The Latest: US ambassador to China: Wait to address concerns

International

Denmark Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen during press conference on the status of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Denmark, in the Prime Minister’s Office in Copenhagen, Denmark, Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Denmark is doing well during the national lockdown, and Frederiksen indicated that it may be possible to allow smaller shops and hair dressers to open soon. (Philip Davali / Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— China didn’t warn public of likely pandemic for 6 key days.

— U.S. ambassador to China says concerns about China’s response to Wuhan outbreak should wait until after the pandemic ends.

— Australia’s prime minister sympathizes with U.S. criticisms of the World Health Organization.

— Finland ends blockade to southern region that has been heavily impacted by COVID-19.

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BEIJING — The U.S. ambassador to China says he doesn’t believe Beijing is deliberately blocking exports of personal protective equipment and medical supplies, adding that the shipment of 1,200 tons of such products to the U.S. could not have been possible without Chinese support.

Terry Branstad also told a small group of reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. has concerns about how China initially handled the virus outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, but that such issues should be addressed after the worldwide pandemic has been brought under control.

“Let’s focus now on saving lives and helping people,” Branstad said.

Chinese officials are believed to have delayed reporting the outbreak for several crucial days in January due to political concerns, allowing the virus to spread much further than it potentially may have.

China has adamantly denied such actions, despite strong evidence to the contrary, saying it has all along been providing accurate, timely information.

Despite working at half staff, U.S. diplomats and local staff in China have been able to facilitate 21 flights of supplies on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with the multiple private chartered flights, Branstad said. Despite reports of separate U.S. states and foreign governments competing for masks, gowns and other needed equipment, he said the Beijing embassy and various consulates have made strenuous efforts to fulfill all requests.

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CANBERRA, Australia — The Australian prime minister says he sympathizes with President Donald Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization, but Australia will not stop funding the United Nations’ agency.

Trump has directed his administration to freeze WHO funding, claiming the agency didn’t deliver adequate early reports on the coronavirus and cost the U.S. valuable response time.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Perth Radio 6PR on Wednesday: “I sympathize with his criticisms and I’ve made a few of my own.”

Australia had announced that COVID-19 had become a pandemic weeks before WHO did. Morrison says WHO’s support for Chinese wet markets where the virus is thought to have transferred from an animal to humans is “completely mystifying.”

“WHO is also as an organisation does a lot of important work, including here in our own region in the Pacific, and we work closely with them so that we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here,” Morrison said. “But they’re also not immune from criticism and immune from doing things better.”

WHO’s special COVID-19 envoy David Nabarro has since toughened the organization’s line on wet markets, telling the BBC “there are real dangers in these kinds of environments.”

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HELSINKI — The Finnish government says it will end the blockade of a key southern region that includes the Nordic nation’s capital, Helsinki, in the first move of easing COVID-19 -related restrictions.

Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson said Wednesday the government found no legal justification to further continue blocking movement of citizens into and out the Uusimaa region, a restriction which enter into force on March 28.

The Uusimaa region is home to some 1.7 million people, nearly of third of Finland’s population, including Helsinki’s 650,000 residents. The region has been the worst affected by the pandemic and the lockdown was meant to prevent the spreading of virus to rest of the nation.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin stressed that all other coronavirus-related restrictions would remain in place in Finland including a ban on gatherings and closure of schools. Finland has so far recorded 64 deaths and 3,237 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

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LONDON — The British government is promising to test thousands of nursing home residents and staff for the new coronavirus, as it faces criticism for failing to count care-home deaths in its tally of victims.

The government says it will begin to routinely test care workers and will also test any residents who show symptoms. Currently only the first five symptomatic residents of a home are tested to determine whether there is an outbreak.

British officials are under fire for failing to conduct more tests for COVID-19. The government has promised to change that and has set a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, a more than five-fold increase.

Charities have accused the government of treating elderly people like they don’t matter, and social-care operators say the new coronavirus is causing “devastation” in the country’s nursing homes.

Official statistics showed Tuesday that 15% more people with COVID-19 have died than were recorded in the U.K. government’s daily tally of hospital deaths — including hundreds in care homes.

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MOSCOW — Russian social media users and news outlets reported crowds of people queuing at metro stations and traffic jamming up highways leading into Moscow on Wednesday morning after a new system of passes controlling the movement of people within Russia’s capital was introduced to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Police officers were reported to be manually checking IDs and passes of each person driving into Moscow or entering the metro, prompting long queues.

The pass system in Moscow came into effect on Wednesday as the coronavirus outbreak in Russia continued to grow exponentially, with the number of cases doubling every five days. On Wednesday, Russian authorities reported 3,388 new infections, which brought the country’s total to 24,490. Moscow accounted for 14,776 of them.

Russia’s capital has been in lockdown since late March, with residents ordered to stay home except to buy food and medicine, walk pets or go to jobs at essential workplaces. In order to travel somewhere by car or on public transport, Muscovites need to apply for scannable QR-code passes online, listing their destination and purpose of travel.

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BERLIN — Germany is pushing back against U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas commented Wednesday on Trump’s decision to halt payments to WHO, saying: “Placing blame doesn’t help.”

In a tweet, Maas said that “the virus knows no borders. We must work closely together against COVID-19. Strengthening the U.N., in particular the underfunded WHO, is a better investment, for example to develop and distribute tests and vaccines.”

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BANGKOK — Thailand has extended through April 30 a ban on international passenger flights landing in the country as part of its effort to control the spread of COVID-19.

The ban was initially ordered April 4 after chaos broke out at Bangkok’s international airport when more than 100 returning Thai citizens reportedly refused to abide by regulations requiring them to go directly to state-run quarantine centers. The original three-day ban has already been extended once.

Thai authorities even before the airport incident had announced that the return of Thais from abroad would have to be delayed because there were not enough facilities to properly monitor and quarantine them.

Strict regulations requiring prior certification from foreigners that they do not have the coronavirus have effectively banned the entry of most foreign visitors.

Exceptions to the ban renewal announced Wednesday by the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand include state or military aircraft, emergency landings, technical landings without disembarkation, humanitarian, medical or relief flights, repatriation flights and cargo flights. All who do enter are subject to health crisis regulations, including a 14-day state quarantine.

Thailand has a huge tourism industry and last year welcomed about 40 million visitors.

There were 30 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 announced Wednesday, bringing the total to 2,643. Two more deaths were announced, bringing the total to 43, while 1,497 infected people have recovered.

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has registered less than 100 new cases of people infected with the coronavirus for the third straight day.

The Health Ministry says 82 people tested positive on Tuesday. It was 89 on Sunday and 68 on Monday.

It is the first time since March 17 the country has less than 100 new cases. The first three people were found infected on Mach 1.

Seven people died on Tuesday while 84 were at intensive care.

Health authorities expected Wednesday the number of people ill with COVID-19 might reach 9,900 by the end of April.

A total of 6,151 people have tested positive in the Czech Republic; 163 have died.

On Tuesday, the Czech government unveiled a plan to gradually relax its restrictions imposed to contain the pandemic.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Denmark is beginning to relax its strict coronavirus lockdown measures by allowing some classes to return nationwide Wednesday to school.

The measure applies only to preschool to fifth grade, while students above that must continue to study online from home.

Gatherings of more 10 people are still banned. Dentists, tattoo parlors, hairdressers and other trades that have close physical contacts with patrons remain closed. Restaurants and cafes can only serve takeaway. Other shops, including supermarkets and grocery stores have remained open for weeks but have urged customers to keep a distance from each other and have put a limit on the number of people allowed inside.

On March 11, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen began a gradual lockdown of the country, which means that, among others, celebrations marking the popular figurehead monarch Queen Margrethe’s 80th birthday on Thursday — have been canceled.

Frederiksen said Tuesday that Denmark can open “much faster” than expected citing figures showing a stabilization of the virus crisis in the Scandinavian country. Frederiksen also said that “it should not go too fast because should there be a setback, it will not be too severe.”

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CANBERRA, Australia — The Australian prime minister expects a tracking app under development in Australia will massively boost health authorities’ ability to trace coronavirus contacts if the government can overcome privacy concerns.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Perth Radio 6PR on Wednesday his government is carefully working through privacy issues because at least 40% of Australians will need to download the app on their smart phones if it is to effective.

The Australian app is based on Singapore’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, TraceTogether. When TraceTogether users are diagnosed with the virus, they can upload the app’s encrypted data logs which identify other users who have been in close proximity for 15 minutes or more.

Morrison says people need to understand that if Australia can track down coronavirus contacts quicker and save people’s lives, the economy can become more open.

Morrison said he discussed the app with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a video conference last month after the Singaporean leader cancelled an Australian visit due to COVID-19 concerns.

Digital Rights Watch chair Lizzie O’Shea, a human rights lawyer, said people should be wary of a location-tracking app with no guarantees about how data would be used. She says the take up rate was less than 20% in Singapore because of privacy concerns.

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