New Delhi enters a week of lockdown amid Covid-19 surge and fears over new variant

Twenty million residents of the city will now face restrictions with only essential services permitted

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India's capital New Delhi will impose a week-long lockdown from Monday night, officials said, as the megacity struggles to contain a huge surge in Covid-19 cases with hospitals running out of beds and oxygen supplies low.

The country of 1.3 billion people reported a record high of 273,810 new infections on Monday – the fifth consecutive day of more than 200,000 cases.

In New Delhi – the worst-hit city in India – 25,500 new cases were reported on Sunday, with almost one third of those tested returning positive coronavirus results.

"Delhi's health system is at a tipping point. The Covid-19 situation is pretty critical," the city's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said in a televised address.

"If we don't impose a lockdown now, we will be looking at a bigger disaster. From tonight there will be a lockdown until next Monday."

Mr Kejriwal said businesses would be shut and movement around the northern city of 20 million limited to essential services.

"The lockdown doesn't end the pandemic but just slows it. We will use this week-long lockdown to improve our healthcare," he said.

The healthcare system, he said, was under severe strain and had reached its limit.

The restrictions followed similar measures in other parts of India, including in the western state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, and the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided wearing a mask at a campaign rally on Saturday. "I've never seen such huge crowds," Mr Modi exclaimed at the event in West Bengal.

That night he said "India had defeated Covid last year and India can do it again" after an online meeting with health officials, who spoke of critical shortages of drugs, vaccines and other supplies in a nation that has reported a string of new daily records in the past two weeks.

Double mutation fear 

Thousands gather by India's Ganges river for Kumbh Mela

Thousands gather by India's Ganges river for Kumbh Mela

News of Delhi's lockdown comes after fears that a new variant of Covid-19, which has a so-called double mutation, is thought to be fuelling the current wave of cases.

India has reported more than 14.5 million coronavirus cases so far and deaths have exceeded 175,600.

“This is a variant of interest we are following,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organisation’s technical lead officer on Covid, told reporters on Friday.

“Having two of these mutations, which have been seen in other variants around the world, are concerning.”

She said that there was a similarity with mutations that increase transmission as well as reduce neutralisation, possibly stunting the ability of vaccines to curb them.

The new strain underscores the insidious nature of viruses and threatens to thwart containment efforts in India, despite measures such as the world’s largest lockdown last year.

An exploding outbreak in India risks undoing a hard-won victory over the pathogen for others, too, especially as this strain has now jumped to at least 10 other countries.