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President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered most Russians off work for a week amid COVID-19 infections and deaths starting later this month, and he urged reluctant citizens to get vaccinated.

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The government coronavirus task force reported 1,028 deaths in the last 24 hours, the highest number since the start of the pandemic. This brought the death toll in Russia to 226,353, the highest ever in Europe.

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Putin said he supports a cabinet proposal to introduce a non-working period starting October 30 and extending to next week, when four of the seven days are already off work, including two. Including the day’s state holiday. In some areas where the situation is most alarming, he said the non-working period could start from Saturday and be extended till November 7.

“Our job today is to protect the lives and health of our citizens and minimize the consequences of dangerous infections,” Putin said in a video call with top officials. “To achieve this, it is first necessary to slow down the pace of contagion and mobilize additional reserves of the health care system, which is currently operating under a high strain.”

Russia’s daily coronavirus death toll has been rising for weeks and topped 1,000 for the first time over the weekend Amid slow vaccination rates, public laxity to take precautions and government’s reluctance to tighten restrictions. Only about 45 million Russians – about a third of the 146 million people – are fully vaccinated.

Non-working periods should help keep people out of offices and away from crowded public transport, but Moscow and many other cities have not curbed access to restaurants, cafes, bars, theaters and gyms.

When cabinet proposed the measure on Tuesday, many Russians rushed to book flights to Black Sea resorts to take advantage of the break.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, who leads the task force, insisted that non-working weeks should limit access to restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues, adding that regional authorities would be expected to impose restrictions .

She specifically urged Russians to refrain from traveling to other regions during this period and stressed the need for relatives of those infected to stay home.

It was not immediately clear what private businesses would be required to stop operating in line with Putin’s decree, other than state employees and employees of state-owned companies. During a similar measure at the start of the pandemic, many private and state-owned companies in “critical” economic sectors were allowed to continue operating.

The Cabinet has drafted measures on compensation to businesses to help absorb the economic shock, including a minimum monthly wage per employee and a lump-sum payment equal to low-interest credits.

Urging the Russians to take the shot, Putin said, “It is a matter of your life and safety and the health of your loved ones.”

“There are only two ways to recover from this period – getting sick or getting vaccinated,” he said. “It is better to get the vaccine. Why wait for the disease and its serious consequences? Please be responsible and take necessary measures to protect yourself, your health and those close to you.”

The Russian leader, who received the home-grown Sputnik V vaccine earlier this year, said he was surprised at the hesitation of the vaccine even among his close friends, who told him he would get the shot after he did and then delayed it. Keep doing it

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Putin said. “We have a reliable and efficient vaccine. The vaccine really does reduce the risk of illness, serious complications, and death.”

He approved a cabinet proposal giving two days of paid leave to those who get the shot to help encourage vaccination.

Even though Russia became the first country in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine in August 2020 and has plentiful supplies, there has been a reluctance among its citizens to receive the shots, with officials suspecting conflicting signals.

While praising Sputnik V and three other domestic vaccines, state-controlled media often criticized Western-made shots, a message that many saw as skepticism about vaccines in general.

Golikova stressed that most of those who died recently had not been vaccinated. He said that 87 per cent of the hospital beds allocated for COVID-19 patients are full, with some provinces reaching as high as 95%.

Rising infections forced some regional officials to suspend some medical services as health care facilities were focusing on coronavirus patients. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged the situation is “very sad”, noting that vaccination levels were particularly low in those areas.

Putin warned regional leaders against trying to embellish the figures, saying the “high number of new infections doesn’t mean bad work” by officials. “It shows the efficiency of the regional teams, not the other way around,” he said.

Until now, the Kremlin had dismissed the nationwide lockdown as if the pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the economy and stoked Putin’s popularity, instead empowering regional officials to decide on local restrictions.

Many of Russia’s 85 regions have already restricted attendance at large public events and introduced digital codes proving vaccination or previous illness for access to restaurants, theaters and other venues. Some have made vaccination mandatory for some public servants and those over 60.

In Moscow, however, life has continued as usual, with restaurants and movie theaters full of people, nightclubs and karaoke bars thronging, and commuters widely ignoring the mask mandate on public transport, Even the ICUs are full.

Medical workers expressed surprise at vaccine skepticism and lax attitude towards precautions. “I think of sleepless nights when we find a large number of patients who haven’t bothered to use banana protective equipment,” said Dr. Natavan Ibragimova of Moscow’s Hospital No. 52.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said people over 60 would need to stay at home. He also asked businesses to keep at least a third of their employees working remotely for three months starting October 25.

Dr Katherine Smallwood, COVID-19 event manager at the European branch of the World Health Organisation, said vaccination level In Russia and Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania 30% or less were “particularly concerned”.

“It is very clear that in countries that have fewer vaccines, we are seeing a serious pandemic impact in terms of deaths and people ending up in hospital right now,” she said.

The government task force has recorded a total of more than 8 million infections and its official COVID-19 death toll ranks Russia with the fifth-highest number of pandemic deaths in the world, behind the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico. .

However, the state statistics agency Rosstat, which also counts deaths in which the virus was not thought to be the main cause, has reported the death toll as of August to be much higher – around 418,000.

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Associated Press writers Jamie Keaton in Geneva and Kostya Manenkov in Moscow contributed.