Covid live: Israel to scrap passport system as Omicron wanes; Hong Kong battles surge in cases

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LIVE – Updated at 11:58

Israel’s PM says ‘green pass’ system to be suspended as cases decline; Hong Kong to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for Covid cases.

 

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11:58

The Solomon Islands is experiencing its first major community outbreak of coronavirus, and at a frightening pace.

Global Tech News Daily

With just 11% of its population fully vaccinated, the Pacific Island nation’s fragile healthcare system is at risk of becoming overwhelmed, the Red Cross warned today.

The nation of some 690,000 is spread across hundreds of islands, and many are served by only small clinics or have no nearby facilities at all. The capital Honiara has only one small hospital and authorities have already turned a sports building into a field hospital.

Global Tech News Daily

Clement Manuri, secretary general of the Solomon Islands Red Cross Society, said the virus was spreading “faster than the wind from our cities and towns to the most remote communities”.

Local authorities said last week that one in every two people in Honiara now has Covid symptoms, but with the lack of testing it is hard to say exactly how many are currently ill with the virus.

Officials have struggled with the country’s vaccine rollout programme, particularly in hard-to-reach outlying islands. Misinformation and rumours have contributed to vaccine hesitancy, and getting vaccines out to remote island communities creates a major logistical challenge.

With the current outbreak, however, people are now rushing to be vaccinated. “People are lining up all day,” Manuri told the Associated Press:

I think the fear now is if it goes to the villages it will be a very serious problem.

Covid live: Israel to scrap passport system as Omicron wanes; Hong Kong battles surge in cases
© Provided by The Guardian Ships are docked offshore in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

 

11:26

Hello everyone. It’s Léonie Chao-Fong here again, taking over the live blog from Tom Ambrose to bring you all the latest global developments on the coronavirus pandemic. Feel free to get in touch on Twitter or via email.

We start with the news that the UK government may announce an end to the provision of free lateral flow tests (LFTs) next week. James Heappey, the armed forces minister, has suggested Boris Johnson may scrap free do-at-home tests when he outlines his “living with Covid” plan.

In an interview with Sky News this morning, Heappey said it was time to “reconsider” whether some measures should remain in place as he argued Britons need to “change behaviours” in the face of future variants.

Asked whether free LFTs will be “taken away”, Heappey said:

I think that is the direction of travel but the prime minister will shortly announce his conclusions on that.

There are also reports that the availability of free PCR tests could also be withdrawn as part of Boris Johnson’s blueprint for the future, amid warnings that the public could be left “flying blind” on Covid if left without free testing provision.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said ending free testing would be “a mistake, [as] Covid isn’t going away”.

Starmer said on Wednesday:

It’s still important that people test if they have symptoms or if they’re going to see someone vulnerable.

If you take away free tests, that will … make it worse in the long run. It’s not good to get rid of free tests on health grounds nor is it economically the right thing to do.

Summary

11:03

Here is a brief round-up of all the day’s top Covid news stories so far:

  • Israel’s prime minister says the country’s coronavirus vaccination “green pass” system will be suspended as new daily cases of Covid continue to decline.
  • Police in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, have warned truck drivers blockading city’s downtown to leave or face arrest in a crackdown seeking to end a three-week-long protest over Covid restrictions.
  • The Hong Kong government plans to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for Covid patients as the city battles a surge in cases and local media reported the government will make testing compulsory from March.
  • Japan is to ease its strict border controls from next month, media reports said on Thursday, after criticism from students, workers and family members who have been in effect “locked out” of the country for up to two years.
  • Restrictions introduced to curb the spread of Omicron across Australia’s two most populous states will be eased over the next week as cases continue to drop in New South Wales and Victoria.
  • Moderna has applied for patents in South Africa relating to its Covid vaccine, prompting fears the company could eventually seek to prevent a new African vaccine manufacturing hub from making its own version of the mRNA shot.
  • Most Covid deaths in Australia have affected migrants, with people born in the Middle East suffering the highest death rate, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show.
  • In the UK, cabinet splits have emerged over the government’s “living with Covid” strategy, with Sajid Javid expected to push to retain some free testing and community surveillance of the virus in the face of a Treasury demand to slash the budget.

That’s it from me, Tom Ambrose, for today. I’ll be back tomorrow but my colleague Léonie Chao-Fong will be along shortly to continue bringing you the latest coronavirus stories from around the world. Bye for now.

 

10:27

Moderna has applied for patents in South Africa relating to its Covid vaccine, prompting fears that the company could eventually seek to prevent a new African vaccine manufacturing hub from making its own version of the mRNA shot.

Moderna’s spokesperson Colleen Hussey confirmed it had filed for patents “related to both the Covid vaccine and Moderna’s platform technology” in South Africa and elsewhere, after a group of 60 Africa-based charities raised concerns about them, but said the move would not block vaccine distribution in Africa.

She reiterated Moderna’s October 2020 pledge not to enforce its Covid-related patents during the coronavirus pandemic.

But South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics, which used the publicly available sequence of Moderna’s vaccine to make its own version of the vaccine, said it had received no communication from the company about the patent filings. It plans to start making and distributing across Africa in November.

Israel to scrap Covid passport system as Omicron wanes

09:59

Israel’s prime minister says the country’s coronavirus vaccination “green pass” system will be suspended as new daily cases of Covid continue to decline.

Naftali Bennett said on Thursday after meeting health officials that Israel’s Omicron wave “has been broken” and that additional reductions in coronavirus restrictions were forthcoming.

The green pass system, Israel’s digital vaccination passport, limited entry to indoor venues and large gatherings to people who had recovered from coronavirus or received at least three doses of the vaccine.

Although new infections remain high, Israel’s health ministry has reported a steady decline in serious cases of Covid since the peak of the country’s Omicron wave earlier in February.

Hong Kong to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for Covid cases

09:32

Hello, Tom Ambrose here. I’ll be bringing you the latest Covid news over the next couple of hours.

We begin with news that the Hong Kong government plans to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for Covid patients as the city battles a surge in cases and local media reported the government will make testing compulsory from March.

The chief executive, Carrie Lam, renewed an appeal for support from the global financial hub’s 7.5 million people, many of whom are fatigued by some of the world’s most stringent restrictions even as most other major cities adjust to living with the virus.

Daily infections have surged by more than 40 times since the start of February and authorities have shut schools, gyms cinemas and most public venues. Many office employees have reverted to working from home.

Lam’s comments, in a statement released late on Wednesday, came after the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, told Hong Kong’s leaders their “overriding mission” was to stabilise and control coronavirus in the global financial hub.

Covid live: Israel to scrap passport system as Omicron wanes; Hong Kong battles surge in cases
© Provided by The Guardian Medical staff work among patients lying in beds at a makeshift treatment area outside a hospital in Hong Kong. Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters

“With the utmost concern and staunch support of President Xi Jinping … all in society must now join hands in riding out the fifth wave of the epidemic, displaying the Hong Kong spirit in full,” she said.

“I am optimistic that, through the joint efforts by the government and hotel sector, at least 10,000 hotel rooms could be made available.”

In a move to free up beds for isolation, Lam said she had spoken with local hotel owners and the security chief, Chris Tang, would oversee the operation of participating hotels.

Hong Kong was expected to report around 5,000 new cases on Thursday, Now TV reported, up from the previous day’s record high of 4,285 confirmed infections and an additional 7,000 preliminary positive cases.

Police in Ottawa warn truck drivers over blockade

09:31

Police in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, have warned truck drivers blockading city’s downtown to leave or face arrest in a crackdown seeking to end a three-week-old protest over Covid restrictions.

The interim police chief Steve Bell vowed “to take back the entirety of the downtown core and every occupied space” in “coming days”, Reuters reported.

The federal public safety minister, Marco Mendicino, accused extremist groups of helping organise protests in Ottawa and at US border crossings and repeated suggestions that some actors wanted to overthrow the Liberal government.

Police handed leaflets to truckers that said “You must leave the area now. Anyone blocking streets … may be arrested.” Police also ticketed some of the hundreds of vehicles blocking Ottawa’s downtown.

At least one large rig left while some demonstrators put the leaflets into a toilet placed in front of a truck. Some truckers blew their horns in violation of a court order forbidding such behaviour.

Wendell Thorndyke, who has parked in front of parliament for 21 days, insisted he had no intention of leaving. “We think it’s cute. They turned all the cops into meter maids,” he said as he filled his engine with oil.

Covid live: Israel to scrap passport system as Omicron wanes; Hong Kong battles surge in cases
© Provided by The Guardian A shirtless protester participates in a blockade of downtown streets near the parliament building in Ottawa. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

09:29 Melissa Davey

Most Covid deaths in Australia have affected migrants, with people born in the Middle East suffering the highest death rate, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show.

Despite just 26% of Australians being born overseas, new ABS data shows there were 2.3 Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people born in Australia, compared with 6.8 for those born overseas.

Experts say Australia’s reliance on migrants to undertake essential, insecure work and a failure to engage migrant communities early in pandemic planning is a key reason for this.

The ABS data also supports previous data gathered throughout the pandemic that found deaths are higher in older populations and in people with pre-existing conditions. Almost 70% of death certificates in Australia reported pre-existing chronic conditions such as dementia and diabetes, according to the data which analysed 2,639 deaths where people died with or from Covid-19 from the start of the pandemic to 31 January 2022.

The ABS expects to receive further data for this period once it receives information from the jurisdictional registries of deaths.

Related: Covid death rate three times higher among migrants than those born in Australia

 

09:28 Rowena Mason

In the UK, cabinet splits have emerged over the government’s “living with Covid” strategy, with Sajid Javid expected to push to retain some free testing and community surveillance of the virus in the face of a Treasury demand to slash the budget.

Ministers including the health secretary and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are expected to meet on Thursday to discuss the strategy before it is announced next week.

The Guardian revealed this week that Sunak’s Treasury is seeking to cut the budget for remaining Covid provisions by up to 90%, from £15bn this year to as little as £1.3bn in future years.

The plans are likely to involve an end to all free PCR testing from March except for 1.3 million of the most vulnerable people, as well as in hospitals and high-risk settings, and an end to free asymptomatic testing with lateral flow tests (LFTs). However, there is an ongoing debate over the level of funding for free LFTs for those with Covid symptoms.

Related: Cabinet splits emerge over ‘living with Covid’ strategy and free testing

 

09:28 Benita Kolovos

Restrictions introduced to curb the spread of Omicron across Australia’s two most populous states will be eased over the next week as cases continue to drop in New South Wales and Victoria.

The changes, similar across both states, will begin to take effect from Friday. However, the lifting of the indoor mask mandate remains another week away.

In Victoria, from 6pm on Friday, density limits at hospitality and entertainment venues will be removed, dancefloors can reopen and QR code checkins will no longer be required in retail settings, schools and many workplaces.

In New South Wales, from 12.01am on Friday, density limits will be scrapped, QR codes will remain only for nightclubs and music festivals with more than 1,000 attenders, and singing and dancing can resume at venues other than at festivals.

The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, also announced that the recommendation to work from home would be lifted, returning it to the employer’s discretion. However, masks will still be required until 25 February.

“These changes are measured and proportionate to the circumstances we find ourselves in and are particularly due to the efforts of everybody across our state,” he said.

Related: Victoria and NSW ease Covid restrictions but indoor mask mandates remain for now

 

07:50 Justin McCurry

Japan is to ease its strict border controls from next month, media reports said on Thursday, after criticism from students, workers and family members who have been in effect “locked out” of the country for up to two years.

The restrictions, which limit arrivals to Japanese citizens and returning foreign residents, have affected 150,000 students, triggering accusations from politicians and business leaders that the ban is damaging the country’s economy and international image.

Japan briefly relaxed the rules last year but tightened them again in November in an attempt to prevent the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The opening up will be incremental, however, and will not apply to tourists. The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, is expected to announce later on Thursday an increase in daily arrivals from 3,500 to 5,000, as well as a reduction in quarantine from a week to three days for people with a negative test result and proof they have had a booster shot.

Related: Japan to ease Covid border controls after two years of ‘seclusion policy’

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