Italy, Austria eye easing; Turkey cases up

Turkish authorities say the country has registered a record high number of daily COVID-19 cases.
Turkish authorities say the country has registered a record high number of daily COVID-19 cases.

Authorities in Italy and Austria have set out a timeline for easing coronavirus restrictions as daily infections in Turkey hit a new high and German Chancellor Angela Merkel received her first AstraZeneca vaccine.

The number of new COVID-19 cases per week has nearly doubled globally over the past two months, approaching the highest rate seen so far during the pandemic, the head of the World Health Organisation said on Friday.

"Cases and deaths are continuing to increase at worrying rates," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing.

Italy will ease coronavirus curbs in many areas from April 26, the government said on Friday, warning caution was still needed to avoid any reversals in the re-opening of many long-shuttered activities.

Restrictions on business and movement have been in place for most of this year in Italy, which has the seventh highest death toll in the world and still reports hundreds of fatalities every day.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi set out a broad timetable for reopening after pressure from parties in his unity administration.

"The government is taking a reasonable risk based on data that is improving, although not dramatically," Draghi told a news conference.

From April 26, restaurants and bars will be able to serve clients at outside tables in the regions with low infections levels, where outdoor theatres and cinemas will also reopen.

"Our idea is to allow open-air swimming pools from May 15 and restart some gym activities on June 1," Health Minister Roberto Speranza told reporters.

Draghi said it would be crucial that people strictly respected physical distancing rules and wore face masks to move forward with the re-openings.

Austria plans to start a slow re-opening of businesses from May under a strict hygiene concept after months of pandemic-imposed closures of restaurants, cafes, hotels and leisure facilities.

The first steps towards a re-opening of the tourism, gastronomy, cultural and sports sectors would be possible from next month, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in Vienna on Friday.

He did not provide an exact date, however, adding that detailed planning was scheduled for next week.

"Freedom is within reach," Kurz said.

Face masks, testing and a planned "green pass" for those who have already been vaccinated or can present a negative COVID-19 test result or have recovered from the disease will play an important role in facilitating the cautious re-opening.

"Meanwhile, we have constant mass testing," Kurz said.

Meanwhile, Turkey recorded 63,082 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, the highest daily number since the beginning of the pandemic, data from the health ministry showed on Friday.

The data also showed 289 people died due to COVID-19 in the same period, bringing the total number of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic to 35,320.

Turkey ranks fourth globally in the number of daily cases based on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.

President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday announced several new restrictions and a "partial closure" for the first two weeks of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to curb the surge in cases.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday she was "delighted" to have received her first coronavirus vaccine dose and encouraged others to follow her example.

The 66-year-old chancellor was given the AstraZeneca shot, which has been designated for those over 60 in Germany.

Merkel joins a growing list of world leaders to step forward and get a jab, yet unlike many of her counterparts she did not do it in full view of the cameras.

"I am delighted to have received my first vaccination today with AstraZeneca," Merkel said via her spokesman.

"I thank everyone who is involved in the vaccination campaign - and everyone who gets vaccinated," she said.

"Vaccination is the key to overcoming the pandemic."

A total of 18.5 per cent of Germany's population has now received at least one coronavirus vaccine shot, according to the Robert Koch Institute public disease control authority.

Australian Associated Press