground line. Video posted online showed vehicles being washed away and desperate people trapped in subway cars as the waters rose. Fourteen people died in the subway flooding. The previous death toll, announced Friday, was 99. Authorities said 189 people were killed by floods and mudslides, 54 in house collapses and 39 in underground areas such as basements and garages and including those on subway Line 5. The death toll remained at six in an expressway tunnel from which 247 vehicles were removed as it was drained. Wang Kai, the governor of Henan province, expressed deep condolences to the victims and sympathies to the families on behalf of the Henan Communist Party committee. The worst came after Zhengzhou was hit by 20 centimetres (eight inches) of rain in one hour on July 20, overwhelming the already drenched city. Children were trapped in schools, and stranded people stayed in their workplaces overnight. The rains headed north in the following days, hitting the Henan cities of Hebi, Anyang and Xinxiang. Seven people died and three are missing in Xinxiang, where record rains dropped more than 25 centimetres (10 inches) of water in a 19-hour period. Henan is an inland county about 380 miles southwest of Beijing. Authorities said that about 250,000 hectares of crops were destroyed and have estimated losses at more than 90 billion yuan (14 billion US dollars). About 1.5 million people were evacuated because of the rains and flooding. The central government has set up an investigation team to evaluate the disaster response, summarise the lessons from it and hold accountable anyone guilty of dereliction of duty, Chinese media said.