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Russia bringing back COVID shutdown amid record daily deaths

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Moscow — Russian President Vladimir Putin told his country's employers on Wednesday that they would have to shut down again for a week from the end of October — the most dramatic step by his government in months aimed at stemming the country's surging coronavirus epidemic. During a meeting with senior officials, Putin backed a proposal to mandate "non-working" days from October 30 until November 7.

Workers will be paid during the shutdown, Putin said, as he ordered an expansion of COVID-19 testing to try and more efficiently identify virus cases.

"Our main task now is to protect the lives of citizens and, as far as possible, minimize the spread of coronavirus infection," Putin said.

He announced the new measure shortly after Russia announced yet another record number of daily coronavirus deaths, and a day after the Kremlin accepted, for the first time, a "share of responsibility" for the country's lackluster vaccination campaign.

Only about 32% of Russia's total population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to official data, despite the shots being widely available since the beginning of the year. About 57% of Americans are fully vaccinated, by comparison.

The halting uptake of vaccines in Russia has kept hospitalization and death rates high. Russia reported 34,073 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday and set a grim new record with 1,028 fatalities. The United Kingdom, in contrast, where about 66% of the population is fully vaccinated, is still seeing very high daily case numbers — over 40,000 each day for about a week — but the daily death toll from the virus has hovered for weeks around 150.

"There is a tradition to blame the government for everything," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a Tuesday conference call. "Of course, the government always feels and acknowledges its share of responsibility."

Peskov accepted that "not everything that needed to be done was done in terms of the information campaign of the lack of alternatives to and the importance of vaccination," but he added that "a more responsible approach is required from all citizens of the country."

Mistrust of the vaccines has been widespread in Russia, fueled in part by officials appearing on state television early in the pandemic and downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19.

The majority of Russia's regions have seen case numbers rise fast since September, prompting authorities to revert to stricter control measures.

During a government meeting on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova appealed to Putin to make the week starting October 30 a "non-working" week, to keep people at home in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. In confirming his decision to enact the plan on Wednesday, Putin ordered officials in regions with particularly high case rates to assess the situation bring in the business closures even sooner, from October 23.

The capital accounts for 21% of Russia's more than 8 million officially reported cases. Moscow's mayor has announced plans to reintroduce remote working, along with a vaccination mandate for workers in service industries, and other measures, from next week. All employers will be obliged to have at least 30% of their staff work from home for the next four months, until February 25, 2022, Mayor Sergey Sobyanin wrote on his website.

Employees who have been vaccinated or recovered recently from a COVID infection, along with medical and other critical workers, will be exempt from the requirements.

According to Sobyanin, the number of new cases being registered in the Moscow region since the summer has increased four-fold, and the number of hospitalizations tripled.

"I'm well aware of how tedious and uncomfortable the current restrictions are, but there's simply no other way to protect you from serious illness," he wrote, adding a targeted appeal to older Muscovites, whom he said had been reluctant to get the shots.

A health worker transports a COVID-19 patient at the Kommunarka Hospital in Moscow, Russia, October 18, 2021. / Credit: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty
A health worker transports a COVID-19 patient at the Kommunarka Hospital in Moscow, Russia, October 18, 2021. / Credit: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty

"Please get vaccinated. That's how you will protect your health and be able to maintain your usual lifestyle," the mayor said.

The tightening of restrictions in the capital area comes as most of Russia's federal 85 regions introduce vaccine mandates for various groups. Digital passes, to show vaccination or COVID test status via a QR code on personal phones, are also required to access many public venues across the country.

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