OPEC postponses technical meetings to evaluate Omicron impact -sources

By Ahmad Ghaddar and Alex Lawler

LONDON (Reuters) – OPEC and its allies have postponed technical meetings to later this week, giving themselves more time to assess the impact of the new Omicron coronavirus variant on oil demand and prices, according to OPEC+ sources and documents.

Oil prices crashed together with other financial markets on Friday by more than 10%, their largest one-day drop since April 2020, as the new variant spooked investors and added to concerns that a supply surplus could swell in the first quarter.

Friday’s fall was exacerbated by low liquidity due to a U.S. public holiday.

Before Friday, OPEC had already predicted the surplus would grow steeply after the United States and other major consumers decided to released oil stocks to help cool down prices.

OPEC and allies known as OPEC+ have move their joint technical committee to Wednesday from Monday, according to the documents. OPEC would hold a meeting the same day.

A joint ministerial monitoring committee will meet on Thursday instead of Tuesday, the documents showed, OPEC+ will also meet the same day, when a policy decision will likely be announced.

“We need more time to understand what this new variant is and if we need to overreact or not,” one OPEC+ source said.

OPEC+ has been releasing 400,000 barrels per day of oil per month while winding down its record cuts from last year, when it cut production by as much as 10 million bpd to address lower demand caused by the virus lockdowns.

OPEC+ has some 3.8 million bpd of cuts still in place and some analysts have suggested the group could pause with the increases after the release of stocks and possible repercussions for demand from new lockdowns to contain the new variant.

(Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Louis Vuitton star designer Virgil Abloh dies after private battle with cancer

PARIS (Reuters) -Virgil Abloh, fashion’s highest profile Black designer and the creative mind behind Louis Vuitton’s menswear collections, died on Sunday of cancer, Vuitton’s owner LVMH said.

The French luxury goods giant said Abloh, 41, had been battling cancer privately for years.

“Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” LVMH’s billionaire boss Bernard Arnault said in a statement.

Abloh, a U.S. national who also worked as a DJ and visual artist, had been men’s artistic director for Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury brand, since March 2018.

His arrival at LVMH marked the marriage between streetwear and high-end fashion, mixing sneakers and camouflage pants with tailored suits and evening gowns. His influences included graffiti art, hip hop and skateboard culture.

The style was embraced by the group as it sought to breathe new life into some labels and attract younger customers.

In July this year, LVMH expanded his role, giving him a mandate to launch new brands and partner with existing ones in a variety of sectors beyond fashion.

LVMH also bought a 60% stake in Abloh’s Off-White label, which it folded into the spirits-to-jewellery conglomerate.

Abloh drew on messages of inclusivity and gender-fluidity to expand the Louis Vuitton label’s popularity, weaving themes of racial identity into his fashion shows with poetry performances and art installations.

With an eye to reaching Asian consumers grounded by the coronavirus pandemic, the designer sent his collections of colourful suits and utilitarian-flavoured outerwear off to Shanghai last summer, when many labels cancelled fashion shows.

“Virgil Abloh was the essence of modern creativity,” said an Instagram post by Alexandre Arnault, one of Bernard Arnault’s sons and executive vice president for product and communications at U.S. jeweller Tiffany, which LVMH bought this year.

(Reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by John Irish and Catherine Evans)

OPEC postpones technical meetings to evaluate Omicron impact -Bloomberg News

(Reuters) – OPEC is moving two technical meetings to later this week in order to give committees more time to evaluate the impact of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, Bloomberg News reported on Sunday, citing delegates from some member countries.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is moving its joint technical committee meeting to Wednesday, Bloomberg reported. The joint ministerial monitoring committee, which comprises representatives of the broader oil producing OPEC+ group, will meet on Thursday, it added.

(Reporting by Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Star designer Virgil Abloh dies of cancer after private battle – LVMH

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Star Black designer Virgil Abloh, the men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton since 2018 and founder of label Off-White, has died from cancer which he had been fighting privately for several years, French fashion conglomerate LVMH said on Sunday.

(Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Mark Porter)

U.S. braces for Omicron ahead of southern Africa travel ban

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. health officials on Sunday said they were preparing for the likely appearance of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant in the country, with restrictions set to begin on Monday against travelers from eight southern African countries.

“Inevitably, it will be here,” although no cases have been detected yet, the nation’s top infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC News’ “This Week.”

Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa, has now been confirmed in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and the Netherlands.

President Joe Biden, headed back to Washington following the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, will meet with his COVID-19 response team later on Sunday, the White House said.

U.S. health officials will also speak with counterparts in South Africa on Sunday to get “more information in real time,” Fauci told NBC, adding the flight curbs would give them more time to gather information and weigh possible action.

It “is to get us better prepared, to rev up on the vaccination, to be really ready for something that may not actually be a big deal, but we want to make sure that we’re prepared for the worst,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Fauci told ABC it was too early to know whether new lockdowns or mandates are needed.

“It clearly is giving indication that it has the capability of transmitting rapidly. That’s the thing that’s causing us now to be concerned,” he added on NBC.

Potentially more contagious than previous variants, Omicron has sparked worries worldwide and rattled markets.

Its appearance in the United States, where 30% of the population has not gotten a single dose of vaccine, could threaten to undermine the nation’s recovery nearly two years after COVID-19’s emergence and further pressure local healthcare systems already taxed by the recent Delta variant.

Rising cases as colder weather forces more people indoors has also caused some hospital systems and U.S. states, including New York, to declare emergencies.

So far, nearly 782,000 people have died in the United States from COVID since early 2020, the most of any country in the world, amid over 48 million infections, Reuters data show.

TRAVELERS BANNED, NOT FLIGHTS

The United States is joining other nations in seeking to block transmission by imposing travel restrictions.

Beginning at 12:01 a.m. ET (0501 GMT) on Monday, it will bar entry of nearly all foreign nationals who have been in any of eight southern African countries within the last 14 days and has warned Americans against traveling to those nations.

Flights by Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have continued from South Africa to the United States since the variant was discovered. The Centers for Disease Control did not immediately respond to a request for information about whether passengers from these flights were being screened.

Fauci and other top officials said the sudden burst of cases made Omicron worrisome and it remained unclear how current vaccines or therapeutics could be impacted. Vaccine makers Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have said they expect more information soon.

“We need more data there before we can say confidently that this is not a severe version of the virus, but we should find that out in the next couple weeks,” outgoing National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told “Fox News Sunday.”

‘CLARION CALL’ FOR SHOTS

Fauci pressed Americans to continue get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters while experts evaluate Omicron.

“This is a clarion call…(to) get vaccinated,” he told NBC.

The United States has recorded over 1.1 million new COVID cases in the last 14 days, up 9% from the prior two weeks, Reuters data shows, with Michigan and Minnesota leading the nation in new cases, based on infections per 100,000 residents.

The governor of one hard-hit state, Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson, expressed worry over another blow from the latest variant, telling CNN’s “State of the Union” program: “Delta has been tough on us. And so we don’t welcome a new variant. And it is a great concern.”

The variant could cast a pall over the rest of the U.S. holiday season and potentially impact companies’ return-to-office plans depending on what officials discover in coming weeks. A number of banks and other firms have said they planned for workers to come back in January.

On Wall Street, sources at major U.S. banks and European banks with large U.S. operations said they were not yet changing their policies but were monitoring the situation.

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Chris Gallagher, Joel Schectman and David Shepardson in Washington; and Matt Scuffham, Megan Davies and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Heather Timmons, Mark Porter and Lisa Shumaker)

Britain to call G7 health ministers meeting over Omicron

(Reuters) – Britain said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss developments on the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

The British government announced new measures on Saturday to try to slow the spread of the new COVID-19 variant, toughening rules for people arriving in Britain and ordering the use of masks in retail settings and on public transport in England.

Some school children will also be required to wear face coverings in communal areas.

(Reporting by Baranjot Kaur in Bengaluru; Editing by Alexander Smith)

WHO reaches draft consensus on future pandemic treaty

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Member states of the World Health Organization have reached a tentative consensus to negotiate a future agreement on preventing pandemics, bridging the gap between sides led by the European Union and United States, diplomats said on Sunday.

The draft resolution, hammered out in negotiations over the weekend, will be presented for adoption to health ministers at the WHO’s three-day special assembly that opens on Monday, they said.

The diplomatic breakthrough came amid growing international concern over the Omicron coronavrius variant, first detected in South Africa this month, which has spread further around the world.

A global agreement to strengthen pandemic prevention and responses, expected to be ready in May 2024, would cover issues such as sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines and drugs derived from research.

“This decision, to establish a negotiating body on a future pandemic agreement, may only be the end of the beginning, but the flexibility shown and the breadth of support is a good portent for the vital efforts to come,” Simon Manley, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said in a statement.

Britain, along with the EU and some 70 other countries, had pushed for a legally-binding treaty. The United States backed by states including Brazil and India was reluctant to commit to a binding treaty, diplomats said last week.

“There is agreement on a text which for us is very satisfying,” a European diplomat said. “It also gives the Americans a way out, who are clearly joined up.”

Another diplomat said: “It is a good outcome…There was enormous goodwill to get common language.”

The draft resolution was posted on the WHO website.

More than 260.77 million people have been reported to have been infected by the coronavirus and 5.45 million have died since SARS-CoV-2 emerged in China in December 2019. The WHO says that China has still not shared some of its early data that might help identify the virus origin.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Germany says working with U.S. on Nord Stream 2 deal

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany said on Sunday it was continuing to work closely with the United States on implementing a deal on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea and carries gas from Russia to Germany.

Germany’s foreign ministry said it continued to coordinate closely with the U.S. administration on implementing a joint declaration on the $11 billion pipeline.

The Biden administration has waived sanctions on the pipeline operator and made a deal with Germany in July, although last week it imposed further sanctions targeting Russia-linked Transadria Ltd and its vessel.

“We fundamentally reject sanctions among allies,” it said in response to a query from Reuters about a report by Axios, which said Berlin had urged members of the U.S. Congress not to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as doing so would “weaken” U.S. credibility and “ultimately damage transatlantic unity”.

The United States and some European countries oppose the pipeline which bypasses Ukraine.

They say it would make Europe too reliant on Russian gas, but some other European governments say the link is vital to secure energy supplies.

Germany has agreed to take action if Russia uses energy as a weapon in its relations with Ukraine, but the deal does not provide a specific criteria for how that would be judged.

News website Axios cited a Nov. 19 document outlining steps Germany would take, including “strong public messages” condemning Russia’s behaviour and assessing the suspension of political meetings.

At the EU level, the document said Germany was “actively participating in the process to identify options for additional restrictive measures”, Axios said.

The document also said Nord Stream 2 presented “no threat to Ukraine as long as reasonable gas transit is ensured,” and referred to potential sanctions on the pipeline as “a victory for Putin” as it would divide Western allies, Axios added.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Italian costguard rescues hundreds of migrants off Calabria coast

MILAN (Reuters) – The Italian coastguard has rescued about 250 migrants, including a newborn baby, from a boat drifting a few miles off the coast of the Calabria region.

The rescue, carried out overnight on Saturday and Sunday, was complicated by difficult weather and sea conditions and lasted more than 16 hours, the coastguard said in a statement.

A total of 244 people, of which 41 minors including the baby born on the boat on Saturday, were saved.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in boat migrants in recent weeks and the latest arrivals will put further pressure on Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government to secure an agreement with European Union partners over how to deal with the influx.

Another 296 migrants were saved from the Italian costguard in the Mediterranean on Nov. 25 as they tried to reach Europe.

In a separate statement German NGO Sea-Watch said on Saturday that 461 people are disembarking from its rescue ship in Augusta, Sicily.

Some 62,236 migrants have landed in Italy so far in 2021, interior ministry data show, against 32,542 in the same period last year.

(Reporting by Gianluca Semeraro; editing by Angus MacSwan)

WHO says it is not yet clear if Omicron causes more severe disease

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Sunday that it is not yet clear if the new Omicron coronavirus variant is more transmissible compared to other SARS-CoV-2 variants or if it causes more severe disease.

“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron,” it said.

However, in a statement, the agency reiterated that preliminary evidence suggests there may be a higher risk of reinfection from the variant.

The WHO said it is working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19 disease, including vaccines.

“There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants,” the WHO said.

“Initial reported infections were among university studies —younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease — but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks,” it said.

PCR tests continue to detect infection with Omicron – which was first detected in South Africa earlier this month – and studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on rapid antigen detection tests, the WHO said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Earthquake hits remote northern Peru, 75 homes destroyed, no deaths reported

By Marco Aquino

(Reuters) – A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the remote Amazon region of northern Peru on Sunday and was felt as far as Lima in the center of the country, destroying 75 homes but with no deaths reported.

The seismological center of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP) said the earthquake had a depth of 131 kilometers (81 miles) and that the epicenter was 98 kilometers from the town of Santa Maria de Nieva in the province of Condorcanqui.

The quake was felt throughout central and northern Peru. Some residents left their homes as a precaution, according to local radio and television reports.

No damage was reported to the 1,100-kilometer oil pipeline of state-owned Petroperu that crosses the Peruvian Amazon region to the Pacific coast in the north.

The National Institute of Civil Defense (Indeci) said in a statement that 220 homes were affected, 81 uninhabitable and 75 destroyed. Seven places of religious worship and two shopping centers were among damaged facilities, Indeci said, adding that four residents were injured.

President Pedro Castillo said through Twitter that he ordered the immediate deployment of support personnel and took a trip in a military plane to the area.

“We will support those affected and address material damage,” he said.

Walter Culqui, mayor of the town of Jalca Grande in Chachapoyas province, said several houses had been damaged, leaving three non-serious injuries. Part of the church tower in the area collapsed, he said.

Through social networks, electricity cuts were reported in several locations in jungle areas. Local TV images showed stretches of roads blocked by huge rocks and dirt that had been knocked loose.

The U.S. warning system said there was no tsunami warning after the earthquake.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru, writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Porter)

COVID-positive Czech president appoints new PM from plexiglass cubicle

PRAGUE (Reuters) -Czech President Milos Zeman appointed the leader of a centre-right alliance Petr Fiala as prime minister on Sunday in a ceremony he performed from a plexiglass cubicle after testing positive for COVID-19.

Fiala leads a bloc of five centre and centre-right opposition parties that won an election in October, ousting the incumbent premier Andrej Babis and his allies.

The new government will have to tackle a new wave of coronavirus infections that is threatening to overwhelm hospitals and an energy crisis, after the collapse of a large electricity provider. The coalition has also said https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/czech-opposition-parties-plan-lower-2022-budget-deficit-after-election-win-2021-10-17 it plans to rework the 2022 state budget to reduce a large deficit.

“The new government has a very complicated time ahead and many challenges… I want it to be a government of change for the future,” Fiala said at a news conference.

He expected his cabinet to be appointed in mid-December.

The new prime minister also called on people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and praised medical staff as cases are on the rise.

Opponents of vaccination and government’s anti-coronavirus measures such as a ban on Christmas markets gathered in their thousands in Prague later on Sunday for a protest rally.

Only 58.5% of Czechs are vaccinated againt coronavirus. This compares to a European Union average of 65.8%, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Zeman performed the inauguration ceremony from a plexiglass cubicle after testing positive for coronavirus. Zeman, who arrived in a wheelchair escorted by a medic in full protective gear, contracted the virus after a six-week stay in hospital for an unrelated illness.

(Reporting by Robert Muller, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Angus MacSwan)

Hondurans vote for president as leftist contender vies to end conservative rule

By David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Hondurans headed to the polls on Sunday to pick a new president, with leftist candidate Xiomara Castro hoping to oust the right-wing National Party, whose 12-year rule has been beset by graft scandals, chronic unemployment and waves of fleeing migrants.

If she wins, Castro would become the first female president in Honduras. Her victory would mark the left’s return to power for the first time since her husband former President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a 2009 coup.

She has gained favor from voters for her efforts to consolidate opposition to outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has denied accusations of having ties to powerful gangs, among other corruption scandals.

Recent polls have reinforced her status as favorite.

“We can’t stay home. This is our moment. This is the moment to kick out the dictatorship,” said Castro, mobbed by reporters just after voting in the town of Catacamas early on Sunday.

“It’s now or never.”

The candidate said she trusted that voters would report any problems they see and that international observers would also help to ensure a fair vote.

The election is the latest political flashpoint in Central America, a major source of U.S.-bound migrants and key transit point for drug trafficking, and where concerns over increasingly authoritarian governments have grown.

The vote also marks a point of diplomatic jostling between Beijing and Washington after Castro said she would open diplomatic relations with China, de-emphasizing ties with U.S.-backed Taiwan.

Castro’s main rival is the National Party’s Nasry Asfura, a wealthy businessman and two-term mayor of the capital Tegucigalpa, who has tried to distance himself from the unpopular incumbent. He was expected to cast his ballot later in the capital.

Speaking on Honduran television, Asfura said he would abide by the vote outcome.

“Whatever the Honduran people want in the end, I will respect. The ballot boxes will say everything,” he said. “We hope today is a day of celebration and peace for Honduras.”

In Tegucigalpa, as polling stations opened up on a cool, sunny day, dozens of people could be seen lined up early at multiple locations.

“I’m against all the corruption, poverty and drug-trafficking,” said Jose Gonzalez, 27, a mechanic who was lined up outside his polling place and said he would cast his ballot for Castro, his young daughter standing next to him.

Polls close at 5 p.m., and preliminary results are expected three hours later. Some 5.2 million Hondurans are eligible to vote.

Hernandez’s disputed 2017 re-election, and its ugly aftermath, looms large over Sunday’s vote.

Widespread reports of irregularities provoked deadly protests claiming the lives of over two dozen people, but Hernandez’s election win was ultimately rubber-stamped by allies on the electoral council.

Days later, it was vouched for by the government of then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

HARD CAMPAIGN

A large number of national and international election observers are set to monitor Sunday’s voting, including an 80-person delegation from the Washington-based Organization of American States led by former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis.

“The voice of the Honduran people must be respected and the process must not lead to acts of violence,” Solis told Reuters.

Honduras is one of the world’s most violent countries, although homicide rates recently have dipped.

The pre-election tension was showing in some Tegucigalpa neighborhoods late Saturday, as some businesses boarded up storefront windows, and at least two auto dealerships located in an area near the president’s offices had emptied their lots of cars. The neighborhood has been the scene of raucous protests in the past.

“The campaign has been very hard,” said Julieta Castellanos, a sociologist and former dean of Honduras’ National Autonomous University, especially after Castro in October sealed an opposition alliance with the 2017 runner-up that she said “generated big expectations.”

Castellanos said post-election violence is possible if the race is especially close, if a large number of complaints are lodged and give rise to suspicions of wide-scale fraud, or if candidates declare themselves victorious prematurely.

Political violence has already claimed more than 30 lives this year, including local candidates and activists across all major parties.

In addition to the presidential race, voters are also deciding the composition of the country’s 128-member unicameral Congress, plus officials for some 300 local governments.

In Tegucigalpa’s working-class Kennedy neighborhood, 56-year-old accountant Jose, who declined to give his surname, said he would stick with the ruling party.

“I have hope Tito Asfura can change everything,” he said, using the mayor’s nickname. “Look, here the corruption is in all the governments.”

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Daniel Flynn and Lisa Shumaker)

Egypt authorizes Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12 to 15 year-olds

CAIRO (REUTERS) – Egypt authorized on Sunday Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 12-15, the cabinet said in a statement.

The step effectively lowers the minimum age of eligibility to receive the two-shot vaccine in Egypt, which was 15 years old previously.

(Reporting by Momen Saeed Atallah; Writing by Moataz Abdelrahiem; Editing by Catherine Evans)

With new Omicron case detected, UK awaits COVID booster advice

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s health minister Sajid Javid said on Sunday he expected to receive advice imminently on whether the government can broaden a booster shot programme to try to weaken the impact of the newly identified Omicron coronavirus variant.

A day after Britain said it had detected two cases of the variant, its health agency recorded a third – in a person who was linked to travel to Southern Africa but had since left the country after spending time in the capital London.

The government announced new measures on Saturday to try to slow the spread of the variant, toughening rules for people arriving into Britain and ordering the use of masks in retail settings and on transport in England. Some schoolchildren will also be required to wear face coverings in communal areas.

But ministers also want to ramp up the offer of booster jabs, saying even if vaccines prove to be less effective against Omicron, they should offer better protection against it and reduce the number of hospitalisations and deaths.

“The other thing that still remains hugely important, but I think it’s fair to say now more important than it was before, is our vaccination programme,” Javid told Sky News.

“That is why I have also asked our expert advisers on vaccines called JCVI (the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) to give me very quick advice on broadening, boosting our booster programme, and I expect to get that advice imminently.”

Earlier this month, Britain expanded eligibility for booster jabs to people in their 40s and also said children aged 16 and 17 would be able to receive a second dose following guidance from the JCVI.

Scotland, where the government sets its own health rules, already requires people to wear face coverings and work from home if possible. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show she would also bring in new rules for arrivals.

“I think we need to be open minded to doing anything required to keep the population safe right now,” she said.

BUYING TIME

The discovery of Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” last week by the World Health Organization, has caused worry around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost 145,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Britain, with Johnson’s government criticised for moving too slowly in the early days of the pandemic. Since then, the government has tried to react quickly to the appearance of new variants.

Javid said the new measures were needed to buy time for experts to understand more about Omicron, which is likely to have spread in Britain beyond the three cases so far detected.

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK’s Health Security Agency, said: “It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days.”

Paul Burton, chief medical officer at Moderna, said that if a new vaccine was needed, “I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities”.

Javid said it was not as yet clear whether vaccines were less effective against the variant.

“The point is the vaccines are still going to give you more protection than otherwise,” he said. “That is why the booster programme is so important.”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Editing by Louise Heavens, Mark Heinrich, Raissa Kasolowsky and Catherine Evans)

Jordan’s draft 2022 budget forecasts $15 billion in state spending

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Jordan’s Finance Minister Mohamad Al Ississ said on Sunday that the draft 2022 budget forecasts 10.6 billion dinars ($15 billion) in state expenditure and paves the way for a rebound in growth to 2.7% after the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Al Ississ told a media briefing that Jordan had also last week successfully concluded the third review of a four-year programme of International Monetary Fund (IMF) backed reforms to help it restore fiscal prudence for a sustained recovery.

Al Ississ said that the government had increased its local revenues last year without raising taxes through a rare campaign to combat tax evasion and by a major restructuring of the tax and customs administration that ended exemptions.

It foresaw total revenues next year at 8.9 billion dinars, with 848 million in foreign grants.

Jordan’s economy was particularly hard hit last year by the shutdowns aimed at containing the virus, with unemployment at a record 24% amid the worst contraction in decades.

Inflation was, however, expected to rise to 2.5 % next year from a projected 1.6 % this year, Al Ississ said.

Most state expenditure goes on salaries and pensions in a country which has among the highest government spending relative to the size of its $45 billion economy.

The government has raised capital spending to 1.5 billion dinars, a 43% rise from the previous year to help spur growth and improve infrastructure to help attract more investment, the finance minister said

Jordan’s commitment to IMF reforms and investor confidence in the country’s improved outlook helped it to maintain stable sovereign ratings at a time when other emerging markets were being downgraded, Al Ississ said.

Al Ississ said debt servicing on 29.4 billion dinars of public debt would drop next year with a push to expand preferential loans and grants away from more expensive commercial lending.

($1-0.709 dinars)

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Editing by Louise Heavens and Alexander Smith)

Ethiopia’s army captures northern Afar town of Chifra -state media

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s army has retaken the town of Chifra in Afar region, the state-run broadcaster said on Sunday, its first major seizure from rebellious Tigrayan forces since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared on the frontlines two days ago.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) captured Chifra, on the border between the northern Afar and Amhara regions, after fighting intensified https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/ethiopian-offensive-two-northern-regions-intensifies-tigrayan-forces-say-2021-10-13 last month between Ethiopian troops and forces loyal to the TPLF.

“Ethiopian Defense Forces and Afar Special Forces have controlled Chifra,” the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation said on its Twitter account.

It did not give further details. Reuters was not able to independently verify the report. Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Chifra is west of the town of Mille, which Tigrayan forces have been trying to capture for weeks, because it lies along the highway linking landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti, the Horn of Africa’s main port.

State-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported on Friday that Abiy was on the frontline https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/ethiopia-pm-frontline-with-army-afar-region-state-affiliated-tv-2021-11-26 with the army fighting the Tigrayan forces in Afar.

“The morale of the army is very exciting,” he said in the remarks broadcast on Friday, promising to capture Chifra town “today”.

Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions displaced by fighting since war erupted in Tigray last November.

Tigrayan forces were initially beaten back, but recaptured most of the region in July and pushed into neighbouring Amhara and Afar, displacing hundreds of thousands more people.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa Newsroom; Editing by Maggie Fick and Catherine Evans)

France says it will not be held hostage by British politics on migration

By Juliette Jabkhiro and Noemie Olive

CALAIS, France (Reuters) -France is ready for a serious discussion with Britain on issues relating to illegal migration, but will not be held hostage to London’s domestic politics, the country’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.

The two countries are already at loggerheads over post-Brexit trading rules and fishing rights and last week relations soured further after 27 people died trying to cross the Channel.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote to President Emmanuel Macron setting out five steps the two countries could take to deter migrants from making the perilous journey. One of those – sending illegal migrants back to France – particularly angered Paris.

France responded by cancelling an invitation to British Interior Minister Priti Patel to attend a meeting on Sunday with European counterparts to discuss the issue after Johnson published the letter on Twitter.

“Britain left Europe, but not the World. We need to work seriously on these questions … without being held hostage by domestic British politics,” Darmanin told reporters after meeting his Belgian, German and Dutch counterparts in Calais.

He added that London’s tone in private was not the same as in public.

France had been handling the issue of illegal migration to Britain for 25 years and it was now time London woke up, Darmanin said.

“If migrants are coming to Calais, Dunkirk or northern France, it’s because they are attracted by England, especially the labour market which means you can work in England without any identification,” he said.

“Britain must take its responsibility and limit its economic attractiveness.”

Britain needs France’s cooperation to curb the flow of migrants escaping war and poverty over the English Channel from Europe, health minister Sajid Javid said on Sunday, defending Johnson’s letter.

Little was agreed at Sunday’s meeting with his European partners beyond further cooperation between police, but the European Border and Coast Guard Agency agreed to provide a plane from Dec. 1 to monitor France’s northern coastline, Darmanin added.

(Writing by John Irish; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Swiss voters back government’s COVID-19 response plan

By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi

ZURICH (Reuters) – Swiss voters on Sunday backed the government’s pandemic response plan by a bigger than expected majority in a referendum, paving the way for the continuation of exceptional measures to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases.

Some 62.01% voted in favour of a law passed earlier this year to provide financial aid to people hit by the COVID-19 crisis and laying the foundation for certificates giving proof of COVID-19 vaccination, recovery or a negative test. These are currently required to enter bars, restaurants and certain events.

A poll on Nov. 7 had found opposition to the government’s COVID-19 law growing, with 38% against it.

Opponents of restrictions on public life imposed to curb coronavirus infections had triggered a binding referendum under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, held as cases have risen to levels the government this week deemed “critical”.

The divisive debate had prompted large-scale protests and what Health Minister Alain Berset on Sunday called “anger, hate, intimidations and threats”.

He called for solidarity following the vote, saying it was time to move forward and accept the result, particularly as the country faces an unknown threat from the new Omicron variant.

“We have a mutual enemy: the virus, and the virus doesn’t care about our fights,” Berset told a news conference. “Now we must find our way back together, and we all have a common goal: to bring this pandemic under control.”

The government has largely backed away from tightening measures even as cases approach record highs, but on Friday and Saturday it imposed new travel restrictions to stem the spread of the Omicron variant that has sparked global concern.

Sunday’s vote in favour of the COVID-19 law was broadly hailed as a success by labour unions and business association economiesuisse, although the latter appealed to politicians to use available pandemic response measures “responsibly.”

Martina Bircher of the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which opposed the law, said the SVP would fight a further broadening of the COVID-19 certificate’s use “vehemently”, while other opponents expressed disappointment.

“Even if the law has been accepted, it is important to note that the COVID law breaks 10 articles of the constitution,” Josef Ender, a spokesperson for one of the groups that had prompted the referendum, told Swiss broadcaster SRF.

In other referendum votes on Sunday, nearly 61% of voters accepted a labour union-backed proposal to support nurses, while more than 68% of voters rejected a proposal to select federal judges by lottery from a pool of candidates proposed by experts.

For referendum motions to pass they must win a simple majority of the votes cast nationwide while also winning support in a majority of cantons or regions.

($1 = 0.9239 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi; Editing by Louise Heavens, David Goodman and Catherine Evans)

Six Sudanese soldiers killed in Ethiopian attack – Sudan military sources

KHARTOUM (Reuters) -Six Sudanese soldiers were killed on Saturday in an attack by Ethiopian forces on a Sudanese army post near the border between the countries, Sudanese military sources said.

Ethiopia denied the attack.

Sudan’s army said on Facebook that “groups of the Ethiopian army and militias attacked its forces in Al-Fashaga Al-sughra, which resulted in deaths … our forces valiantly repelled the attack and inflicted heavy losses in lives and equipment on the attackers”.

The army statement did not provide any details about the death toll. The military sources, speaking to Reuters, later said six Sudanese soldiers were killed.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu said Ethiopia’s military did not carry out any attack on Sudan.

“It is a baseless information that is disseminated by multiple media that our army attacked Sudan. Ethiopian Defence Force has no agenda of attacking any sovereign country,” he said in comments aired on state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation.

(Reporting by Khalid AbdelazizAdditional reporting by Addis Ababa NewsroomWriting by Moataz AbdelrahiemEditing by Frances Kerry)