Coronavirus: EU struggles to agree on recovery deal as global deaths surge

Covid-19 has now infected more than 14.5 million people worldwide

European Council President Charles Michel, left, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, meet Ireland's Prime Minister Micheal Martin, second right, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, fourth right, and Belgium's Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes, third right, during a meeting on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, on July 19, 2020. EPA
European Council President Charles Michel, left, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, meet Ireland's Prime Minister Micheal Martin, second right, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, fourth right, and Belgium's Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes, third right, during a meeting on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, on July 19, 2020. EPA

EU leaders battled to save a €750 billion (Dh3.15 trillion/$848.51bn) virus recovery package at a summit on Sunday, as global deaths soared past 600,000 and Hong Kong raised the alarm about its growing outbreak.

The US, by far the worst-affected country, ended a week in which it registered its highest infection numbers three days running, taking its total to 3.9 million infections and 143,000 deaths.

The virus has now infected more than 14.5 million people worldwide.

With clusters emerging from Spain to Australia, officials were again facing the dilemma of imposing lockdowns to protect public health or easing restrictions to save struggling businesses.

Angry demonstrators took to the streets in Israel to protest against their government's handling of the crisis.

And scientists were feeling the pressure as Britain increased its row with Russia on Sunday over claims that Kremlin agents hacked into UK labs where virus vaccines are being developed.

Economic recovery is at the forefront of policymakers' minds in Europe, with the continent facing a crippling recession and still unable to agree on the terms of its large package to help the most-affected countries.

In a heartfelt speech, EU Council President Charles Michel reminded the bloc's 27 leaders of the devastating human cost of the pandemic – 606,000 dead including 200,000 in Europe – and urged them to unite to complete a "mission impossible".

"The question is this: are the 27 leaders, responsible for the people of Europe, capable of building European unity and trust?" Mr Michel asked.

"Or will we present the face of a weak Europe, undermined by mistrust?"

The summit was supposed to decide the terms of the rescue deal but a handful of countries led by the Netherlands are reluctant to hand over vast sums to nations they regard as profligate, particularly Spain and Italy.

There was also disunity on the fringes of the EU, with Britain and Russia renewing their feud over Moscow's alleged spying on British scientists.

"We're absolutely confident that the Russian intelligence agencies were engaged in a cyber attack on research and development efforts in organisations in this country," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, echoing accusations made by several countries last week.

Russia's ambassador to Britain, Andrey Kelin, dismissed the claim, saying "there is no sense in it".

"In this world, to attribute any kind of computer hackers to any country, it is impossible," Mr Kelin said.

With tens of thousands of new infections each day and hundreds of deaths, the US is struggling as it tries to open up the economy while the tolls mount.

Other nations are grappling with the same dilemma. Spain has opted for local lockdowns and non-enforced advice to stay at home in Catalonia.

Officials in the Australian state of Victoria have taken a tougher approach.

Face masks will be mandatory for about five million people in and around Melbourne from Thursday, with the threat of A$200 (Dh514) fines for those not adhering.

"Most of us wouldn't leave home without our keys, we wouldn't leave our home without our mobile phone," said Victoria's leader, Daniel Andrews.

"You won't be able to leave home without your mask."

In France, people risk a fine of €135 starting on Monday for failure to comply with a decree to wear a mask in indoor public places.

Hong Kong also tightened its measures, with leader Carrie Lam confirming on Sunday that daily infections passed 100 for the first time.

Ms Lam had already ordered business closures and made face masks compulsory on public transport, but she said it would soon be mandatory to wear them inside any indoor venue.

However, such restrictions have not gone down well with some in Israel, where a second wave of infections emerged after the government allowed businesses to reopen in late April and early May.

Police used water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters overnight.

They gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to show their anger, some at the reimposition of shutdowns, others with the failure to improve testing capacity.

In Europe there were also signs of growing frustration, particularly among youths starved of social life.

Police in the German city of Frankfurt said they were met with "a hail of bottles" when they tried to break up an open-air party in the city centre involving thousands of young people.

So-called corona parties have broken out in the city's squares as bars and clubs remain closed to stop the spread of the virus.

While bars, restaurants and other public spaces endure a lockdown across the world, sporting and cultural events continue to make it back into the public realm.

Japanese sumo is the latest to announce a comeback and, unlike many other sports, fans are now allowed into arenas.

"It's the feeling of being here, being present," said Katsuhiko Ochiai, as he prepared for Sunday's tournament.

"That's what watching spectator sports is all about, isn't it? Like music. Like sumo."

Turkey suspended flights to Iran and Afghanistan "as a precaution" less than a week after air traffic resumed following a five-month interruption because of the pandemic.

South Africa's death toll from coronavirus passed the 5,000 mark, after 85 new deaths were reported in the past 24 hours.

Updated: July 20, 2020 02:16 PM

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