Cyprus imposes second nationwide virus lockdown

Nicosia (AFP) –


Cyprus said Friday it will impose its second nationwide lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic after an existing package of restrictions failed to bring down the daily caseload.

Announcing the lockdown, Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou said the new measures, which will be in force from Sunday until at least January 31, are to protect the island's health service.

"For the next three weeks, we will have to stay in our homes to stop the spread of the virus," Ioannou told reporters.

"The effort aims to drastically reduce social and professional gatherings in homes and workplaces because that is where most cases are found."

Under the new rules, people will be allowed out of their homes just twice a day for essential travel or exercise, while all non-essential businesses will close.

Unlike the first lockdown in March, airports and ports will remain open.

People wanting to leave their homes for exercise, shopping, work or emergencies will need to obtain prior approval by mobile text message, as in March.

Schools will close, with pupils returning to remote learning, but kindergartens will remain open.

Retail shops, hair salons, cinemas, theatres, gyms and museums will also close.

On November 30, Cyprus introduced an eight-hour nighttime curfew in a bid to tame the pandemic. It closed hospitality venues and shopping malls before Christmas and then banned household visits during the holidays.

A daily 9 pm to 5 am curfew remains in place and only top-flight professional sport is allowed. All social and public gatherings are also banned.

Despite the existing restrictions, Covid-19 cases have continued to rise. December was the deadliest month so far while hospital admissions reached record highs.

New soronavirus infections reached 12,086 in December, more than the previous nine months combined.

December accounted for more than half of the 140 coronavirus deaths recorded since the outbreak.

The health ministry registered 427 new virus cases on Thursday, taking the total to 26,208.

Cyprus had largely kept a lid on the pandemic by introducing an early lockdown in March that was gradually eased from early May.

Health authorities blame the spike on Cypriots flouting hygiene rules, including on mask-wearing and social distancing.

Face masks are mandatory indoors and outdoors, except at home.

The government hopes the lockdown will enable it to get ahead of the virus by increasing rapid tests and vaccinations.

So far Cyprus has inoculated fewer than 4,000 people against the virus. It hopes to vaccinate 20 per cent of the population by mid-April.

Ioannou said the second wave of coronavirus had hit Cyprus hard, especially after a new, apparently more contagious variant that first emerged in England reached the island.

"The second wave of the pandemic is much faster than the first, a fact that scientists attribute to the new strain of the virus, which was also detected in Cyprus," he said.

"The increase in patients who need specialised care … is the critical indicator that determines the decisions of all governments plagued by the health crisis," he added.