Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly'

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LIVE – Updated at 13:18

UK prime minister calls for return of face-to-face teaching in England’s classrooms; cases sharply decline in Africa, WHO says.

 

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13:18

More than half of people in Scotland think the Downing Street “partygate” saga has hurt the case for the Union, according to a new poll.

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The research, carried out for The Scotsman, also found almost four in five (78%) respondents think prime minister Boris Johnson should resign over the allegations of coronavirus rule-breaking parties.

The survey of 1,004 Scots asked to what extent the alleged parties in Downing Street have hurt the case for the Union, with 54% saying they have hurt it either a lot or a little.

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More than a third (35%) said the claims have either not really hurt it or not hurt it at all, while 11% said they did not know. The survey was carried out between January 14 and 18, after allegations emerged on January 13 that a party took place at Downing Street on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.

Boris Johnson urges teachers to ditch masks in England and return to face-to-face education

13:17

Boris Johnson has urged teachers who insist masks should still worn in lessons to follow the rules which state that they are no longer required for use in classrooms.

A spokesman for the prime minister said “children have been one of the hardest hit as a result of the disruption throughout the pandemic”, adding that Johnson “believes it is vital that children are receiving face-to-face education and can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom”.

He added: “The prime minister also thinks that the schools should follow the latest guidance. We’ve been clear that we removed the requirement for face masks to be worn in classrooms and we will remove advice for face masks to be worn in communal areas from 27 January.”

 

13:17

The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, urged Poles to work from home as daily Covid-19 infections reached their highest ever level.

Morawiecki also said the public can receive free lateral flow tests in pharmacies starting next week and doctors will do home visits for elderly Covid patients.

“The fifth wave is now a fact… We are seeing record numbers of infections and we are therefore dealing with a new situation,” Morawiecki told reporters.

“We recommend working remotely. The public administration will switch to remote work as soon as possible. I appeal to employers to do the same.”

Poland, where less than two-thirds of the adult population is fully vaccinated against Covid, on Friday reported 36,665 infections – a new daily record since the start of the pandemic – as well as 248 deaths.

The government has been heavily criticised by the opposition for not doing enough to combat the crisis, including through vaccine certificates.

Omicron sub-lineage designated variant of under investigation in UK

12:37

An Omicron variant sub-lineage, known as BA.2, is under investigation by the the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Current case rates are very low but the health body said further analyses would be undertaken to look into it.

By 10 January 2022, 53 sequences of the BA.2 sub-lineage of Omicron had been identified, the UKHSA said.

 

12:31

The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, told a Welsh government briefing that the country has passed the peak of Omicron infections.

“After many difficult and worrying weeks, I’m very pleased to say the situation has improved significantly,” he said.

“We can say confidently today that we have passed this peak of the Omicron wave and the incredibly high levels of infections we have seen across Wales.

“It is all your hard work and the ongoing success of our fantastic vaccination programme has helped us through this very challenging period.”

Drakeford said cases peaked at just over 2,300 per 100,000 people in early January before falling back to around 500 cases per 100,000.

“These are similar to the levels we were experiencing just before the Omicron variant arrived in Wales,” he said. “But coronavirus is still circulating at high levels in our communities.”

 

12:20

Nearly 3,000 residents at a Hong Kong housing estate will be confined to their homes for five days, authorities announced on Friday, as they struggle to halt an outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The lengthy lockdown order – reminiscent of those used on the Chinese mainland – comes as Hong Kong tacks harder to Beijing’s “zero-Covid” policy.

At least 20 confirmed or preliminary positive cases were found in a public housing block in the Kwai Chung neighbourhood, said the health chief, Sophia Chan.

“Clearly there is a community outbreak and the situation is worrying,” Chan told reporters.

A security guard, cleaner and multiple residents living in non-adjacent flats have been infected, with the source thought to be a man who visited the building on 13 January.

 

11:47

Poland will shorten the Covid quarantine period to seven days and will introduce free tests in pharmacies from 27 January, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said on Friday, after the country reported a record number of infections.

 

11:35

Australia on Friday reported its deadliest day of the pandemic with 80 coronavirus fatalities, as an outbreak of the omicron variant continued to take a toll.

But Dominic Perrottet, premier of the most populous state, New South Wales, said a slight decrease in hospitalizations gave him some hope about the strain the outbreak is putting on the health system.

The previous record of 78 deaths was set on Tuesday. There have been just under 3,000 coronavirus deaths in Australia since the pandemic began. New South Wales, home to Sydney, reported a record 46 deaths. They included a baby who died from Covid-19 in December, one of several historical cases that were investigated.

The news came after the premier of Western Australia state, Mark McGowan, backed down on a promise to reopen the state to the rest of the country on 5 February.

In a late-night news conference on Thursday, McGowan said reopening the state as planned would be “reckless and irresponsible” given the large number of Covid-19 cases in other states. No new date has been set for when the state might relax its border closure.

The border decision means neither Prime Minister Scott Morrison nor opposition leader Anthony Albanese can campaign in the state for now. An election is due to be held by May 21.

 

11:17

More than a fifth of adults in Britain had difficulties getting lateral flow tests earlier in January, figures suggest.

Some 22% told the Office for National Statistics (ONS) they had struggled to order or pick up a rapid-result test in the past seven days.

The most common places difficulties were experienced were when ordering on the Government website for home delivery (68%) and collecting from pharmacies (60%).

The majority (85%) said the difficulties did not stop them from doing anything they had planned. The ONS analysed responses from 3,293 people between 6 and 16 January as part of its Opinions and Lifestyle survey.

It found 61% of adults said they had taken a lateral flow test in the last week – up from 57% on 15 December to 3 January. It is also up from 42% in the period before Plan B measures were introduced in England.

The figures also show that one in 10 adults reported self-isolating because of coronavirus in the past seven days.

This is up from 7% in the previous survey period and 5% prior to Plan B measures. It is comparable to the proportion self-isolating this time last year, when the country was in its third national lockdown.

Today so far …

11:05

  • The World Health Organization notes that cases of Covid have sharply declined in Africa and deaths are declining for the first time since the emergence of the Omicron variant.
  • Australia’s Omicron wave has likely peaked in NSW and Victoria, according to experts.
  • There were 107,364 new Covid cases recorded in the UK yesterday. Over the last seven days there have been 650,700 new coronavirus cases recorded in the UK. Cases have decreased by 32.8% week-on-week.
  • The government in Wales has confirmed that nearly all Covid restrictions will be dropped in the country in the next eight days.
  • Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford has said Boris Johnson has been permanently damaged by the Downing Street lockdown party scandal. He said “Even if he were to survive, he will just limp on because he’s never going to escape the damage that this week has done to his reputation.”
  • European Union health ministers will meet today to try to find a common line over potential fourth doses of Covid-19 vaccines. EU members Hungary and Denmark have already decided to roll out a second booster jab.
  • Germany reported yet another new record of 140,160 new coronavirus cases on Friday as the country’s health minister warned the country could see at least 400,000 per day by mid-February.
  • Russia has seen an extremely sharp rise in Covid cases over the last three days, and has today set a brand new daily case record of 49,513.
  • Poland has set a record for new cases – 36,665 – and deputy health minister Waldemar Kraska has told broadcasters “In the coming days we will also have very high results, it worries us.”
  • Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz said on Friday he was isolating after testing positive for Covid but was in good health.
  • Pakistan reported over 7,000 Covid cases in a single day, its highest daily number of infections since the pandemic began. A ban on indoor dinning in cities or districts with test positivity rate above 10% has been imposed with effect from 21 January.
  • By contrast, India’s capital New Delhi is set to lift a weekend curfew and allow private offices to be partially staffed after a fall in new infections. Meanwhile, a zoo in India is planning on rolling out a Covid vaccine trial on its resident lions and leopards, the Times of India is reporting.
  • China has reported its lowest daily tally of local confirmed Covid-19 cases in nearly two months. However the Beijing Winter Olympics torch relay will be cordoned off from the public because of concern about the spread of the coronavirus, organisers said.
  • Authorities and pet-lovers in Hong Kong are locked in a game of cat and mouse, with citizens mounting a clandestine rescue operation for hamsters condemned to be euthanised over fears they could transmit Covid-19.

That is your lot from me this week. Rachel Hall has the UK politics live blog. Sarah Marsh will be here shortly to take you through the rest of the day’s Covid news from the UK and around the world. I hope you have a great weekend. I will see you again here on Monday.

 

10:44 Mark Sweney

The owner of UK restaurant chains including Wagamama and Frankie & Benny’s said it expected full-year profits to hit the top end of its forecast despite a dramatic slowdown in sales last month because of the impact of the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Restaurant Group (TRG), which owns 650 restaurants and pubs and operates 70 concessions mostly in airports, expects adjusted profits for 2021 to be at the top end of its £73m to £79m guidance to investors. It welcomed the government’s decision to lift plan B restrictions but warned that consumer confidence might take longer to recover.

Read more of Mark Sweney’s report here: Wagamama owner TRG expects to rise above the Omicron effect

Related: Wagamama owner TRG expects to rise above the Omicron effect

EU health ministers meeting today to discuss approach to fourth dose of Covid-19 vaccines

10:16

Francesco Guarascio has a scene-setter for Reuters from Brussels where European Union health ministers will try to find a common line on Friday over a potential fourth dose of Covid-19 vaccines.

The EU drugs regulator said earlier this week it would be reasonable to give a fourth dose to people with severely weakened immune systems, but more evidence was needed.

Ministers will discuss “the administration of the fourth dose,” said a press release issued by the French presidency of the EU, which organised the video-conference for health ministers at short notice.

EU members Hungary and Denmark have already decided to roll out a fourth dose of Covid vaccines. Copenhagen said it would do so for the most vulnerable, while the Hungarian government said everybody could get it after a consultation with a doctor.

The rollout of fourth doses began in Israel last month, making it the first country to administer the so-called second booster.

Many, though, consider that more data is needed before making decisions on that.

The French presidency said the video conference was meant to find a common approach at an EU level on vaccination strategies. The meeting will also discuss coordination of other Covid policies, including for possible new joint purchases of vaccines, as “vaccines adapted to variants are coming soon,” the French presidency said.

Russia sets new record for daily Covid cases at 49,513

10:10

Russia has seen an extremely sharp rise in Covid cases in the last couple of days, and today set a new record of 49,513. That surpasses the previous peak of just over 40,000 cases in November.

Yesterday there were 38,850 new cases, the day before around 32,000. Reuters note that the Russian Covid taskforce also announced an official figure of 692 deaths yesterday.

 

09:53

Rachel Hall is in the hot seat this morning for our UK politics live blog, which she has just launched. You can follow that with her here.

Related: Minister says blackmail has ‘no place in British politics’ after No 10 allegations – UK politics live

I will be carrying on here with the latest coronavirus news from around the world, including key Covid developments from the UK, so stay tuned.

 

09:32

Rocky Swift has an update on the situation in Japan for Reuters, having spoken to Haruka Sakamoto, a physician and public health researcher at Keio University in Tokyo.

She said that while newly-introduced curbs in Tokyo and twelve other prefectures may have some impact on a public that has adapted to a “new normal” of behaviour over the past two years, promoting booster shots, building up testing capacity and protecting essential workers are more critical. “The response in these areas by the Cabinet seems to be very slow,” she added.

One doctor told Reuters there appeared to be delays in imports of vaccines for boosters, as Japan depends on overseas drugmakers for almost all of its supplies.

Another pointed to a decision to shut down mass vaccination centres after the main inoculation push last year, and the health ministry’s initial insistence on an eight-month gap between first-phase inoculations and booster shots.

Makoto Shimoaraiso, a Cabinet official guiding Japan’s pandemic response, said that delays in regulatory approvals and reopening of inoculation sites had hampered the vaccine rollout.

Japan’s initial inoculation push started off slowly before reaching up to 1.7m shots a day last year, and with boosters, “we can also see the same rapid increase,” he added.

The country has recorded just over 2 million coronavirus cases and 18,461 deaths during the pandemic.

“When you look at the infection situation, the quasi-state of emergency is inevitable,” said office worker Masayuki Fujii, 49. “However, we have to get the economy going.”

 

09:21

Here are a few more words from Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford from the media round today. PA Media quote him telling Sky News that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suffered permanent damage from the scandals of the last few weeks. He said:

Even if he were to survive, he will just limp on because he’s never going to escape the damage that this week has done to his reputation.

From my point of view, the thing that worries me the most is the fact that the UK government is frozen by the impact of what has happened to them.

They’re just not able to make the sorts of decisions you’d expect the government to make, because everything is seen through this lens, the attempt to try and shore up the prime minister to protect him from the attacks that his own side are making on him.

That means it’s a government that’s turned in on itself and isn’t capable of doing the job that it was elected to do.

On the future of Covid passes in Wales, he said their use would be reviewed on 10 February, saying they “will stay in place for a bit longer than some of the other protections we put in place.”

Asked if people could expect that 10 February could mean the end for the Covid pass, he said: “I think it’s conceivable, but by no means guaranteed. We’ve just seen in the last week or so how fast things can change with this virus and 10 February is still three weeks away.

“So if things continue to improve on that current rate, and we were in a position to lift some of the further protections, of course that’s what we want to do. But in Wales, we will only do it when we’re sure we have a clinical advice or scientific advice that would tell us that it will be safe to do that.”

 

09:02

Reuters have an update from Poland, where a deputy health minister has said the country will report a record 36,665 daily Covid cases today.

Authorities have warned that the latest wave of the pandemic will drive case numbers to levels as yet unseen in the European Union’s largest eastern member, putting severe strain on the health service.

“In the coming days we will also have very high results, it worries us,” Waldemar Kraska told broadcaster Radio Plus, adding that daily cases would top 50,000 next week. A week ago daily cases were just over 16,000.

Poland has a lower rate of vaccination than the EU average and the limited restrictions in place, such as wearing masks in enclosed public spaces, are often not strictly enforced.

On Wednesday, health minister Adam Niedzielski said that state employees would move to remote working and private sector companies should follow suit in order to limit the spread of the virus.

 

08:50

Further civil unrest broke out overnight on Friday in the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe and at least one police officer was injured, the Caribbean island’s prefect said.

Guadeloupe and the nearby French island of Martinique have been hit by violent protests over the past few months, due partly to public anger over Covid restrictions.

“The prefect condemns the unspeakable actions and offers its support to the injured person,” the statement said.

Reuters remind us that a curfew was put in place in Guadeloupe at the end of last year in an effort to curb the sometimes violent protests.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian A rally against the French vaccination pass in Guadeloupe earlier this month. Photograph: Gilles Morel/SIMAX/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

In Guadeloupe there has been mistrust of the French government’s handling of health crises since the 1970s when many islanders were exposed to toxic pesticides used in banana plantations.

 

08:40 Helen Davidson

Authorities and pet-lovers in Hong Kong are locked in a game of cat and mouse, with citizens mounting a clandestine rescue operation for hamsters condemned to be euthanised over fears they could transmit Covid-19.

On Tuesday, government and health officials announced traces of the virus had been found on 11 hamsters, all in a pet shop where a 23-year-old staff member had fallen ill. They decided more than 2,000 of the imported animals, including any pets bought since 22 December, must be killed, and “strongly recommended” owners surrender their pets.

For many, it was the final straw after two years of ad hoc and often illogical pandemic measures, and residents sprung into action, offering to hide or adopt the doomed pets. Tens of thousands signed petitions, while others offered to fake backdated receipts to before 22 December, the Washington Post reported. Groups gathered outside collection facilities urging people not to hand over their animals.

One Causeway Bay woman, who gave the name Jessica, said she volunteered on a social media group to house a hamster, but was still waiting to be assigned one. “There are a lot of other volunteers,” she said. “I left a message saying which area I’m in, and that I could take one hamster because the flat I live in is small and I have a dog.

Read more of Helen Davidson’s report here: Hongkongers launch hamster rescue mission after Covid cull declared

Related: Hongkongers launch hamster rescue mission after Covid cull declared

 

08:34

A quick snap from Reuters here that Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said on Friday he was isolating after testing positive for Covid but was in good health.

“I feel good because I am vaccinated. In the coming days I will manage security affairs from my home,” Gantz wrote on Twitter.

Israel has shortened its mandatory isolation period for confirmed carriers to five days. Other senior Israeli cabinet members, including the foreign and finance ministers, have recently tested positive for Covid as well.

 

08:25

First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford has had a little sideswipe at the UK government on BBC Breakfast this morning while confirming that he is “confident” it is safe to lift restrictions on outdoors sporting events and outdoor hospitality from Friday.

Drakeford accused the UK Government of moving too fast to ease restrictions in England to distract attention from the scandals engulfing it. PA Media quote him saying:

We’ve always taken a different approach in Wales, one that does things step by step in line with a science. We’re a government that doesn’t need to grab headlines to distract attention from the difficulties.

I think people in Wales have demonstrated their support for that more cautious, more step by step approach because it has kept Wales safe.

Germany records another new record for daily Covid cases

08:15

Germany reported yet another new record of 140,160 new coronavirus cases on Friday as the country’s health minister warned the country could see at least 400,000 per day by mid-February.

That figure would be reached under an optimistic scenario in which booster shots provide very good protection, Karl Lauterbach said in a discussion with state government leaders, sources involved in the talks told Reuters late on Thursday.

The number could climb to more than 600,000 daily new cases if the booster shots were less protective, he said, according to the sources.

Lauterbach also said he expected the numbers in intensive care in hospitals to increase significantly over coming weeks. Federal and state leaders will discuss on Monday measures to curb the increase.

 

08:11

One thing that has come out of Kwasi Kwarteng’s media round in the UK is a debate on whether schools should be making children wear face masks in class or not in England. He was asked on Sky News about reports that some schools were still enforcing a mask mandate. He said:

That’s a matter also for teachers and parents to negotiate. The guidance of the prime minister is very clear that we won’t need to be wearing masks.

Pressed on whether it was wrong for schools to do so, he said:

All I say is that they have to follow the guidance.

However, he then went on to say “I’m not here as the business secretary responsible for the economy, which I thought we’d be talking about, to tell school teachers and head teachers how they’re going to run schools.”

 

08:03

The Welsh government has confirmed that nearly all Covid restrictions will be dropped in the country in the next eight days. Ruth Mosalski reports for WalesOnline:

It will mean that after 28 January, the only rules in place in Wales are that everyone over the age of 11 has to wear face coverings in indoor public places, with the exception of hospitality venues; businesses need to undertake risk assessments and people must continue to self-isolate when they test positive. Covid passes will still have to be used for large events, cinemas and nightclubs.

The first minister said the decision has been taken because the data suggests Wales has passed the peak of the Omicron wave and coronavirus cases are falling back to levels similar to those seen earlier in the autumn. There have also been reductions in the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital.

Wales had been at alert level two since Boxing Day. It meant caps on people meeting indoors and outdoors, hospitality must stick to rules about table service and have groups no larger than six, and has seen a ban on crowds at sporting events. Nightclubs were also forced to close their doors.

 

07:45

Hannah Devlin, our science correspondent, writes for us this morning that experts say when the rules are relaxed there tends to be a gradual erosion of protective behaviours:

“The research so far has shown that it has been rules that have been the dominant feature in driving behaviour,” said Prof Robert West, a behavioural scientist at University College London (UCL). “When you take the rules away, it won’t happen immediately, but what we’ve seen previously is a gradual erosion of protective behaviours even when attitudes are not changing that much.”

West points to a steady decline in the number of people adhering to advice to wear masks once it is not longer a requirement. “People still said they thought it was a good idea, but fewer and fewer people were actually doing it.”

West said that indications that the government would allow the legal requirement to self-isolate to lapse did not necessarily mean that people would jump the gun and change their behaviour in advance of this rule change.

“From data earlier in the pandemic we did not see substantial rule-breaking ahead of relaxations but in any event the adherence to self-isolation requirements has been low – one of the reasons why we have done so badly in the UK,” he said.

Read more of Hannah Devlin’s analysis here: Mixed messages? How end of Covid plan B rules could change behaviour

Related: Mixed messages? How end of Covid plan B rules could change behaviour

 

07:35

Retail sales in Great Britain tumbled last month as the introduction of Covid-19 restrictions hit spending over the crucial Christmas period. Retail sales volumes fell by 3.7% in December 2021, the Office for National Statistics reports.

My colleague Graeme Wearden has more coverage of this over on our business live blog, which you can find here.

Related: Retail sales slide over Christmas amid Omicron, as inflation fears hit UK consumer confidence – business live

Pakistan sets new record for daily Covid cases – imposes indoor dining ban in some areas

07:32

Pakistan reported on Friday over 7,000 Covid cases in a single day, its highest daily number of infections since the pandemic began.

At least 7,678 cases in the past 24 hours pushed the positivity ratio to 12.93%, the highest ever in the last two years. 23 deaths were also reported in the last 24 hours, according to data from the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC), which is overseeing the pandemic response.

“Amid rising trend of disease across the country a ban on indoor dinning in cities/districts with positivity above 10% has been imposed with effect from 21 January,” said a notification issued by NCOC.

Syed Raza Hassan reports for Reuters from Karachi that the government authorised booster vaccination shots for citizens over the age of 30. Vaccination of children over the age of 12 has been made mandatory to attend the schools and children under 12 will attend schools with 50% attendance.

“We might see a peak after two weeks followed by a gradual decline,” Faisal Mahmood associate professor of infections diseases at Aga Khan University Hospital told Geo television channel on Friday morning.

He said the number of hospitalisations are rising, citing the on-going wedding season for the rapid spread of the virus. About 70 million people in Pakistan, or 32% of the population, have had two vaccine doses.

New Delhi set to lift some weekend restrictions as case numbers fall

07:21

India’s capital is set to lift a weekend curfew and allow private offices to be partially staffed after a fall in new Covid-19 infections, a city government official said on Friday.

The number of new cases in Delhi has more than halved from a peak of 28,867 on 13 January and more than 80% of Covid beds across the city’s hospitals were unoccupied, according to government data.

“In view of the declining cases of corona, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal approved the proposal,” the official, who declined to be identified to Reuters, said of a suggestion from authorities that the weekend curfew be scrapped.

The city’s lieutenant governor, who must sign off on the city government’s executive decisions, was expected to review the proposal and clear the way for its formal approval later on Friday.

Delhi has been one of the centres of India’s coronavirus pandemic for the past two years and has endured various lockdowns and curfews over different waves of infection. The city imposed the most recent curfew on 4 January and ordered schools and restaurants to close as infections caused by the Omicron variant surged.

It was not clear if those curbs and a night curfew on weekdays would also be scrapped. Frustrated Delhi shopkeepers protested on the streets this week, demanding that curbs be lifted.

 

07:17

I am not sure it is worth giving you a full transcript of the exchanges featuring UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on Sky News this morning because this one line “Look, I don’t want to get drawn into what will happen if unsubstantiated allegations are proven true” pretty much covers off everything he said in reply to both the allegations that government whips have been threatening and blackmailing MPs and the impending release of the Sue Gray report into those Downing Street lockdown-breaking parties.

 

07:06

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is on the media round for the government this morning, and has immediately offered his 100% support for beleaguered UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the Downing Street lockdown party scandal on Sky News. I’ll bring you any key Covid lines that emerge from that.

Only two UK Covid briefings were led by a female MP, report finds

07:04

Only two of the government briefings held at the height of the coronavirus pandemic were led by a female politician, and in both cases it was the home secretary, Priti Patel, a report into gender representation across the UK’s top jobs has shows.

The 2022 Sex and Power Index, compiled by the Fawcett Society, a charity campaigning for women’s rights, showed equality is still “decades off”, as men continue to dominate the top ranks of law, politics and business.

The biennial report also highlighted the complete lack of women of colour in senior roles and what it lamented as a “glacial” pace of change. Women account for just 8% of FTSE 100 CEOs, none of whom is a woman of colour.

Read the full story here.

Related: Only two UK Covid briefings were led by a female MP, report finds

 

07:02

Hello, it is Martin Belam here in London, taking over from Samantha Lock in Sydney. Here’s a quick run down of where the Covid numbers stand in the UK.

There were 107,364 new Covid cases recorded yesterday. Over the last seven days there have been 650,700 new coronavirus cases recorded in the UK. Cases have decreased by 32.8% week-on-week.

There have been 1,860 deaths within 28 days of a positive test recorded in the last week, including 330 recorded yesterday. Deaths have increased by 1.8% week-on-week.

Hospital admissions have decreased by 7.2% week-on-week. At the latest count on the UK government’s own dashboard, there were 18,494 people in hospital in total, of whom 675 are in ventilation beds. According to the government’s figures, the peak of hospitalisations during the pandemic was in January 2021, with 39,254 patients in hospital.

There were around 1.5m tests for Covid carried out on 19 January. That compares to a recent peak of 2m on 4 January.

Summary of key events

06:50

Here’s a round-up of all the latest international developments:

Asia:

  • China has reported its lowest daily tally of local confirmed Covid-19 cases in nearly two months, after a national strategy to stamp out flare-ups and lock down affected cities.
  • Despite the decrease in daily case counts, experts say China’s zero Covid policy ‘not sustainable’ in light of Omicron.
  • A clinic in Malaysia injected people with distilled water before providing fraudulent Covid vaccination certificates, according to local media reports.
  • The Beijing Winter Olympics torch relay will be cordoned off from the public because of concern about the spread of the coronavirus, organisers said.
  • A zoo in India is planning on rolling out a Covid vaccine trial on its resident lions and leopards, the Times of India is reporting.
  • Hong Kong police will deal with pet lovers who try to stop people giving up their hamsters to be put down, or who offer to care for abandoned hamsters, authorities said, after they ordered a cull of the cuddly rodents to curb the coronavirus.

Europe:

  • Germany reported another record rise of 140,160 new daily cases. It is the third consecutive day the European country has broken a pandemic record, with 170 deaths also reported.

Australia and New Zealand:

  • Australia’s Omicron wave has likely peaked in NSW and Victoria, according to experts.
  • New Zealand has extended Covid isolation requirements to 14 days in light of the spread of the Omicron variant.
  • An Australian aid flight en route to the South Pacific nation of Tonga recently devastated by a volcanic eruption and tsunami has been turned back to base due to a positive Covid-19 case onboard.

Africa:

  • The World Health Organization notes that cases of Covid have sharply declined in Africa and deaths are declining for the first time since the emergence of the Omicron variant.
  • The World Bank has approved a Covid-19 linked $750m development policy loan to South Africa to protect the poor and support economic recovery from the pandemic.

United States:

China’s zero Covid policy ‘not sustainable’ in light of Omicron

06:30 Helen Davidson

In the past two years, China’s controversial zero Covid policy achieved much success – although the personal and societal cost was high.

“[The] detection of Omicron variant in many cities in China including Beijing shows how difficult it could be to maintain the zero Covid policy,” said Prof Jin Dong-yan, of Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences.

Without changing course (and it is probably already too late before the winter Games), experts expect more extreme measures to be announced in the coming weeks. Earlier this month, the Beijing municipality’s traffic management authority asked people to stay away from the special vehicles used to ferry athletes to and from the Winter Olympics venues in the event of a car incident.

Read the full story here.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian People wearing protective masks visit a main shopping area in Shanghai, China on 21 January. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

Related: ‘Not sustainable’: Omicron tests China’s zero Covid policy as first cases detected

 

06:14

After remaining Covid-free for the entirety of the pandemic, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati has reopened its borders – only for two thirds of the passengers on the first international flight to arrive in ten months to test positive for the virus.

The island is now set to impose a four-day lockdown from Monday after the virus was found to have spread into the community.

All 54 passengers, 36 of whom were diagnosed with Covid after arriving from Fiji last Friday, have now been quarantined and are recovering well, according to authorities.

Read the full story from our reporter Rimon Rimon in Tarawa here.

Related: Two-thirds of passengers on first flight to Covid-free Kiribati diagnosed with virus

 

05:55 Rebecca Ratcliffe

A clinic in Malaysia injected people with distilled water before providing fraudulent Covid vaccination certificates, according to local media reports.

The private clinic in Terengganu State was responsible for vaccinating people under the national immunisation programme, and issuing vaccine certificates that are required for travel. However, police suspect more than 1,200 people who attended the clinic were not actually vaccinated.

Of 23 people who attended the clinic and have been interviewed by police so far, all admitted to not receiving the Covid vaccination. “Some of them admitted to taking injections of distilled water or saltwater on the grounds that they were still getting the shots, even though they were not the vaccine,” said Terengganu police chief Rohaimi Md Isa. Customers reportedly paid up to RM600 ($143 USD) each for the service.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian Pedestrians wearing face masks as a precaution against the spread of Covid-19 are seen crossing the road near the shopping mall district in Kuala Lumpur. Photograph: FL Wong/REX/Shutterstock

The clinic in Marang, Terengganu State, is one several under investigation by the police for fraudulently selling Covid certificates.

Malaysia has fully vaccinated 80% of the population, and is now rolling out booster jabs. It will also begin vaccinating children aged five to 12 next month.

However, officials have cited vaccine hesitancy and misinformation about side effects as a concern. In a statement published last week, Noor Hisham Abdullah, Director General of Health, said the government needed to “disentangle vaccine disinformation on Covid-19 vaccines, predominantly through social media platforms.”

 

05:45

The Beijing Winter Olympics torch relay will be cordoned off from the public because of concern about the spread of the coronavirus, organisers said on Friday, according to a Reuters report.

The relay involving 1,200 torchbearers will begin on 2 February and wind up just two days later, on 4 February when the Games open in the capital, Beijing, and neighbouring Hebei province.

Yang Haibin, an official from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Sports told a briefing:

This torch relay will always prioritise safety.

Taking into account factors such as epidemic prevention … the torch relay and ceremonial activities will be arranged in safe and controllable closed venues.”

Beijing, the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, is on high-alert for the coronavirus after a handful of small outbreaks in various parts of the country that authorities have responded to with sweeping restrictions and mass testing.

All of the torchbearers must be vaccinated and will be tested for the virus and have their health monitored for 14 days before the relay.

The relay route, which will be much shorter than previous ones, will include a stop at the Great Wall, China’s most famous landmark, as well as central Beijing’s Olympic parks, the Summer Palace and other venues including International Grape Exhibition Garden and Zhangjiakou Industrial Culture Park.

Only selected members of the public will be allowed to watch the relay in person.

 

05:08

A zoo in India is planning on rolling out a Covid vaccine trial on its resident lions and leopards, the Times of India is reporting.

The experimental study comes after two lions died of Covid-19 at the Chennai zoo last year.

The trial will be conducted on 15 animals in the Sakkarbaug zoo using a vaccine developed by ICAR-National Research Centre on Equines (NRCE).

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian A zoo in India is planning on rolling out a Covid vaccine trial on its resident lions and leopards. Photograph: Susan Poag/AP

 

04:45

The World Bank has approved a Covid-19 linked $750m development policy loan to South Africa to protect the poor and support economic recovery from the pandemic, a statement from National Treasury said on Friday.

“This loan will support the government of South Africa’s efforts to accelerate its Covid-19 response aimed at protecting the poor and vulnerable from the adverse socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic and supporting a resilient and sustainable economic recovery,” the statement read.

Director-general of the national treasury of South Africa, Dondo Mogojane, said in a statement: “The world bank budget support is coming at a critical time for us and will contribute towards addressing the financing gap stemming from additional spending in response to the Covid-19 crisis.”

 

04:21 Matthew Cantor

For airline staff, navigating the pandemic has meant grappling with a surge in bad behaviour, ranging from temper tantrums to punching flight attendants in the face.

In the latest incident, 129 passengers paid a remarkable price: a maskless “disruptive customer” forced American Airlines’ flight AAL38 flying from Miami to London to turn around and go back, the New York Times reports. The reversal occurred off the North Carolina coast, after the flight had traveled about 500 miles.

The customer, described by police as a woman in her 40s, was “refusing to comply with the federal mask requirement”, American Airlines said in a statement to the newspaper.

“Once the plane made it to the gate, the passenger was escorted off the plane by MDPD officers without incident. The passenger was then dealt with administratively by American Airlines staff,” a police detective said, according to CNN.

Read the full story here.

Related: Unruly, maskless passenger forces London-bound flight to return to Miami

Aid flight to tsunami-hit Tonga forced to return over Covid case

04:05

An Australian aid flight en route to the South Pacific nation of Tonga recently devastated by a volcanic eruption and tsunami has been turned back to base due to a positive Covid-19 case onboard.

The flight left Brisbane on Thursday afternoon but was turned around midflight after being notified of the positive Covid-19 case, an Australian defence spokeswoman said today.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian Personnel unload emergency aid supplies at Tonga’s Fuaʻamotu International Airport, near Nukuʻalofa, on 20 January. Photograph: Emma Schwenke/AP

All crew had returned negative rapid antigen tests before departure, but PCR tests later showed the positive result. The supplies were moved to another flight that took off on Friday.

Tonga is Covid-free and has a strict border control policy, and is requiring contactless delivery of aid that began arriving by plane on Thursday.

Germany reports record rise of 140,160 new cases

03:49

Germany is reporting another record rise of 140,160 new daily cases.

It is the third consecutive day the European country has broken a pandemic record, with 170 deaths also reported, according to recently updated figures from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).

The previous daily count recorded on Wednesday was 133,536 daily new cases and 234 deaths.

Tuesday saw 112,323 new coronavirus cases and 239 deaths.

The nationwide seven-day incidence reported by the RKI has exceeded the threshold of 600 for the first time at 638.8.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian Pedestrians cross the Heinrich-Heine-Allee in the city center of Duesseldorf, Germany on 20 January. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

Germany now joins other European countries like the UK, France and Italy in recording more than 100,000 new Covid-19 infections on one day.

Omicron now accounts for more than 70% of new infections.

The country recently tightened restrictions on access to restaurants, bars and cafes to people who have received their booster jabs or who are tested on top of being fully vaccinated or recovered. Germany has also pledged to accelerate vaccinations while the parliament prepares to discuss introducing mandatory vaccinations – a measure supported by new chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Hong Kong warns people interfering in Covid hamster cull

03:24

Hong Kong police will deal with pet lovers who try to stop people giving up their hamsters to be put down, or who offer to care for abandoned hamsters, authorities said, after they ordered a cull of the cuddly rodents to curb the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, officials ordered the killing of about 2,000 hamsters from dozens of pet shops after tracing a coronavirus outbreak to a worker at a shop, where 11 hamsters later tested positive for Covid-19.

Thousands of people have offered to adopt unwanted hamsters amid a public outcry against the government and its pandemic advisers, which the office of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam called irrational.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian A wildlife officer wearing personal protective equipment leaves a temporarily closed pet shop, after the government said it would euthanise around 2,000 hamsters in Hong Kong after finding evidence for possible animal-to-human transmission of Covid-19. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said any effort to try to save hamsters would be dealt with, even if that meant calling in the law.

The department said:

If the people concerned continue with such action, or fail to return the hamsters taken away, the AFCD will stringently follow up and hand it over to the police for handling.”

The government has said the animals are being humanely dispatched and called on all sectors of society to unite to fight the spread of coronavirus.

Hong Kong has also been testing rabbits and chinchillas but only the hamsters were positive. They were all imported from the Netherlands, according to broadcaster RTHK.

 

03:15

China has reported its lowest daily tally of local confirmed Covid-19 cases in nearly two months, after a national strategy to stamp out flare-ups and lock down affected cities.

China reported 23 domestically transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms for Thursday, official data showed, down from 43 a day earlier.

This marks the fourth consecutive day of decline in local symptomatic cases, with the lowest daily case load since 29 November.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian People wear face masks as they walk on a snowy morning as Covid-19 continues in Beijing, China. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

The central province Henan and the northern city of Tianjin, two areas that have detected most of China’s local cases in the past 10 days, each reported fewer than 10 local confirmed infections for Thursday.

The capital, Beijing, reported five, slightly up from three a day earlier. The southern city of Zhuhai and Xian in the northwestern also reported a handful of new local cases.

China reported for Thursday two new domestically transmitted asymptomatic cases, which it classifies separately from confirmed cases, in the southwestern province of Yunnan. There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636. As of 20 January, mainland China had 105,484 confirmed symptomatic cases, including both local ones and those arriving from abroad.

 

02:59

While we are on the topic of New Zealand, the island nation is reporting 23 new locally-transmitted coronavirus cases and 44 cases identified at the border.

The seven day rolling average of community cases stands at 22 while the seven day rolling average of border cases is 40.

A total of 18 people are currently in hospital while one person is in ICU for Covid-related problems.

More than 900,000 boosters have been given to date.

Another possible Omicron case has also been detected in Auckland in a person who works at Auckland Airport and so far not linked to previously reported Auckland Omicron cases, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

New Zealand extends Covid isolation to 14 days

02:50

New Zealand has just announced it will be extending Covid isolation requirements to 14 days in light of the spread of the Omicron variant.

“To help address the increased infectiousness of Omicron, as an interim measure the isolation time for all Covid-19 cases is being extended to 14 days. It was previously ten days,” the ministry of health said in a statement on Friday.

A similar change is also being applied for close contacts where all close contacts will now isolate for ten days – an increase from the previous seven days.

“As part of the response to Omicron, at this stage our public health teams are focussed strongly on stamping out early any Omicron cases in the community,” the ministry added.

The changes are to take effect from Friday, 21 January.

To help address the increased infectiousness of Omicron, as an interim measure the isolation time for all COVID-19 cases is being extended to 14 days. It was previously ten days.

— Ministry of Health – Manatū Hauora (@minhealthnz) January 21, 2022

 

02:37

As we continue across Asia, Malaysia is reporting another 3,497 new coronavirus cases and 27 deaths, according to recent government data.

A total of 3,242 cases were locally transmitted while 522 were imported.

 

01:58

While we are in the Asian region, South Korea is reporting an additional 6,769 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to a recent update from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another 21 deaths have also been reported, taking the cumulative death toll in the country to 6,501.

A total of 431 people are in in critical condition with 626 new hospital admissions per day.

The intensive care bed utilisation rate – a closely watched figure – is at 21.9%.

 

01:45

Just a quick snap from Thailand as the Southeast Asian nation reports another 8,640 new daily coronavirus cases today and 13 deaths, according to recent report from the ministry of health.

Australia’s Omicron wave has likely peaked, experts say

01:23 Donna Lu

The Omicron outbreak of Covid cases appears to have peaked in New South Wales, Victoria and other parts of Australia, epidemiologists believe.

Prof Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of South Australia, said the Omicron wave had “absolutely certainly” peaked in NSW and Victoria.

The Reff – the effective reproduction number, which measures how many other people someone with Covid will infect, on average – had dropped below 1 in both states, Esterman said.

“We know that the peak has been reached when the Reff gets below 1.”

On Thursday, Esterman calculated the Reff to be 0.83 in NSW and 0.8 in Victoria.

“You can’t really interpret the daily cases very well because of huge fluctuations and large of numbers of rapid antigen tests coming through on a given day but being distributed over previous days,” Esterman said. “The Reff is still reasonably stable despite the daily fluctuation in case numbers.” 2

Read the full story here.

Related: Australia’s Omicron wave has likely peaked in NSW and Victoria, some experts say

Adele postpones Las Vegas residency with half her crew infected with Covid

01:06

Adele has been forced to delay her three-month Las Vegas residency after Covid hit the production.

“I’m so sorry, but my show ain’t ready,” the singer announced in an Instagram post. “We’ve been absolutely destroyed by delivery delays and Covid. Half my crew … are down with Covid – they still are – and it’s been impossible to finish the show.”

The residency, titled Weekends with Adele, was due to begin on 21 January at the Colosseum in the Caesars Palace casino, celebrating her highly lauded album 30, which topped music charts in the UK, Australia and the US. Its first single, Easy On Me, broke records upon its release, becoming Spotify’s most-streamed song in a single day.

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian Adele has been forced to delay her three-month Las Vegas residency after Covid hit the production. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

“I’m gutted and I’m sorry it’s so last minute,” Adele said. “We’ve been awake for over 30 hours now and we’ve run out of time. I’m so upset and … I’m so sorry to everyone that travelled to get [here].

“We’re going to reschedule all of the dates, we’re on it right now … I’m gonna finish my show and I’m gonna get it to where it’s supposed to be.”

Read the full story here.

Related: ‘My show ain’t ready’: Adele postpones Las Vegas residency

Covid cases ‘drop significantly’ in Africa, WHO says

00:48

Cases of Covid have sharply declined in Africa and deaths are declining for the first time since the emergence of the Omicron variant, the World Health Organization has said.

The UN health agency’s regional office for Africa said newly reported cases fell 20% in the week to Sunday while notified deaths dropped 8%.

Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, described the 56-day flareup as Africa’s “shortest upsurge yet” but added: “The continent has yet to turn the tables on this pandemic. So long as the virus continues to circulate, further pandemic waves are inevitable.”

Covid live: Boris Johnson tells teachers in England to ditch masks in class; Africa sees cases ‘drop significantly’
© Provided by The Guardian Abidjan soccer fans get the vaccinated against Covid-19 at a vaccination centre in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on 12 January. Photograph: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Moeti said Africa should “not only broaden vaccinations, but also gain increased and equitable access to critical Covid-19 therapeutics to save lives and effectively combat this pandemic”.

Only 10% of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, according to the WHO.

The continent, with a population of 1.2 billion, has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic, reporting 234,913 deaths from 10.5 million cases, according to AFP tallies.

However, most data experts agree that the lower numbers are most likely due to access to testing and the true number is much higher.

 

00:28

Hello it’s Samantha Lock back with you on the blog, reporting all the latest Covid developments from across the world.

I’ll be reporting to you from Sydney and my colleagues from London will take over a little later in the day.

Let’s dive in with the cautiously optimistic news that Australia’s Omicron wave has likely peaked in NSW and Victoria, according to experts.

Epidemiologist and biostatistician, Prof Adrian Esterman, said the Omicron wave had “absolutely certainly” peaked in NSW and Victoria after noting the reproduction number, which measures how many other people someone with Covid will infect, on average – had dropped below 1 in both states.

In more hopeful news, the World Health Organization notes that cases of Covid have sharply declined in Africa and deaths are declining for the first time since the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Describing the 56-day flareup as Africa’s “shortest upsurge yet,” the WHO’s African regional office said newly reported cases fell by 20% in the week to Sunday, while notified deaths dropped by 8%.

Here’s a round-up of all the latest international developments you may have missed:

Europe:

  • The Irish government has been given the green light to lift the majority of the state’s Covid restrictions.
  • In France, Covid-19 restrictions will be loosened from February onwards, the prime minister has said, shortly after country’s Covid vaccination pass comes into effect. Jean Castex said on Thursday the pass will come into effect on 24 January, provided it is approved by the Constitutional Council.
  • Austria announced it will introduce a national vaccine lottery to encourage holdouts to get shots and has extended Covid lockdown measures for another ten days. MPs voted to approve a Covid-19 vaccine mandate which will apply to all residents of Austria aged 18 and over.
  • England will soon scrap virtually all Covid measures, the health secretary confirmed.
  • Germany reported another record rise of 133,536 daily new cases. It is the second consecutive day the European country has broken a pandemic record, with 234 deaths also reported, according to recently updated figures from the Robert Koch Institute.

Australia and New Zealand:

  • Australia’s drugs regulator has for the first time approved oral treatments for Covid-19 which should help address supply shortages of other treatments.
  • Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Association has also given provisional approval to the protein-based Novavax Covid-19 vaccine.
  • New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said restrictions will be tightened if there is a community transmission of Omicron.
  • The state of Western Australia has cancelled plans to reopen its borders on 5 February, citing health risks from a surge in Omicron cases elsewhere in the country, as the tally of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began topped two million.

Asia:

  • Taiwan will mandate the use of passes for proof of Covid vaccination to enter entertainment venues.
  • Thailand will resume its ‘Test & Go’ quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals starting on 1 February, the country’s coronavirus taskforce said on Thursday.
  • Japan recorded a daily rise of 41,377 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, shattering the record it set a day earlier by about 10,000 as the government puts more prefectures under a quasi-state of emergency.
  • Hong Kong will likely suspend face-to-face teaching in secondary schools from 24 January, local media reports.
  • China’s capital Beijing has ramped up efforts to curb Covid-19 infections, ordering checks among cold-chain firms and urging residents to cut unnecessary gatherings.

United States:

  • US president Joe Biden has admitted that more should have been done in terms of Covid-19 testing availability earlier in the pandemic.
  • The US is set to require Covid vaccines for essential workers crossing borders.

Africa:

  • Cases of Covid have sharply declined in Africa and deaths are declining for the first time since the emergence of the Omicron variant, the World Health Organization has said.
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