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Despite a world-leading vaccine programme, the United Arab Emirates is struggling to contain surging coronavirus infections, driven in part by reluctance to shut down its vital tourism sector. The UAE announced on Tuesday it had administered a total of two million vaccine doses, including to over one percent of its population in the past week. The country is now leading the world in the speed of its roll-out, according to Dr Said Al Dhaheri, spokesman for the UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority.
With nearly 21 percent of the UAE’s population of 10 million having received a first jab, only Israel has vaccinated a higher proportion of its people. But infection rates in the UAE have nearly tripled in the past month, with authorities reporting 3,506 new cases on Wednesday, the ninth day of record high infections. Six new deaths were reported, increasing the country’s toll to 762.
The spiking cases have alarmed the UK enough for it to close its travel corridor to the popular holiday destination, meaning those returning from the UAE must now self-isolate for 10 days. The restriction is a particular blow for the tourism-dependent emirate of Dubai, which is home to about 240,000 British expatriates. Since reopening for tourism last July, the emirate has billed itself as the perfect pandemic holiday destination.
With Emirates flying five daily flights to Heathrow, aviation data analysis firm OAG reported that London to Dubai was the busiest air traffic route worldwide in the first week of January. Beach clubs are advertising pool parties with DJs and restaurants are hosting unlimited food and drink brunches. Hotel occupancy rates reached 71 percent in December, according to data provider STR.
But the cost of staying open meant that the more contagious strain of the coronavirus, first detected in the UK in mid-December, had arrived in the UAE by the end of last year. The UK’s decision to remove the UAE from the travel corridor – made “following a significant increase in both the level and pace of change in confirmed cases” – will hit Dubai hard, experts said. “Brits make up such an important proportion of tourists and investors in Dubai,” David Tarsh, spokesman for travel data-analysis firm ForwardKeys, told the Associated Press. “Cutting that pipeline… is a complete disaster for the city.” When the UAE launched its national vaccination campaign in December, it hoped a speedy roll-out could contain the outbreak. “Vaccination is our choice to triumph over the virus and recover as soon as possible,” the Minister of Health and Prevention AbdulRahman bin Mohammed Al Owais said in a statement on Wednesday. Using both the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech version, the government aims to have vaccinated half the population by the end of March.
In the meantime it has implemented other measures to contain the outbreak, including requiring government employees who have not yet received two doses of the vaccine to take a PCR test weekly.
Last week, Abu Dhabi started phase three clinical trials of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
The UAE currently ranks fifth worldwide for vaccine availability, after the UK, US, China and Israel, Dr Al Dhaheri said.
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