In Cologne’s old town, the Christmas market is nearly ready. The stalls are being winched in and the ice rink is taking shape. And yet hanging over it all is a sense of nervousness because nobody is quite sure what will happen next.
Will the tourists come? Will the market still be open by Christmas or will the resurgence of COVID spoil everything. Again.
Germany, like much of Europe, has a serious problem with a rapid, debilitating rise in infections. The much-feared fourth wave is now a depressing reality, sweeping in from the east.
Saxony has already been hit hard; Cologne, over on the other side of the country, now waits.
In the city’s impressive university hospital, Fabian Dussem greets us warmly and opens the door to the intensive care ward.
Last year, at the height of the pandemic, it was packed with patients and panic. Now, it is empty. But it won’t stay like that.
“I’m extremely worried,” he says. “We had three waves before where we had a lot of COVID patients to treat and a lot of them died and now we are running straight ahead to the fourth wave.
“The incidents are rising high and we are extremely worried what will happen next.
“I’m annoyed, I’m angry and I’m very tired of this situation because we are still exhausted from the past waves. We don’t want to see this anymore.”
Germany received plaudits from around the world for its reaction to the first wave when the country endured fewer deaths than its neighbours.
This time, though, it appears to be suffering far more than France where the rate of infection remains much lower.
That, of course, may change as this fourth wave arrives in Western Europe. The question that remains unanswered is exactly why.
Germany has vaccinated around two-thirds of its population, which is roughly the same as the United Kingdom. People can move easily around the huge nation, while, in retrospect, there is little doubt that Germany was too quick to scale back its COVID infrastructure, such as its excellent but expensive track and trace system.
And then there is the vaccination programme. Germany, like other nations, has seen a marked fall in the number of people coming forward to get vaccinated.
In essence, that’s because most people who wanted to get vaccinated, and qualified, have already come forward. And, among those who were reluctant at first, many have not been won over.
Dr Daniel Poerschke looks pained when I ask him about how the city can now cope with this fourth wave. He is a doctor at one of the city’s main vaccination centres, and is keen to see a reaction.
“In Cologne, during the peak time in summer, we had around 7,500 vaccinations per day, but the vaccination centre closed by the end of September and now we only have the capacity for about 500 vaccinations here.
“But the demand is obviously increasing again, since the numbers are rising and so there is also demand for opening vaccination centres again. It’s necessary.
“During the summertime, when the numbers were low, many people thought the pandemic was over. Now, with the numbers getting that high, everybody’s aware that the pandemic is not over yet.
“Plus now we know that you’re not fully protected with two vaccinations and that there is the need of a third vaccination. We should’ve done this earlier already. We knew that. The virologists told the politicians so, in August already.
“The recommendation was in August already to have the third vaccination done but unfortunately we are only starting now to increase the number of the booster vaccination and hopefully it’s not too late.”
There is a gulf here between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, and it is getting wider and more obvious.
Austria has already introduced rules that hinder the movements of unvaccinated people more than those who have had two or three jabs. COVID passports are common across Europe, where the requirement to prove your status in restaurants or arenas is now familiar.
And as cases start to rise, and deaths follow, so the pressure will grow on governments to bring in more restrictive measures, which may well exacerbate that feeling of division.
Already some political parties, such as the Freedom Party in Austria, are tapping into that sense of disaffection among unvaccinated people.
So COVID will not just be about health, or politics, but about the make-up of society and our definition of liberty.
Amid the infections, deaths and the efforts to stop hospitals becoming clogged once more, the virus may yet complicate Europe more than ever.
Up to 350 people trapped on roof as fire breaks out at Hong Kong’s World Trade Centre, police say | World News
Up to 350 people are trapped on the roof of Hong Kong’s World Trade Centre after a major fire broke out in the skyscraper, police have said.
The fire started to rip through the 38-story building, which houses both offices and a mall, in the bustling commercial and shopping district of Causeway Bay early on Wednesday afternoon.
At least one person has been injured and taken to hospital.
Police also said 150 people are currently awaiting rescue.
Other people were said to be trapped in restaurants in the mall, according to the local South China Morning Post newspaper.
The blaze was also upgraded to a level three incident on a scale of one to five.
Hong Kong’s government said firefighters were battling the fire with two water jets and had deployed breathing apparatus.
Firefighters also used an extendable ladder to rescue several people who were trapped on the lower floors of the building.
The emergency services cordoned off the area outside the building.
COVID-19: US coronavirus deaths top 800,000, with more than 25% coming after vaccines became available | US News
COVID-19 deaths in the United States have topped 800,000, with more than 25% of fatalities coming after vaccines became available earlier this year.
The number of deaths hit what President Joe Biden called a “tragic milestone” on Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The overall death toll is roughly equal to the population of Atlanta and St Louis combined – or Minneapolis and Cleveland put together.
It is also roughly equivalent to how many Americans die each year from heart disease or stroke.
The US also has the highest reported toll of any country, accounting for approximately 4% of the world’s population but about 15% of the 5.3 million known deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
The true number of deaths in the US and around the world is believed to significantly higher because of cases that were overlooked or concealed.
A closely watched forecasting model from the University of Washington projects a total of more than 880,000 reported deaths in the US by March.
Mr Biden on Tuesday reiterated calls for unvaccinated Americans to get jabs for themselves and their children and urged the vaccinated to get booster shots.
He said: “I urge all Americans: do your patriotic duty to keep our country safe, to protect yourself and those around you, and to honour the memory of all those we have lost.
“Now is the time.”
Health experts also lamented the number of deaths, saying many were especially heartbreaking because they were preventable by way of the vaccine, which became available around a year ago and was thrown open to all adults by mid-April.
Around 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated – or just over 60% of the population, which is well short of what scientists say is needed to keep the virus in check.
“Almost all the people dying are now dying preventable deaths,” said Dr Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“And that’s because they’re not immunised. And you know that, God, it’s a terrible tragedy.”
When the vaccine was first rolled out, the country’s death toll stood at about 300,000. It hit 600,000 in mid-June and 700,000 on 1 October.
The US crossed the latest threshold with cases and hospitalisations on the rise again in a spike driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, which arrived in the first half of 2021 and now accounts for practically all infections.
Now the Omicron variant is gaining a foothold in the country.
Dr Beyrer recalled that in March or April 2020, one of the worst-case scenarios projected upwards of 240,000 American deaths.
“And I saw that number, and I thought that is incredible – 240,000 American deaths?” he said. “We’re now past three times that number.”
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re still not out of the woods.”
The Christians release Christmas single Naz Don’t Cry to support imprisoned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe | UK News
An unusual contender for the Christmas No 1 is released today.
Thirty years ago the pop group The Christians released a song to support British hostage John McCarthy kidnapped for five years in Lebanon.
Today they rereleased a refashioned version of the song Man Don’t Cry to send a message of hope and support to British Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe currently being held against her will in Iran.
Singer Gary Christian says the plight of Nazanin and her husband Richard’s hunger strike outside the Foreign Office inspired the band to make the move.
He said: “When you see something like this you feel so impotent, you can’t do anything, you’re sitting there kind of in tears watching this and you think what can we do.”
The Christians invited Richard Ratcliffe and the couple’s daughter Gabriella to Liverpool to record the song retitled Naz Don’t Cry.
He’s urging people to buy it in solidarity with Nazanin and family. All proceeds go to charity.
“I hope people just, even if they don’t like the song, they don’t like me, the Christians or anything, forget that just download,” he says. “We want to raise money, we want to get Nazanin back, back home.”
The song is accompanied by a moving video featuring some of the more emotional moments of the five-year effort to get Nazanin home.
Former hostage John McCarthy told Sky News he welcomed the song being used again and said the video is a powerful watch.
“Looking at the video, it’s taken me back to seeing things after I came back,” he says.
“And you know it’s slow-moving seeing Richard out in Westminster Square on his hunger strike … it’s very powerful, you know. After a couple of viewings one is in tears.”
Nazanin is being held in Tehran against her will and faces being returned to jail on more trumped-up charges.
She was able to join the recording by video call to hear what’s being done in her name.
Her husband Richard told Sky News he hopes it helps raise her spirits.
“It’s a lovely song,” he says. “It’s a nice uplifting song. It’s a song that says don’t be sad, we’re still thinking of you, we’re still battling for you, your husband’s still going, there will be a tomorrow.”
The star of the video is Gabriella, Richard and Nazanin’s daughter, who appears to play the guitar and dreams as well as playing to the cameras.
Mr Ratcliffe said: “Coming up to Christmas she was asking yesterday when’s she coming back, and also why does it have to be my Mummy – and there are no easy answers to that.”
This will be Nazanin’s sixth Christmas apart from her family. Efforts to secure her release are not making progress.
Richard has now done two hunger strikes to highlight her plight.
Her family hope music might make a difference where diplomacy has so far failed.