A further 106,122 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases have been recorded in the UK as of 9am on Wednesday, the first time daily reported cases have risen above 100,000.
The Government said a further 140 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 173,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.
A total of 8,008 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of December 21, government figures show.
This is the highest number since November 22 and is up 4 per cent from a week earlier.
During the second wave of coronavirus, hospital numbers peaked at 39,254 on January 18.
It comes as Germany and Israel announced that a fourth booster vaccine would be offered to help slow the spread of the omicron variant.
In the UK, vaccinations for children aged between five and 11 were given the green light by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
However, the JCVI said it wants more real-world evidence before recommending the jab for all children.
That’s all from us, but here’s a look back at today’s key developments:
People who test positive for coronavirus must now isolate for seven days rather than 10, under new rules that allow positive cases to “test to release”.
The mass vaccination of children as young as five has been delayed, despite regulators saying that it is safe.
A further 106,122 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded, the first time daily reported cases have risen above 100,000.
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, announced that new restrictions are to be enforced in Wales from Boxing Day to tackle rising rates of the omicron variant, which is also now dominant among new cases in all regions of England.
But several studies offered hope that omicron is less severe than other variants, with initial data from Scotland suggesting that omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in risk of hospitalisation when compared with the delta strain.
Scroll down for more Covid updates from today.
Israel’s Pandemic Expert Committee has seen early data suggesting immunity wanes several months after the third dose – but questions remain, reports Jennifer Rigby.
For those hoping that it would be third time’s a charm for the Covid-19 vaccines, things have recently become rather more complicated.
On Tuesday night, Israeli scientists – early movers on vaccines throughout 2021 – said some vulnerable groups may now need a fourth jab to remain fully protected in the face of the new omicron variant. Germany made a similar announcement the following day.
The countries have slightly different approaches. Israel is set to stick to Pfizer for its booster campaign for the over-60s, the clinically vulnerable and healthcare workers, and it is unclear yet whether the jab will be recommended, or merely offered. Germany is ordering the omicron-specific jab from Pfizer, which is still in development, as well as the newly approved Novavax and Valneva jabs.
Read the full piece here.
People who catch the omicron variant are less likely to be sent to hospital when compared with the delta strain, scientists have said.
In a pre-print study published today, scientists in the Scotland-wide Early Pandemic Evaluation and Enhanced Surveillance of Covid-19 said that the early data suggested that omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in risk of hospitalisation when compared with the strain which used to be dominant in the country.
Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director for Public Health Scotland, labeled the findings a “qualified good news story”, but said that it was “important we don’t get ahead of ourselves”.
“The potentially serious impact of omicron on a population cannot be underestimated. And a smaller proportion of a much greater number of cases that might ultimately require treatment can still mean a substantial number of people who may experience severe Covid infections that could lead to potential hospitalisation,” he said.
Authors of the paper, which is yet to be peer reviewed, said if omicron had been like the delta variant in Scotland, they would have seen around 47 people in hospital suffering from the virus but, so far, there are only 15.
Read the full story here.
Belgium will further tighten coronavirus restrictions because of the surging omicron variant, Belgian authorities announced today.
But the country shied away from a full lockdown like in the neighboring Netherlands.
Cinemas, theaters and concert halls will be closed and indoor activities banned in Belgium. Sports fans will not be allowed into stadiums and indoor venues. Shopping will also be curtailed with visitors forced to be spread out and groups entering a shop limited to two adults, possibly accompanied by children.
Bars and restaurants will be allowed to remain open until 11pm but under limits.
The measures will take effect on Sunday. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that “there is reason for concern. We are facing omicron.”
He added that “what we know about it is bad news,” referring to its high transmissibility.
Omicron is now the dominant variant among new cases of coronavirus in all regions of England, new analysis suggests.
Some 90.2 per cent of a sample of new coronavirus cases in London with specimen dates for December 19 and 20 were found to have S gene target failure (SGTF) – a way of detecting the likely presence of omicron.
This difference – in the S gene – shows up in certain laboratory PCR tests and can be used as a way of estimating the spread of omicron.
The figures, which have been published by the UK Health Security Agency, also show that 56.8 per cent of a sample of detectable cases in north-east England from December 19 and 20 were classed as SGTF.
Previously north-east England had been the only region of England that was still below 50 per cent.
For eastern England the equivalent figure is 80.0 per cent, followed by north-west England (77.6 per cent), south-east England (76.4 per cent) and the East Midlands (74.4 per cent).
South-west England is on 73.2 per cent, the West Midlands 72.1 per cent, and Yorkshire and Humber 71 per cent.
The overall figure for England is 76 per cent.
The number of travellers expected to fly with budget airline Ryanair next month has been cut by 33 per cent, prompted by travel restrictions in France, Germany and Morocco.
Ryanair flew more than twice as many flights within Europe in the second week of December as any other airline. However, today it more than doubled its annual loss forecast – to be within a range of €250 million to €450 million.
“The omicron Covid variant and recent government travel restrictions across Europe have notably weakened close-in Christmas and New Year bookings,” the airline said in a statement.
This sudden downturn has also caused Ryanair this week to cut its planned January schedule capacity by 33 per cent.”
The airline has not yet decided on any schedule cutbacks for February or March 2022
Canada will temporarily expand support programmes to help people and businesses whose livelihoods are being hit by the omicron variant, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today.
“We are adapting our measures to make sure that no one is left behind,” Trudeau told a televised briefing.
The Canadian government had said it would wind down many support schemes in late October, citing the recovering economy and the success of vaccination efforts.
Finance minister Chrystia Freeland told the briefing that the programmes – designed to cover the costs of wages and rent – would help businesses that had seen their capacity cut by 50 per cent or more because of measures introduced to curb Covid-19.
Business associations had called on Ottawa to restart some programmes on the grounds that many enterprises – especially restaurants and bars – would not survive the loss of income thanks to a new round of curbs.
New data from Imperial is fascinating
Full report here (https://t.co/WZObknKXZC) but key points:
➡️15-20% less likely to need hosp care with omicron v delta
➡️if you’ve had covid before, 50-60% less likely
➡️BUT risk of hosp same for delta & omicron if you’ve had just 2 vax pic.twitter.com/9Obra4mIYl
Some children with underlying health conditions will be vaccinated, but experts want more real-world evidence before recommending wider use, reports Henry Bodkin.
The mass vaccination of children as young as five will not yet go ahead, despite safety regulators giving the jab the green light.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said it wants more real-world evidence before recommending the jab, finding that a million doses among five to 11-year-olds would prevent only two healthy children from requiring intensive care.
However, around 330,000 children with underlying health conditions will be offered two reduced doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, spaced eight weeks apart. Included in this group are also children who are a household contact of people who are immunosuppressed.
On Wednesday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the jab as safe and effective for all children aged five and older after concluding the data showed a “positive benefit-risk profile”.
Read the full story here.
#OmicronVariant latest information
13,581 additional confirmed cases of the #Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been reported across the UK.
Confirmed Omicron cases in the UK now total 74,089. pic.twitter.com/4yFaTEF78D
Spain is reimposing a nationwide rule requiring the use of face masks outdoors, as the country grapples with a spike in Covid-19 infections.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s cabinet will hold a meeting tomorrow to approve the decree making the use of masks outdoors mandatory, the Spanish government said in a statement without specifying when the rule will come into force.
Spain ended mandatory outdoor mask use in late June, while still requiring them indoors in public spaces or in crowded outdoor spaces where social distancing was impossible.
The announcement comes as Sanchez was meeting with regional leaders to discuss ways to reduce the spread of the omicron variant.
With around 80 per cent of its population of 47 million people vaccinated, Spain had until recently avoided the surge in infections seen elsewhere in Europe which led to tighter rules.
But the arrival of omicron has fuelled infections, with a record of nearly 50,000 new cases recorded on Tuesday, although hospital admissions and ICU occupancy remain fairly low compared to previous Covid-19 waves.
Nicola Sturgeon has visited a mass vaccination centre to help as a volunteer, saying staff there are doing “heroic work”.
She visited the newly-opened vaccination site at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre today.
The First Minister posted a tweet showing her handing out lateral flow kits and speaking to workers at the centre.
Last week, the Scottish Government said arrangements were being made for ministers, including the First Minister, to help in vaccine centres.
Did a (media-free) ‘volunteering’ session at the @eicc vaccine centre earlier. Not sure I was much help but it gave me good insight into how it all works (v efficiently) and to say a massive thank you to everyone doing truly heroic work.#BoostedByTheBells pic.twitter.com/GPgwqF24n3
However, experts caution that high population immunity in South Africa means the new variant could still wreak havoc elsewhere, reports Will Brown.
The R rate in South Africa’s omicron epicentre has dropped below 1, as a major academic study indicated that the new Covid-19 variant may have led to a significant reduction in hospitalisations compared to delta.
However, experts say that some of the decreased virulence of omicron is probably due to high population immunity in the South African population, meaning that omicron could still wreak havoc elsewhere.
The study tries to work out the disease’s severity by comparing data about omicron infections in October and November with data about delta infections between April and November.
Read the full story here.
All celebrations over the festive period have been banned in the Indian capital of New Delhi, as the country aims to contain a surge in omicron vases.
Over the past 24 hours, India reported 213 omicron cases in total, with 13 more cases. There have been no reported deaths from the variant so far.
“No cultural event/gatherings/congregation (can) take place for celebrating Christmas or New Year in national capital territory of Delhi,” the Delhi Disaster Management Authority said today.
The Delhi government has also imposed a limit of 50 per cent seating capacity in restaurants and capped the number of people permitted at weddings to 200.
The Indian government has not yet decided whether to offer booster shots to its citizens.
The ten-day quarantine rule is still in force despite England ‘following the science’ and reducing the period to seven days, reports Simon Johnson.
Angry Scots have lashed out at Nicola Sturgeon’s Government over being forced to continue self-isolating for 10 days if they catch Covid, amid growing pressure on her to quickly follow England’s change to seven days.
People took to social media to vent their fury over the Scottish Government’s failure to immediately emulate the reduction, despite SNP ministers having sight of the same expert health advice as their UK counterparts.
One praised the UK Government’s policy as a “sensible” way to reduce “pingdemic chaos”, and contrasted this with Scotland being a “draconian omnishambles”.
Read the full piece here.
A total of 301 Covid-19 admissions were recorded by hospitals in London on December 20, NHS England has said.
This is up 78 per cent week-on-week and the highest number for a single day since February 7.
Admissions in London during the second wave peaked at 977 on January 6.
Across England, 1,061 admissions were recorded on December 20, up 34 per cent week-on-week and the highest number for a single day since February 19.
The second-wave peak was 4,134 admissions on January 12.
The number of Covid-19 admissions includes people admitted to hospital in the previous 24 hours who were known to have Covid-19, plus any patients diagnosed in hospital with Covid-19 in the previous 24 hours.
Stormont ministers have agreed that nightclubs in Northern Ireland will close from 8pm on December 26.
The PA news agency understands the move was agreed at a virtual meeting of the power sharing executive today.
Ministers are set to announce a series of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the omicron variant in Northern Ireland.
The #COVID19 Dashboard has been updated: https://t.co/XhspoyTG79
On 22 December, 106,122 new cases and 140 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported across the UK.
Our data includes the number of people receiving a first, second and booster dose of the #vaccine: pic.twitter.com/eC8lCDE6Ls
A fourth Covid-19 vaccination will be necessary in Germany to slow the spread of the omicron variant, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has said.
The country has ordered four million doses of the newly approved vaccine Novavax and 11 million doses of the new Valneva shot, which is waiting for marketing authorisation.
The Novavax shots will arrive in the country in January, Lauterbach told a news conference.
“An offensive booster campaign is our most important building block in the fight against omicron,” the health minister said.
Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, the husband of the Princess Royal, has tested positive for coronavirus.
A royal source said Anne and her husband will now not be spending Christmas with the Queen as they will be isolating.
Last week, it was revealed that the Queen had cancelled plans for her pre-Christmas family lunch.
People in Kenya will have to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination to use public transport or enter government offices, the health ministry said today, ignoring a court order against the measures.
The proportion of Kenyans returning a positive Covid test has soared recently, from one per cent in early December to almost 30 per cent now, smashing previous records as fears grow over the infectiousness of the omicron variant.
In the last 24 hours, 3,328 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 out of 11,197 tests – a key indicator of the spread of the virus in a country where access to tests is limited and overall infection figures can be unreliable.
The East African country announced last month that it would impose tough restrictions on unvaccinated people from December 21 but a Nairobi court last week suspended the order pending the hearing of a case filed by a businessman who called the measures “tyrannical”.
But today, senior health ministry official Mercy Mwangangi said the restrictions were now in force.
“In public places, all persons must show proof of vaccination for admission for example into national parks, game reserves, hotels, bars as well as use of public transport,” she said.
Now that the Government has refused to call a lockdown, scientists’ scenarios can be measured against the real-world outcomes, argues Ross Clark.
How the left loves trying to establish the narrative that we have a Government of charlatans pitched against the collected wisdom of scientists. Yet the real schism lies within science, between the modellers and those who prefer to read real world evidence. With hospitalisations failing to rise at anything like the rate feared a few days ago, and with the UK Health Security Agency poised to announce that yes, omicron does indeed cause milder disease than earlier variants, it feels as if we are heading for the denouement, the gunfight at the OK Corrall, at which one side will win the decisive battle and the other side be humbled.
When omicron first emerged in South Africa a month ago two things seemed immediately apparent: firstly that this variant was a lot more transmissible than earlier variants, and secondly, that it was causing milder illness. Indeed, it was the unexpected mildness of the symptoms which first drew doctors’ attention to the possibility that this could be a new variant – something which was then rapidly confirmed by the country’s excellent facilities for sequencing the virus.
Read his full piece here.
From next Tuesday (December 28), all tourists entering Sweden will have to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test regardless of their vaccination status.
This comes as part of a new raft of measures aimed at curbing the spread of omicron.
Sweden’s new prime minister Magdalena Andersson said the situation is “troubling,” and that the increasing numbers of positive cases in the country is putting an increased burden on healthcare.
“We must take joint responsibility and adapt to the new reality right now,” she said.
Greg Dickinson has all the latest travel updates on our live blog.
If you’re hoping to visit family this week, can you rely on an LFT for a clear result, and can you even get one? Miranda Levy has all you need to know.
For the past few months, our lives have been ruled by a swab up the nose. Comparisons to a pregnancy test (which the lateral flow resembles) are apt: there’s a breathless wait for the line to appear – but just the one, not the two, please! – because only negative results are welcomed.
A negative lateral flow test has meant our kids can go to school, we can take a holiday, or visit certain cultural events. But in these last few days before Christmas, the LFT has taken on a greater import. For many, a solitary red line now dictates whether we can celebrate the season at all.
Read her guide here.
Professor Rupert Pearse said the vast majority of patients who are well enough to speak have admitted they were “anxious” or unsure what to believe about getting the jab.
Prof Pearse works at The Royal London Hospital and St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, which has been the epicentre for the spread of the omicron variant.
“The most common thing they say is: ‘Can I have the vaccine now please?’ But patients cannot have the vaccine until they have recovered. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the patients that we have are unvaccinated,” he told The Sun.
It came as public health experts said the Government could encourage vaccine uptake by publishing statistics on numbers of unvaccinated patients in hospital with Covid.
Austria is introducing new restrictions including a 10pm closing time to slow the spread of the omicron variant after Christmas and prevent it being imported from Europe’s hardest-hit countries.
Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway will be classified as risk areas because of the prevalence of the omicron variant there, Covid-19 policy coordinator Katharina Reich told a news conference.
New arrivals from those countries, some of which are among the winter sports hotspot’s biggest sources of tourists, will have to go into quarantine unless they have had a booster shot and can show a recent negative PCR test, Reich said.
Austria began emerging from its fourth full coronavirus lockdown 10 days ago. While that three-week lockdown slashed daily Covid-19 infections, the country is bracing for another surge because of the omicron variant, of which several hundred cases have been confirmed so far.
“We have always talked of a small breathing space. We must use this time we have gained (through the lockdown) well to learn more about omicron on the one hand and to give hospitals more time to relieve pressure on intensive-care units on the other,” she said.
Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard said fear of Covid-19 is so heightened that one of his players was reluctant to get out of his car.
An outbreak at Villa saw their match against Burnley last Saturday postponed at short notice, with Gerrard warning Wednesday that it will be a “nightmare” if the Midlands club have to tackle two matches in two days with just 14 players available.
“We had a situation at the weekend where one of the players was reluctant to get out of his car because he had some symptoms and he’s got a young family, and you can totally understand his view in his situation,” Gerrard said.
“This is a guy who’s got a young family, it is Christmas time, and that’s the situation everyone is in.”
The former Liverpool and England midfielder added: “No-one wants to get this virus.
“Everyone wants to protect their own families. This is our job and your priority is always going to be your family, of course it is.
“Thankfully he was tested after and he didn’t have a situation, but that player would not have been available for me on the day, and these are the little situations that people don’t see.
“We’ve got a major responsibility to listen to the players and deal with every situation as it comes your way.”
A new formulation of the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use in children aged five to 11.
The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) made the approval following a review of safety data that shows a positive benefit-risk profile for this jab to be used in the age group.
In light of the regulator’s approval, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is advising that children aged five to 11, who are in a clinical risk group, or who are a household contact of someone (of any age) who is immunosuppressed, should be offered a primary course of vaccination.
A primary course vaccination for these children should be with two 10-microgram doses of the age appropriate Pfizer formulation (Comirnaty) – a third of the adult dose, with eight weeks between the first and second doses.
Dr June Raine, MHRA Chief Executive said: “Parents and carers can be reassured that no new vaccine for children would have been approved unless the expected standards of safety, quality and effectiveness have been met.”
Covid cases appear to have peaked in South Africa’s Gauteng province about a month after the omicron variant was first detected there and the impact of surging infections has been less severe than previous waves, scientists said today.
Scientists from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) said that while more study was needed, the data from South Africa – whose experience is being closely watched around the world – told a “positive story” about the variant’s severity.
Gauteng, South Africa’s commercial hub, home to one of the continent’s busiest airports and the region where omicron first emerged, is now seeing a fall in daily cases and the percentage of positive tests, the NICD’s Michelle Groome told a news briefing.
“Really we feel that this has persisted for over a week and that we are past the peak in Gauteng,” she said.
There had been a “levelling off” in three other provinces – Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga, she added, though cases were still increasing elsewhere.
A record 968,665 booster and third doses of Covid-19 vaccines were reported in the UK on Tuesday, new figures show.
The previous record was 940,606 doses on Saturday.
More than 30.8 million booster and third doses have now been delivered in the UK, with 6.1 million in the past seven days.
The figures have been published by the UK’s four health agencies.
Nigeria has destroyed more than a million doses of expired AstraZeneca vaccines in a bid to assure a wary public that they have been taken out of circulation.
The destruction came more than a week after health authorities said some Covid doses donated by rich Western nations had a shelf life that left only weeks to administer the shots.
Reuters reported on December 7 that around one million vaccines were estimated to have expired in Nigeria in November without being used.
At a dump site in Abuja, a bulldozer crushed AstraZeneca shots that were packed in cardboard boxes and plastic as reporters and health officials watched.
Faisal Shuaib, the National Primary Health Care Development Agency executive director told reporters that a shortage of vaccine supplies on the continent had forced Nigeria to take the doses, knowing fully well they had a short shelf life.
“We have successfully withdrawn 1,066,214 doses of expired AstraZeneca vaccines. We have kept our promise to be transparent to Nigerians. The destruction today is an opportunity for Nigerians to have faith in our vaccination programme,” Shuaib said.
The omicron variant will become the dominant coronavirus strain in Germany within three weeks, health officials said today.
“An offensive booster campaign is our most important building block in the fight against omicron,” German health minister Karl Lauterbach told a news conference.
“The level of protection against severe Covid-19 symptoms after a booster shot is very high. I would estimate it goes well over 90 per cent,” he said.
However, despite the accelerated booster rollout, Lothar Wieler, president of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, said people should limit contacts to an absolute minimum.
“Christmas should not become the spark that starts the omicron blaze,” Wieler told the same news conference.
Yesterday, German officials agreed to impose limits on private gatherings, close nightclubs and discos and ban spectators at football matches from December 28.
Mark Drakeford has denied that Wales is on an “unstoppable journey to lockdown”, but said he cannot rule anything out either.
Responding to questions from the Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies about the latest Covid restrictions introduced in the country, the First Minister said: “We’re not on an unstoppable journey to lockdown.
“If we act together and do all the things we’re able to do in our own lives, we have a chance to make a difference.
“There are lots of things we don’t know about omicron and how it will affect us, so I can’t rule things out.
“But the measures we’ve announced are designed to mitigate the risk that more serious interventions are needed.”
France has cancelled its order for Merck & Co’s Covid-19 antiviral drug following disappointing trial data and hopes instead to receive Pfizer’s competing drug before the end of January.
France is the first country to publicly say it has cancelled an order for the Merck treatment after the company released data in late November suggesting its drug was markedly less effective than previously thought, reducing hospitalisations and deaths in its clinical trial of high-risk individuals by about 30 per cent.
“The latest studies weren’t good,” French health minister Olivier Veran told BFM TV.
The cancellation would not incur a cost, Veran added.
Denmark has scrapped extraordinary travel restrictions for ten countries in southern Africa, originally imposed to curb the spread of the omicron variant, after the Danish authorities said they did not contribute to controlling the virus.
The countries, which are now only encompassed by general travel restrictions, are: South Africa; Lesotho; Eswatini (Swaziland); Mozambique; Zimbabwe; Botswana; Namibia; Angola; Malawi; and Zambia, the country’s health ministry said.
Travellers from these countries will still need to get tested and enter isolation upon entry to Denmark.
Mark Drakeford has criticised what he has called the UK Government’s inaction over rising omicron cases, claiming Boris Johnson and his cabinet are “paralysed by their internal divisions”.
Asked why devolved nations, including Wales, have decided to introduce further restrictions while Mr Johnson has not, the First Minister said: “I believe the UK Government sees all the data we see and gets all the advice that we get about the need to act and act urgently in the light of the omicron wave coming our way.
“I think the UK Government is in a state of paralysis about all of this. We’ve seen the reports of in-fighting within the Cabinet.
“There are, as I would see it, sensible voices urging the Prime Minister to act to protect the NHS and protect people’s lives as he has in previous waves. There are others who, I think, simply take a different view of the balance of risk here and are prepared to allow those risks to run.
“They are paralysed by their internal divisions and are unable to act on it.”
He added: “I heard the Prime Minister earlier this week in an interview say the position had never been more urgent. And asked what he was going to do about it, he said that he was doing nothing. Well, that would not be acceptable to me.”
Japan has urged the US military to adhere to coronavirus testing and quarantine rules as a cluster linked to an American base grew to more than 200 cases.
Cases have nosedived in recent months in Japan, which has seen a comparatively low 18,300 Covid deaths during the pandemic.
But in recent days, 215 people linked with the US base Camp Hansen in Japan’s southern Okinawa region have tested positive, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said.
Hayashi said he had voiced “strong regret” to the commander of US Forces Japan, Lieutenant General Ricky Rupp, over anti-infection procedures for American military arrivals.
Japan’s borders are closed to almost all foreign nationals. Incoming travellers must get tested before departure and on arrival, then isolate for two weeks at home or in hotels.
Hayashi said, however, that the US military was testing soldiers only three to five days after they landed, with newly arrived troops allowed to move freely inside their base.
The omicron variant is causing a milder disease than the delta strain in most Britons, government scientists are expected to say.
The UK Health Security Agency is set to publish real-world data on the severity of the disease, which is expected to say that more people are likely to have a mild illness with less serious symptoms.
The political site Politico reported the findings this morning. It says that while omicron seems milder overall, the UKHSA has found it is not necessarily mild enough to avoid large numbers of hospitalisations. The experts have found evidence that for those who do become severely ill, there is still a high chance of hospitalisation and death.
Given that the transmissibility of omicron is very high, there is the chance that even though it is milder, infections could soar to the point that large numbers end up in hospital .
Eligible people who are not vaccinated against Covid and have no medical reason not to get the jab have been described as idiots by former prime minister Tony Blair.
Mr Blair also backed the Government in not imposing further Covid restrictions before Christmas but described the decision as “incredibly difficult” and a “gamble”.
Speaking to Times Radio, the former Labour prime minister said: “Frankly, if you’re not vaccinated at the moment and you’re eligible and you’ve got no health reason for not being vaccinated, you’re not just irresponsible, I mean you’re an idiot.
“I’m sorry, I mean that is, truthfully you are. Because this Omicron variant is so contagious, if you’re unvaccinated and you’re in circulation, you’re going to get it. And … that is going to put a lot of strain on the health service.”
He added: “We shouldn’t target these people who are unvaccinated in a heavy-handed way, but we should be trying to go after them and persuade them.
“There may be all sorts of reasons, but honestly it is in their own interest, never mind the public interest, for them to get vaccinated.”
The Peruvian capital has the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the world in relation to its population and authorities have decided to cordon off spaces on the sand to prevent crowds of bathers amid a resurgence of the pandemic.
France’s government is seeking to pass a law requiring vaccination to enter restaurants and public venues, tightening restrictions amid fears that infections could hit 100,000 a day before New Year, reports Anna Pujol-Mazzini in Paris
The new push to increase vaccination rates comes as the omicron variant threatens to overtake delta as the dominant one in the country, where around 70,000 new infections a day are registered.
“Omicron will be in the majority in France between Christmas and New Year,” Olivier Véran, the minister of health, told BFMtv on Wednesday.
“By the end of the month we are expecting more than 100,000 contaminations a day.”
Under current rules, French people need to show a health pass to enter bars, restaurants, museums and many other venues. But the pass can be obtained with either a vaccination certificate, a negative virus test or proof of recent recovery from Covid. Under new rules, only a vaccination certificate would be allowed.
The government has already closed nightclubs and cancelled New Year’s Eve fireworks shows.
Germany has ordered four million doses of the newly approved vaccine Novavax and 11 million doses of the new Valneva shot, which is waiting for marketing authorisation, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has announced.
The Novavax shots will arrive in the country in January, Lauterbach told a news conference.
“An offensive booster campaign is our most important building block in the fight against omicron,” the health minister said.
According to Lothar Wieler, president of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, omicron will be responsible for most coronavirus infections in Germany within three weeks.
“Christmas should not become the spark that starts the omicron blaze,” RKI chief Lothar Wieler told the same news conference, adding people should limit contacts to an absolute minimum.
First Minister Mark Drakeford told a Welsh Government briefing that for weddings, civil partnerships, funerals and wakes, the number of people permitted to attend would be determined by the ability of the venue to manage social distancing.
“The cabinet has decided not to make new legal rules about mixing in people’s private homes and gardens,” Mr Drakeford said.
“We will issue updated and strengthened guidance to help keep people safe.
“We’re doing this because some circumstances have changed – the population is largely vaccinated; the booster is being rolled out rapidly and lateral flow tests are easily available.
“And, nearly two years since the pandemic started, we have all learned a great deal about how we can best protect ourselves.”
Mr Drakeford said he was urging people to limit the number of visitors to their homes and ensure visitors take lateral flow tests before they come.
“We will reinstate a specific offence for large gatherings in private homes. This is because omicron particularly likes large gatherings and enclosed spaces,” he said.
“We want these measures to be in place for the shortest possible time and they will be kept under review.”
New measures are to be introduced in Wales from 6am on Boxing Day to tackle rising rates of the omicron variant, ministers have announced.
First Minister Mark Drakeford said the measures are a revised version of alert level two and are designed to help keep businesses open and trading.
The regulations bring back restrictions in hospitality businesses, including licensed premises, and in cinemas and theatres when they reopen after the festive period.
“All alert level two measures, including for retail and workplaces and the closure of nightclubs, will come into force from 6am on Boxing Day,” Mr Drakeford said.
“A general requirement of two-metre social distancing in all premises open to the public and workplaces, where reasonable.
“The rule of six will apply to gatherings in regulated premises, such as hospitality, cinemas and theatres.
“All licensed premises will need to take additional measures to protect customers and staff, including table service and collecting contact details.
“Face coverings will be required in hospitality settings at all times apart from when seated.
“Large events will not be allowed indoors or outdoors. The maximum number of people who can gather at an indoor event will be 30 and 50 people outdoors.
“There will be an exception for team sports, up to 50 spectators will be able to gather, in addition to those taking part. There is also an exception for events involving children.”
Slovakia will supply 200,000 Pfizer vaccines to fellow EU member Denmark next month to help its booster campaign as omicron infections soar, the Slovak Health Ministry has announced.
A ministry document discussed by the government said Denmark had asked for vaccines to be supplied without delay.
“With regard to data and the speed of vaccinations in Slovakia as well as the amount in storage, the Slovak Republic is able to provide Denmark 200,000 doses in January,” it said.
Daily coronavirus infections in Denmark reached a new record yesterday, propelled by the omicron variant.
Denmark is one of Europe’s most vaccinated countries with two doses – 83 per cent of the entire population according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control – while Slovakia has lagged most others with 47.4 per cent and thus has enough vaccines in storage.
Slovakia has so far confirmed just 7 cases of the omicron variant.
Over the festive period, #PCR testing sites will be operating different hours for #ChristmasDay, #BoxingDay and New Year’s Day. Find full details of opening hours: https://t.co/GbRiF1kh8C pic.twitter.com/6OGGASHvEo
One in ten passengers on a flight from Miami to Israel tested positive for Covid on Monday.
Seventeen cases were detected, according to the Washington Post and Israeli news site Haaretz.
This comes despite rules requiring all passengers to test negative via either PCR or antigen test prior to boarding.
Following the news, Israel placed the US on its red list – one of the few nations to have specifically banned American arrivals due to the omicron outbreak.
Israel now bans arrivals from 50 countries, including the UK.
Last night, the Prime Minister ended speculation by saying celebrations with families can go ahead – but further Covid curbs may yet be introduced, report Charles Hymas and Tony Diver.
Christmas gatherings were officially given the green light by Boris Johnson on Tuesday night as he pledged that no further Covid restrictions would be imposed before festive celebrations.
The Prime Minister said there was not enough evidence about the risks from the omicron variant to justify tougher measures before Christmas – but warned they could still be introduced before the New Year.
Both Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, on Tuesday refused to rule out further curbs as they vowed that all options remained on the table to protect the public from omicron.
There is pressure, however, from at least three Cabinet ministers including Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, for a thorough assessment of the economic impact of further restrictions before any are introduced.
Read the full story here.
A restaurant at the delayed Expo 2020 world fair has closed temporarily after 10 employees tested positive for Covid, as the UAE recorded its highest number of infections in three months.
The UAE has seen a surge in cases in recent weeks amid increased fears over the spread of the omicron variant.
Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry told AFP that 10 workers at the Sushiro restaurant linked to the Japanese pavilion had tested positive for Covid-19.
The restaurant was undergoing “deep-cleaning and sanitisation” after a number of staff were found to be infected, the Japanese pavilion said in a statement.
“The cases were identified as part of the regular testing of the Expo workforce, participants and volunteers, the frequency of which has recently increased in response to the ever changing global health situation,” it said.
The UAE, which comprises seven emirates including Dubai, recorded 665 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the highest number of infections since September 11.
Bars and nightclubs in Portugal will shut from Christmas Day, a week earlier than previously planned, as the Portuguese government attempts to curb a surge of omicron infections.
Remote working will become mandatory from December 25, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in a press conference. The measures were initially meant to take effect on January 2.
Omicron now accounts for 47 per cent of cases in Portugal, and is expected to be the dominant variant by the new year.
Many of our difficulties are down to the failures of our nationalised health service, but the unjabbed don’t help, argues Philip Johnston.
In any case, we are in a lockdown in all but name. Here I am once again sitting at home, communicating remotely with colleagues and wondering when this madness will ever end. After almost two years, three jabs, a dose of Covid and a test that showed high levels of antibodies, the idea that I, along with millions of others, have to undergo a form of house arrest is depressing beyond words.
But I am more than downhearted. I am getting very fed up with a group of people who appear to be disproportionately responsible for this state of affairs. They are the elephant in the Covid room, about whom we talk in hushed tones or ignore entirely: the unvaccinated.
Read Philip’s full piece here.
The #COVID19 self-isolation guidance has been updated, including using lateral flow tests to reduce the self-isolation period from 10 to 7 days: https://t.co/z1qV1quoCQ
This #thread summarises the changes and what they mean for anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19: pic.twitter.com/Gf0GWa64Dm
The Italian government is preparing new measures to battle a surge in Covid infections and might make vaccinations obligatory for more categories of workers, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said today.
Key officials are due to meet tomorrow to discuss tightening Covid curbs as concerns grow over the highly infectious omicron variant.
Draghi told reporters that among the measures that would be considered were a return to obligatory mask-wearing outdoors and the use of more protective face masks in some enclosed spaces. He also said vaccine mandates might be reviewed.
“They have already been extended to some categories, and we’ll consider extending it to other categories. I don’t know if we will talk about it tomorrow … but if data on contagions continue to worsen it will be the subject of discussion in a very short while,” Draghi said.
In an effort to curb infections, the government has already made vaccinations mandatory for health care workers, teachers, law enforcement officers and the military.
The Labour administration in Wales has effectively made going to work a crime, introducing a penalty for anyone unnecessarily travelling to the office, report Robert Mendick and Tony Diver.
The Welsh Government made going to work a crime on Tuesday, introducing a £60 fine for anyone unnecessarily travelling to the office.
The new rules, which come into force on Monday, were branded “outrageous” and “naive” and will raise serious questions about how Welsh police will enforce the emergency legislation.
The Labour administration in Cardiff said the new fixed penalty notice was being introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 and the omicron variant. But critics pointed out that Welsh people can currently legally still visit a pub, shop or restaurant but effectively be criminalised for going to work.
Welsh people crossing the border to England to work can also be fined on their return. It is unclear if English people making the journey in the opposite direction could also be stopped.
Read the full piece here.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has ruled out a Christmas lockdown, saying hospitals were coping well with a record surge in Covid cases fuelled by the omicron variant.
Australia is grappling with the more transmissible omicron variant as restrictions ease ahead of the Christmas holidays after higher vaccination levels were reached.
“Despite these rising cases, hospitals and health systems remain in a strong position but of course they will be tested,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra after an emergency Cabinet meeting.
Even as daily infections surge to record tallies, hospitalisation and death rates remain low compared with those seen during a wave of cases from the delta wave and Morrison said there would be no more lockdowns.
“Australians have worked very hard to have this Christmas together and we want to protect that. One of the things we agreed today is, we are not going back to lockdowns. We do not want to go back to lockdowns,” Morrison said.
Morrison insisted that limiting the spread of the virus comes down to personal responsibility.
With some common sense and protections for the vulnerable, we should be able to get through this without further restrictions, argues Andrew Lilico.
Cases having peaked already in London would, if that really turns out to be so, be a considerable surprise. The most likely factors appear to be some combination of increased working from home (which in previous waves has induced a particularly sharp drop in R in London, where the scope for working from home is especially high), self-imposed restrictions on activities ahead of Christmas (with people not wanting to risk being sick during the festive season and whilst mixing with elderly relatives), and perhaps some drop-off in taking tests or reporting positive results when the disease is mild and people want to avoid the full period of self-isolation.
If voluntarily chosen adjustments in behaviour can be so successful in controlling even such a transmissible variant, that strongly calls into question the case for formal restrictions.
Read Andrew’s full piece here.
Catalonia is set to become the first Spanish region to reinstate Covid-19 limitations, amid a surge in omicron cases.
“We had all hoped to spend these Christmas holidays with our family and loved ones, but unfortunately we are not in that situation,” Catalan regional president Pere Aragones said. “You don’t have to look at the numbers. All of us know people who have been infected.”
Catalan health authorities have asked courts to authorise a range of new measures, including a curfew from 1am to 6am, a limit of ten people per social gathering, 50 per cent capacity caps in restaurants and gyms, and 70 per cent capacity in theatres.
If approved, the measures will come into force for 15 days, eliminating hopes for New Year’s Eve parties.
German health experts said that new Covid curbs may not go far enough to keep omicron in check, as the country’s health minister said he had not ruled out a full lockdown if cases spiked.
The measures, decided on Tuesday, include limits on private gatherings, closing clubs and discos and banning spectators at football matches and are set to be introduced from December 28.
Janosch Dahmen, health expert for junior coalition partners the Greens, said they were a step in the right direction. “But they probably won’t be able to curb the danger that omicron represents,” he told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
German Hospital Federation chairman Gerald Gass called the measures “necessary, but possibly not sufficient” in comments to the Funke media group.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, meanwhile, recommended that “maximum contact restrictions” and “maximum infection prevention measures” be implemented immediately.
Defending the partial nature of the curbs, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said he valued the institute’s advice but “there can sometimes be demands that we do not immediately implement.”
The National Basketball Association (NBA) has no plans to pause its season despite a surge in Covid-19 cases, league commissioner Adam Silver said.
Seven games have been postponed since last week, with a report on the league’s website saying at least 84 players from 20 teams had entered health and safety protocols as of Tuesday.
US media reported the 10 NBA teams playing on Christmas Day have been told the times of their games could change due to Covid reasons and decisions could be made as late as Friday.
Silver told ESPN in an interview the league had “no plans right now” to halt the season.
“We have of course looked at all the options, but frankly we are having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now.
“As we look through these cases literally ripping through the country … I think we’re finding ourselves where we knew we were going to get to over the past several months, and that is this virus will not be eradicated, and we’re going to have to learn to live with it.”
Singapore has frozen all new ticket sales for flights and buses under its programme for quarantine-free travel into the city-state. The new rule comes into force tomorrow (December 23) and will last until January 20.
Singapore’s health ministry said:
Our border measures will help to buy us time to study and understand the omicron variant, and to strengthen our defences, including enhancing our healthcare capacity, and getting more people vaccinated and boosted.
Preliminary figures published by the Department for Transport show rail travel fell to 53 per cent of pre-pandemic levels on Monday, down from 61 per cent a week earlier.
There was an even sharper drop for weekend travel, from 65 per cent on Saturday December 11 and Sunday December 12 to 51per cent on Saturday December 18 and Sunday December 19.
Bus use in Britain outside London was at 62 per cent of pre-virus levels on Monday, down from 78 per cent a week earlier.
Road traffic has remained relatively stable.
New Zealand has announced it will push back the start of its quarantine-free border reopening until the end of February, in a move that will disappoint New Zealanders around the world hoping to reunite with family.
Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said the move would increase New Zealand’s protection against omicron, and slow the spread of the virus.
“Covid-19 keeps throwing new curve balls and we have to respond in a way that continues to protect lives and livelihoods without putting in place restrictions and lockdowns unless absolutely necessary,” Hipkins said.
“All of the evidence so far points to omicron being the most transmissible Covid-19 variant yet and public health advice says that soon, every case that comes into MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine facilities] will be omicron.”
Follow all the latest travel news here.
A South African study suggests reduced risks of hospitalisation and severe disease in people infected with the omicron variant versus the delta one, though the authors say some of that is likely due to high population immunity.
The new study, which has not been peer-reviewed, sought to assess the severity of disease by comparing data about omicron infections in October and November with data about delta infections between April and November, all in South Africa.
The analysis was carried out by a group of scientists from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and major universities including University of the Witwatersrand and University of KwaZulu-Natal.
The authors found the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80 per cent lower for those infected with omicron compared with delta, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30 per cent lower.
However, they included several caveats and cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the intrinsic characteristics of omicron.
“It is difficult to disentangle the relative contribution of high levels of previous population immunity versus intrinsic lower virulence to the observed lower disease severity,” they wrote.
Hundreds of small business owners have rallied in Seoul, calling for the withdrawal of a curfew and tough Covid restrictions on restaurants, cafes, gyms and other facilities.
The protesters pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “Guarantee the right to live!” and “Scrap restrictions on business operations!”
Some jeered when a lawmaker took the podium to explain aid packages proposed by the governing party presidential candidate. But no major violence or clashes with police erupted.
Under current social distancing guidelines, up to 299 people are allowed to join rallies but all must be fully vaccinated.
On Saturday, South Korea reimposed its toughest social distancing rules to try to control a record-breaking surge of the coronavirus. Most new cases in South Korea are still the delta variant, but health officials say the new omicron variant could become the dominant strain in a few months.
The restored curbs include a ban on private gatherings of five or more people, a 9pm curfew for restaurants, coffee shops and karaoke venues, and required proof of vaccination for entry to restaurants and other businesses.
With Winter Solstice out of the way, the latest Covid statistics show signs of a slowdown and some experts believe lockdown will not be needed, report Sarah Knapton and Ben Butcher.
Tuesday was the Winter Solstice, our darkest day and longest night before the sun begins its slow ascent higher into the sky again.
So it seems fitting that the latest coronavirus data is also starting to show a glimmer of light.
After weeks of relentless growth, the first signs of a slowdown have begun, with some experts speculating that England may even have peaked.
Although admissions are still rising, cases in Britain have been largely unchanged for about six days, with 90,629 reported on Tuesday, a fall of 1,115 from the previous day.
Read the full analysis here.
Thailand has reinstated its mandatory hotel quarantine period for foreign visitors.
A government spokesman said the measure has returned due to concerns over the spread of the omicron variant.
As part of its tightened restrictions, the country is halting its ‘Test and Go’ waiver programme, which allowed fully vaccinated arrivals to take a PCR test on arrival and isolate in a government-approved hotel for a night while they awaited their result.
However, the Thailand government said that the 200,000 people who had already received approved for the ‘Test and Go’ programme would still be eligible to enter the country. They will have to take a test upon arrival and a second test seven days later.
Thailand had only been open for quarantine-free travel since November.
Dr Margaret Harris, from the World Health Organisation (WHO), elaborated on what the WHO’s advice to “scale back” festive plans means for Britons.
“Certainly have Christmas and certainly enjoy that time, but keep it small – don’t go to big, large gatherings where there are lots of people coming from all over the place, and that’s where mostly a lot of the transmission occurs,” she said to Times Radio
“So, have a small gathering, know who’s coming, ideally have everyone vaccinated, and take all the precautions – do your best to have a well-ventilated space and open the windows whenever you can – we are basically saying keep it small, keep it careful, keep it happy.”
There it goes, the South African R0 is below one, from as high as possibly 4 in late November. pic.twitter.com/q4GVGEiBg8
Rail passengers have been advised to check train services before they travel for Christmas, amid concerns of disruption caused by surging omicron cases.
Seb Gordon, director of external communications at industry membership body the Rail Delivery Group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that 19 out of 20 trains had still run over the last week and operators are running as many trains as they “possibly can”.
He said: “We think that, at the moment, that in the Christmas week, when people are trying to get away – fewer people than in a normal year but lots of people still trying to get away – we think it’s important to prioritise running as many trains as we can even if that means there’s a few more of those frustrating short-notice cancellations.
“But obviously, as we get further into this wave of the pandemic – we hope will not materialise in the way that people are anticipating – it may be that we decide actually we need to prepare for a lower level of staffing over a longer period of time and we will reduce the timetable.
“Obviously the Government’s announcement today of the reduced isolation period is going to really help.”
Japan has confirmed its first known local transmissions of the omicron variant, in a sign that it is already spreading within the country.
A family of three in Osaka had no record of traveling overseas and their infections could not be traced, Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said.
The three are the first known cases of community transmission of the highly infectious omicron variant in Japan, Yoshimura said. “I believe they only happened to be detected and we must take steps on the assumption that there already are other cases of community transmission,” he said.
Yoshimura said current restrictions on restaurants in Osaka will remain in place, including a limit of four people per table for a maximum of two hours, to minimize risks during the holiday season, after coronavirus infections surged last year.
Health minister Gillian Keegan said there is “uncertainty” around people making New Year’s Eve plans.
Asked on LBC about whether people should go ahead with a gathering or party on December 31, Ms Keegan said: “There is uncertainty. So, if you can’t change your plans quickly, then maybe think about it.
“There is uncertainty. We can’t predict what the data is going to tell us before we’ve got the data.
“We are trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach so that people can see their families over Christmas to try and plan some stuff.
“But of course it is difficult to anticipate.”
She said the uncertainty in the data is “particularly” around the severity of the new omicron variant.
India has now reported 213 cases of the omicron variant – with infections nearly doubling within a week across 12 different states, reports Joe Wallen.
The vast majority of cases have so far been reported in India’s western state of Maharashtra, home to the financial capital of Mumbai, and the state capital of Delhi.
However, the nationwide number of new daily Covid cases remains below 10,000. In fact, on Wednesday, India reported its lowest overnight tally of infections in more than one-and-a-half years, with just 5,326 new cases.
Public health experts are urging caution and say despite the low overall numbers the omicron variant is beginning to take hold in India’s cities and the country is likely to see a third wave in late January or early February.
The Indian government has directed states to impose containment measures if the percentage of new Covid-19 infections caused by omicron exceeds ten per cent. Mumbai has so far restricted the size of public gatherings in an attempt to reduce transmission.”
Finland is to restrict the opening hours of bars and restaurants to try and curb rising Covid infections and the spread of the new omicron variant.
Starting on Christmas Eve, bars will have to stop serving alcohol at 9pm and close at 10pm. From December 28 onwards, alcohol can only be served until 5pm and bars need to close by 6pm and restaurants by 8pm, the government said in a statement.
Bars are also allowed to take in only 50 per cent of maximum customer capacity and restaurants 75 per cent, it added.
The government also decided university and other adult students would shift to remote schooling after the Christmas holidays and foreign travellers coming to Finland would need a proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid and a recent negative test result.
Finland has so far allowed restaurants and events to sidestep Covid restrictions based on certification showing proof of vaccination, recovery from Covid or a recent negative test.
People who test positive for coronavirus must now isolate for seven days rather than 10, under new rules that allow positive cases to “test to release”.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, is said to be concerned that the Government’s 10-day isolation rules have had a crippling effect on the NHS because so many staff are off work with the virus.
From today, infected people will be required to conduct lateral flow tests on days six and seven of their isolation, and the period will end if both are negative.
Unvaccinated people who come into contact with a positive case will still be required to isolate for 10 days.
Read more about this story here.
Israel announced on Tuesday night that it would offer a fourth vaccine dose to the over-60s, the clinically vulnerable and medical workers in the fight against the omicron variant.
The move was recommended by a panel of experts that advises the Israeli government, and will make the Jewish state the first in the world to offer a fourth jab.
“This is wonderful news that will assist us in getting through the omicron wave that is engulfing the world,” Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, said.
Read the full story here.
The northern Chinese city of Xi’an dramatically tightened Covid travel controls on Wednesday to fight a growing outbreak, with people banned from boarding trains without official permission and hundreds of flights cancelled.
Xi’an reported 52 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, bringing the total to 143 since Dec 9.
From Wednesday, residents are blocked from leaving the city by train without an official letter stating the trip is essential, the state broadcaster CCTV reported. It came a day after the city began testing all of its 13 million residents.
Long-distance bus stations were closed and authorities have set up disease control checkpoints on highways out of Xi’an, government notices said.
More than 85 per cent of flights to and from the city’s main airport have been grounded, according to the flight tracker VariFlight. Inside the city, passenger capacity has been slashed on buses and trains, and schools closed.
Large indoor recreation venues remain shuttered, while the museum housing the world-famous Terracotta Army – the 2,000-year-old mausoleum of China’s first emperor – has shut until further notice.
The UK has signed contracts to buy a further 4.25m courses of antivirals for the NHS to help tackle omicron.
The move will help reduce hospitalisations and therefore ease pressures on the NHS.
Antivirals are used to either treat those who are infected with a virus or sometimes protect exposed individuals from becoming infected. They target the virus at an early stage, preventing progression to more severe, or even critical, symptoms.
The two new contracts are for 1.75m additional courses of Merck Sharp and Dohme’s (MSD) molnupiravir (Lagevrio) and 2.5m additional courses of PF-07321332/ritonavir (Paxlovid) from Pfizer, which will be available from early next year and are both expected to be effective against omicron.
The 4.25m courses are in addition to the procurement of 480,000 courses of molnupiravir and 250,000 courses of PF-07321332/ritonavir announced in October this year.
The health minister, Gillian Keegan, did not rule out a rumoured so-called circuit-breaker after Christmas.
Asked on Sky News on Wednesday if omicron cases had plateaued, Ms Keegan said “we don’t know that yet”, adding: “No, we haven’t been given that information, we are watching the data very, very carefully”.
She said the decision that was taken on further restrictions was “a difficult decision. We do not have all the information that you would like to have at your fingertips, in particular … the severity of the disease. So it is a difficult balance but we think we’ve got the balance right.
“You know, saying to the country we wanted to lock down etc, when you’ve got those kind of figures wouldn’t look proportionate.”
Asked if the country continues on its current path whether there was any chance that a circuit-breaker lockdown will not happen, Ms Keegan said: “We are waiting for data on the severity, we’ll still have to wait to see where we land on that, but we can’t really say, you know.
“What we’ve said is up to Christmas we’re fine looking at the data, looking at the numbers we have at the moment, but, of course, we have to look at where this virus goes, where this variant goes, so we have to look at that data.
“I can’t tell you in advance of getting that data, but you should be cheerful because we’re doing a lot more than we could last year. We’re able to see our families.”
France could soon have around 100,000 new confirmed Covid cases per day, its health minister Olivier Veran said on Wednesday.
The omicron variant would the dominant strain of Covid in France by early January, he added.
There were 129 people in hospital with omicron on Tuesday, the health minister Gillian Keegan has said.
Asked on Sky News about the potential issues with IT reporting, Ms Keegan acknowledged that there are “some lags in certain bits of the data”, but said the current data shows “129 people (in hospital) as of yesterday and 14 deaths with omicron”.
The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca are developing a vaccine for the omicron coronavirus variant.
“Together with Oxford University, we have taken preliminary steps in producing an omicron variant vaccine, in case it is needed and will be informed by emerging data,” a spokesman for the company said in a statement.
The Financial Times first reported the news. Sandy Douglas, a research group leader at Oxford, said: “Adenovirus-based vaccines (such as that made by Oxford/AstraZeneca) could in principle be used to respond to any new variant more rapidly than some may previously have realised.”
Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna also previously said they were working on omicron- specific Covid vaccines. Moderna hopes to start clinical trials early next year.
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