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World takes in muted New Year’s Eve under Covid shadow

Millions of people around the world are experiencing a New Year’s Eve like no other – with lockdowns, restrictions and curfews in place in dozens of countries in an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19 before vaccination drives start to take effect.

New Year’s Eve marks one year since the World Health Organization first mentioned a mysterious pneumonia in China later identified as Covid-19, which went on in 2020 to kill more than 1.79 million people and devastate the global economy in unprecedented ways.

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But international efforts helped develop vaccines in record time, and following Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the candidate developed by Oxford and drug firm AstraZeneca has become the third to win approval in the western world.

In the UK, which reported 981 deaths on Wednesday amid a surge related to a new Covid variant, people planning to celebrate New Year’s Eve have been warned they must leave the parties for later in 2021 as “Covid loves a crowd”.

On Wednesday, when 50,023 new cases were recorded, the government announced tighter restrictions. Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said staying at home and seeing in 2021 “within the rules” would reduce infections and relieve pressure on hospitals.

He told a Downing Street press conference: “We know it’s the end of the year, it’s a time where people traditionally want to celebrate. But it’s absolutely vital that this year, everybody continues to follow the guidance by staying at home and not mixing.”

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, also urged people to follow the rules and “see in the new year safely at home”.

France has announced it will deploy 100,000 police and gendarmes to clamp down on parties, gatherings and the traditional torching of vehicles on 31 December.

The interior minister Gérald Darmanin said the officers would also be strictly enforcing the national 8pm to 6am curfew as part of what he described as a “fight against unauthorised public gatherings and the phenomenon of urban violence”.

Police operations are to be concentrated in city centres and “sensitive” neighbourhoods. The number of police and gendarmes is the same as last year. Darmanin has also asked local chiefs of police to impose bans on the sale of fuel or alcohol in containers.

In Germany, which is under partial lockdown, Angela Merkel said in her last new year’s address as chancellor that 2020 was by far the most difficult of her 15-year leadership, yet the start of vaccinations against Covid-19 made 2021 a year of hope.

In a rare show of emotion, Merkel, who steered Germany and the European Union through the 2008 financial crisis, the Greek debt crisis a year later and the migrant crisis five years ago, condemned a protest movement opposed to lockdowns and said she would get vaccinated when the shot became widely available.

“I think I am not exaggerating when I say: never in the last 15 years have we found the old year so heavy and never have we, despite all the worries and some scepticism, looked forward to the new one with so much hope.”

Her message will resonate with most people in a country struggling with a rise in coronavirus infections and deaths, and where a majority support lockdown measures and vaccination as the best weapons against the virus.

Praise for Merkel, a trained physicist whose management of the pandemic has been guided by scientific advice, for having tamed the first wave has however turned to criticism of her perceived failure to tackle the second.

“I can only imagine how bitter it must feel for those mourning loved ones lost to corona or who are having to fight against the repercussions of an illness when the virus is disputed and denied by some hopeless individuals,” Merkel said.

“Conspiracy theories are not only false and dangerous, they are also cynical and cruel,” she added. “I will also get vaccinated when my turn comes.”

The health minister Jens Spahn said he expected the country to have the “quietest New Year’s Eve” in living memory.

Elsewhere around the world authorities urged the public to ring in the new year at home.

While the crystal-encrusted New Year’s Eve ball will drop in Times Square at midnight on 31 December, its descent will be greeted by empty streets due to Covid-19, rather than hundreds of thousands of revellers. New York City authorities have announced that Times Square will not be open to the public. Those wishing to attend can stream online or watch on television.

This dramatic shift is not unique to Manhattan. US cities are changing how they ring in 2021 as Covid-19 cases and deaths surge nationwide. The most recent Johns Hopkins University data reports 19,448,626 US cases and 336,947 deaths.

Even major cities in Taiwan have scaled back New Year’s Eve events and are telling people to watch fireworks and other festivities at home, after the island’s first case of the highly infectious coronavirus variant originally discovered in Britain.

Taiwan has kept the pandemic well under control thanks to early and effective prevention measures, including quarantines for every arrival from abroad, with 800 confirmed cases, including seven deaths, almost all imported. But the government been unnerved by its first domestic transmission since April, confirmed this month, and first case of the British variant, announced on Wednesday. Both people are in isolation in hospital.

The cities of Kaohsiung, Tainan, Taichung, Taoyuan, Chiayi and Keelung all said late on Wednesday they would cancel public attendance at events like fireworks displays, and have asked people to watch at home online and on television.

In Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, where a coronavirus outbreak has been growing daily, people were asked to stay home and avoid the famous harbourside midnight fireworks display. Restrictions were also introduced in the southern state of Victoria.

But in New Zealand, which has managed to eliminate coronavirus after a strict seven-week lockdown, New Year’s Eve plans proceeded as usual.

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