Covid live: Switzerland tightens restrictions amid surge in cases; nearly 1m Germans currently infected

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Covid live: Switzerland tightens restrictions amid surge in cases; nearly 1m Germans currently infected
© Photograph: Michael Buholzer/EPA Commuters wear face masks on a public train in Zurich, Switzerland. The government has urged people to work from home.

LIVE – Updated at 14:16

Swiss government reinforces mask rules and message to work from home; Germany’s Jens Spahn says more than 1% of population have Covid.

 

14:16

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) chief scientist has urged people not panic over the emergence of the Omicron variant and said it was too early to say if COVID-19 vaccines would have to be modified to fight it.

Speaking on Friday in an interview at the Reuters Next conference, Soumya Swaminathan also said it was impossible to predict if Omicron would become the dominant strain.

Swaminathan said that the right response was to be ready.

“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.

“Delta accounts for 99% of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it’s not possible to predict.”

Much remains unknown about Omicron, which has been detected in more than two dozen countries as parts of Europe grapple with a wave of infections of the more familiar Delta variant.

“We need to wait, lets hope it’s milder … but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said.

Switzerland tightens restrictions and reinforces message to work from home

13:36

Switzerland announced stronger anti-Covid-19 measures on Friday, as its government battles to contain a surge in infections and the arrival of the Omicron variant in the country.

The country will expand the requirement to wear masks and produce a certificate to prove a person is vaccinated or has recovered from the virus, the government said.

Masks will have to be worn indoors wherever a certificate obligation applies, Reuters reports.

The government also reinforced its message for people to work from home, while allowing events and venues to restrict entry only to people who are vaccinated or recovered.

The measures will go into effect on Monday, Dec. 6 and be effective until Jan. 24.

“The Federal Council currently assesses the situation as very critical,” the government said in a statement. “The emergence of the Omicron variant also poses new challenges for pandemic response.”

Three cases of the Omicron variant have already been confirmed in Switzerland, according to the Federal Office for Public Health, with persons placed in isolation and their contacts quarantined.

The country of 8.7 million is also battling an increase in infections, with more than 96,000 cases confirmed in the last 14 days. Nov. 29 saw the highest number of infections since the start of the crisis, with 11,340 cases reported.

Switzerland has also tightened entry restrictions, insisting travellers from 23 countries must present negative test results and quarantine for 10 days.

The government said countries would be removed from the quarantine list from Dec. 4, although it would use introduce a stricter testing obligation upon entry into the country.

 

13:14 Peter Beaumont

The pace of Covid infections in the South African province of Gauteng is outstripping anything seen in previous waves, and officials say Omicron is now the dominant variant.

Angelique Coetzee, the chair of the South African Medical Association, said Omicron’s ability to spread – its R number – was believed to be above 6. The R number for Delta, the dominant variant globally, is estimated to be above 5.

Speaking to the BBC’s PM programme, Coetzee said: “We know currently that the virus is transmissible. According to the scientists, the R value is 6.3, I think.”

In Gauteng, the populous province that includes Johannesburg and is the centre of the outbreak, public health officials say case positivity rates have climbed from 2% in mid-November to 24% this week.

However, most of the cases seen in the province so far, including by Coetzee, have been described as mild, with the majority of infections concentrated in younger patients who make up a significantly greater proportion of the country’s unvaccinated.

Prof Bruce Mellado, who advises the provincial government, told the Daily Maverick that health officials had seen such a rapid increase in cases in Gauteng over the past few weeks that they had had to recalibrate their projection models.

The increase was at a rate not seen before, he said, not even in the third wave, which Mellado described as a “very serious situation”.

Other officials in the province described a 20% rise in the seven-day rolling average of daily Covid cases, and increasing hospital admissions, driven by Omicron.

Read the full report here:

Related: Omicron driving record rate of Covid infection in South African province

 

12:51

Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi said some of the four diplomats who first tested positive for the Omicron variant in the country had come from Europe, calling for a reversal of widespread travel bans imposed against southern African countries, Reuters reports.

Omicron, dubbed a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, has prompted many governments to impose curbs on travel from southern Africa.

While it is still not established where Omicron first emerged, on Nov. 25 South Africa, followed by Botswana a day later, announced they had detected a new variant whose mutations were different from the dominant Delta variant.

South Africa has also complained it is being punished for having identified the new variant early.

“It is unnecessary and if you ask me, for lack of a better expression, irresponsible,” Masisi said of the travel curbs, speaking in an interview with CNN on Thursday evening.

“The diplomats came from a number of countries … and they passed through a number of countries to get to Botswana.”

He declined to disclose their nationalities, only saying “some had been to Europe and some had been elsewhere”.

Asked if some had come from Europe into Botswana, he replied “indeed”.

Botswana said last week the country was investigating certain mutations of the coronavirus that were found in four foreign nationals who were in the country on a diplomatic mission. Omicron was detected in the diplomats who travelled into country on Nov. 7 and left on Nov. 11.

The country has so far reported more than 20 cases of the new variant.

Presidential spokesman Batlhalefi Leagajang told Reuters on Friday that Masisi will not disclose the countries the diplomats passed through, or their countries of origin, because “the virus should never be geo-politicized.”

Omicron has been reported in at least two dozen countries

 

12:45

More on that Italian jab-avoider:

Related: Italian man tries to dodge Covid vaccine wearing fake arm

 

12:39

Here is a summary by Reuters of the latest on the main Covid-19 vaccines.

The vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna that use mRNA technology provide the biggest boost to antibody levels when given 10-12 weeks after the second dose, a new British study has found.

The “COV-Boost” study was cited by British officials when they announced that Pfizer and Moderna were preferred for use in the country’s booster campaign, but the data has only been made publicly available now.

The study found that six of the seven boosters examined enhanced immunity after initial vaccination with Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, while all seven increased immunity when given after two doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

“A third dose will be effective for many of the vaccines we’ve tested and in many different combinations,” Professor Saul Faust, an immunologist at the University of Southampton and the trial’s lead, told reporters.

The study, published late on Thursday, found that a full dose or half dose of Pfizer or a full dose of Moderna gave a strong boost to both antibody and T-cell levels, regardless of whether the person initially received Pfizer or AstraZeneca.

“All four of the vaccination regimes most widely deployed in the UK lead to essentially the same levels of immunity and are likely to be equally effective,” said Professor Eleanor Riley, immunologist at the University of Edinburgh. She added that a policy change in booster gaps was also supported by the data.

“These data support the JCVI (vaccine committee) decision earlier this week to bring forward booster doses to 3 months after the second vaccination.”

When AstraZeneca, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and Curevac were given as boosters, they increased antibody levels for either initial vaccine, albeit to a smaller degree, the study found. However, while Valneva boosted antibodies in people initially vaccinated with AstraZeneca, it did not provide a boost for Pfizer.

The COV-Boost study pre-dated the spread of the emergent Omicron variant of concern, and Faust said he had shared samples with the UK Health Security Agency to generate data on Omicron.

The study did however find that booster shots also helped to generate a broad T-cell response against the Beta and Delta variants, which may play a key role in longer-term protection.

A separate study by Imperial College London into how initial exposure to SARS-CoV-2 shapes immune responses, also published late on Thursday, similarly found a good T-cell response to both Alpha and Delta after infection followed by vaccination

 

12:35 Philip Oltermann

Germany’s fourth wave of the pandemic could reach a “sad peak” in intensive care units around the country around Christmas, the outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, has warned as he defended the decision to bar unvaccinated people from many areas of public life.

On Thursday, the German government and heads of the federal states agreed that only those who have been vaccinated or recently recovered from Covid should be allowed in restaurants, cinemas, leisure facilities and many shops, and mooted introducing a general vaccine mandate from February.

“We should have displayed this consistency in our treatment of unvaccinated people at a much earlier stage”, said Spahn, who is due to hand over his job to a successor from the new government next Wednesday.

Spahn warned that the number of Covid-19 patients on intensive care wards would “significantly rise” above the 5,000 mark in the coming weeks and months. On Friday morning, 4,793 patients suffering from the disease are lying on intensive care beds at hospitals around Germany, about half of whom are intubated.

Read the full report here:

Related: Germany’s Covid wave could reach ‘sad peak’ at Christmas, outgoing minister says

 

12:16

A Italian man who wanted a coronavirus vaccine certificate without actually having the jab tried to play the system by presenting health workers with a fake arm, an official said Friday.

Despite the realistic skin colour, nobody was fooled by the silicone limb, and the man – in his 50s – was reported to local police following the incident on Thursday night in Biella, northwest Italy, AFP reports.

“The case borders on the ridiculous, if it were not for the fact we are talking about a gesture of enormous gravity,” the head of the Piedmont regional government, Albert Cirio, said in a statement on Facebook.

He said such an act was “unacceptable faced with the sacrifice that our entire community has paid during the pandemic, in terms of human lives, the social and economic cost.”

The fake arm incident comes ahead of a tightening of the rules Monday in Italy for people who have not yet been vaccinated against Covid-19.

 

11:57

Germany’s BioNTech should be able to adapt its coronavirus vaccine relatively quickly in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, its CEO Ugur Sahin told the Reuters Next conference on Friday.

Sahin also said that vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease, despite mutations.

BioNTech and Pfizer Inc together produced one of the first vaccines against Covid-19.

“This variant might be able to infect vaccinated people. We anticipate that infected people who have been vaccinated will still be protected against severe disease,” Sahin said.

The BioNTech chief executive also said that mutations in the virus meant it was more likely that annual vaccinations would become likely, as is the case with seasonal flu.

 

11:31

Makers of Covid-19 vaccines should gear up for the “likelihood” of needing to adjust their products to protect against the Omicron variant, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) spokesperson said on Friday.

Reuters reports Christian Lindmeier, speaking at a U.N. briefing in Geneva, said the agency was still studying the transmissibility and severity of the new variant, first reported in Southern Africa.

He said:

“It is very recommendable that vaccine manufacturers already start planning ahead and plan for the likelihood for having to adjust the existing vaccine. That’s good not just to wait until the final alarm bell rings.”

 

11:13

Two confirmed cases of the Omicron variant at a school in Switzerland has led to the entire school being quarantined, according to a report on swissinfo.ch.

Around 2,000 people, including 1,600 children at the La Châtaigneraie campus of the International School of Geneva in Founex are said to have been placed in quarantine,

On Thursday, the cantonal medical services of the cantons of Geneva and Vaud (where the school is located) took a joint decision to quarantine all pupils and staff on the campus for ten days.

The two cases are linked a family being exposed to an Omicron infected person returning from a trip to South Africa.

So far, only a few cases of Omicron have been identified in Switzerland and none in Geneva or Vaud until now, it is reported.

 

11:06

Hi. Caroline Davies here now taking over the live blog. You can get in touch on caroline.davies@theguardian.com

Today so far

11:03

  • In South Africa, in the week since it alerted the world of the new Covid variant, infections have spread faster than in the country’s three previous waves. Wassila Jassat, from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said: “We’ve seen quite a sharp increase across all age groups, particularly in the under fives,” referring to hospitalisations.
  • NICD’s head of public health Michelle Groome said the virus was spreading faster than at any point in the pandemic in Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria are located. “Preliminary data suggests Omicron is more transmissible and has some immune evasion,” she said.
  • In contrast, India’s health ministry today has said it expects the Omicron variant of coronavirus to cause less severe disease. “Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to Delta variant … the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” the ministry said in a statement. “However, scientific evidence is still evolving.”
  • Takeshi Kasai, World Health Organization regional director for the western Pacific, told a virtual media briefing: “Border controls can buy time but every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases.
  • Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn has said that more than 1% of the population is currently infected with the coronavirus. He said that the number of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population.
  • Slovakia reported 15,278 new Covid-19 cases, the highest number in a single day since the pandemic broke out
  • In Norway at least 17 people who came down with Covid-19 after a Christmas party gathering of more than 100 guests in Oslo are suspected of having the Omicron variant, city officials said.
  • Conservative party chair Oliver Dowden has told the UK to “keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans as already set out.”
  • Doctors in the UK have urged unvaccinated Black and south Asian people to get their Covid jabs after new data revealed hospitalisations and deaths are higher in those groups, despite infection rates being lower than in white people.
  • France’s health minister Olivier Véran said the current wave of the country’s Covid disease could peak in late January, with a renewed strain put on the country’s hospital system.
  • In Australia, the Fair Work Commission has ruled a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for all workers at BHP’s Mt Arthur coalmine was unlawful because the company did not consult adequately with its workers.

That it is from me, Martin Belam, this week. I will be back on Monday. Miranda Bryant has our UK politics and Covid live blog. Caroline Davies will be here shortly to continue bringing you the latest coronavirus developments from around the world.

German health minister: 1% of the population is infected

10:44

Germany’s health minister has said that more than 1% of the population is currently infected with the coronavirus, and he called on citizens to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so yet.

The country confirmed 74,352 new daily Covid-19 cases and 390 additional deaths. According to the Robert Koch Institute’s calculations, some 925,800 people in Germany are considered actively infected with the virus.

Health Minister Jens Spahn noted that the number of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population.

Reuters report he told reporters in Berlin “If all German adults were vaccinated, we wouldn’t be in this difficult situation.”

Spahn spoke a day after federal and state leaders announced tough new restrictions that largely target unvaccinated people, preventing them from entering nonessential stores, restaurants, sports and cultural venues. The government also plans to submit a general vaccine mandate for parliament to consider.

Spahn, who is likely to leave office next week when Germany’s new center-left government takes office, has opposed compulsory vaccination and made clear that he would vote against the measure.

 

10:26

At least 17 people who came down with Covid-19 after a Christmas party gathering of more than 100 guests in Oslo last week are suspected of having the Omicron variant, city officials said on Friday.

The number is likely to grow as sequencing is carried out on other positive tests from party-goers.

“So far 60 people have tested positive (for Covid) with PCR tests, and four with antigen tests,” the city of Oslo said in a statement.

“Seventeen are probably Omicron, but that has yet to be confirmed. So far, one case is confirmed to be Omicron after sequencing,” it said.

Between 100 and 120 people – all of whom were vaccinated, including one who had recently travelled to southern Africa – had gathered last Friday for a Christmas party organised by their employer.

“All of them had been vaccinated, none of them had symptoms and they had all done self-tests” before attending the dinner, city health official Tine Ravlo told Agence France-Presse.

“Everything was done in line with regulations and no rules were broken,” she said.

 

09:53

Majid Maqbool reports from Ukhoo on the economic impact Covid school closures have had on industry in the area:

School closures in India during the pandemic have left their mark on more than the children who have seen delays to their learning. In one Kashmiri village the impact has been catastrophic on employment.

Pick up a pencil anywhere across India and it is likely to come from the poplar trees of Ukhoo.

This village, with an abundance of trees, about 10 miles south of Srinagar city in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, supplies more than 90% of the wood used by India’s pencil manufacturers, which export to more than 150 countries.

Before Covid, more than 2,500 people worked in the village’s 17 pencil factories and the industry supported about 250 families.

But, after nearly two years of school closures and a dramatic drop in demand for the village’s products, factory owners reduced their workforce by more than half.

Workers were dismissed without pay, while many of those who kept their jobs had migrated from other parts of India, and were cheaper to employ. Now the village and its workforce are waiting eagerly for the market to revive.

Rajesh Kumar, 26, from Bihar, has worked in Ukhoo for seven years. Like other migrant workers, he lives in a room on the factory premises and works 10- to 12-hour shifts. During lockdown last year, the factory owner provided food and accommodation when production shutdown for about three months. He is one of the luckier ones to be back working now.

“I hope the pencil demand increases and these factories are full of workers again, as many of our friends and people from our villages find work [here] and are able to make a living,” says Kumar.

Read more of Majid Maqbool’s report here: India’s ‘pencil village’ counts the cost of Covid school closures

Related: India’s ‘pencil village’ counts the cost of Covid school closures

 

09:50

Miranda Bryant has launched our combined UK politics and Covid live blog for the day. You can find that here.

Related: UK Covid live: ‘keep calm and carry on’ with Christmas plans, says minister despite high case numbers

I’ll be continuing with the latest global coronavirus developments on this live blog.

India’s health ministry says it expects severity of disease associated with Omicron to be ‘low’

09:45

I mentioned earlier Prof Saul Faust saying that anybody talking about the impact of Omicron at the moment is speculating, as there is not yet sufficient data to conclude how it will behave. With that caveat in mind, India’s health ministry today has said it expects the Omicron variant of coronavirus to cause less severe disease.

“Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to Delta variant … the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” the ministry said in a statement. “However, scientific evidence is still evolving.”

Both of India’s first two Omicron patients, reported on Thursday, showed mild symptoms, the ministry added.

But concern over the prospect of a third wave of infections has grown after the variant was found in the southern state of Karnataka, in one person with no recent travel history.

Krishna N Das and Anuron Kumar Mitra report for Reuters that the ministry told parliament its immunisation experts were weighing the need for booster doses, after many lawmakers demanded a third shot for healthcare workers and the vulnerable.

It added that discussions on vaccinating the 145 million children aged between 12 and 17 were under way. The nation’s active caseload currently stands at 99,976 – the lowest since March 2020.

Slovakia sets new record for daily Covid cases

09:45

Slovakia reported 15,278 new Covid-19 cases, the highest number in a single day since the pandemic broke out, health ministry data showed.

The country of 5.5 million has 3,404 people hospitalised with the illness, including 630 in intensive care. Reuters notes that Slovakia has one of European Union’s lowest rates of vaccination uptake.

Here’s an updated map showing the latest caseload rates in Europe.

 

09:44

Agence France-Presse has this round-up of the situation in South Africa, reporting that in the week since it alerted the world of the new Covid variant, infections have spread faster than in the country’s three previous waves.

The first cluster of cases centred around university students, and then spread quickly among young people who seem to have spread it to older people.

But scientists and health officials said they had seen increasing hospital admissions in children under five, along with higher positivity rates among children aged 10-14.

Wassila Jassat, from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said: “We’ve seen quite a sharp increase across all age groups, particularly in the under fives,” referring to hospitalisations.

“The incidence in those under-fives is now second-highest, and second only to the incidence in those over 60,” she told a news conference.

Scientists cited several possible reasons. One is that children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines in South Africa. Doctors have reported anecdotally that both children and parents testing positive have not been vaccinated, she said.

NICD’s head of public health Michelle Groome said the virus was spreading faster than at any point in the pandemic in Gauteng, the province where Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria are located.

“Preliminary data suggests Omicron is more transmissible and has some immune evasion,” she said.

 

08:33

French health minister Olivier Véran said the current wave of the country’s Covid disease could peak in late January, with a renewed strain put on the country’s hospital system.

“The fifth wave in spreading quickly. It has a very noticeable impact on the hospital system,” Reuters reports Véran told France Info radio.

This new wave, with France reporting on Thursday close to 50,000 new infections for the third day running, is due to the Delta variant. France has reported nine cases of the Omicron variant on the mainland.

 

08:33

WalesOnline has an update this morning on the situation with Cardiff Rugby, who have been stranded in South Africa since new restrictions were placed on travel from the region back to England and Wales. Corrie David writes:

The touring party from the Arms Park have now confirmed their return home, with six players remaining in a quarantine hotel in Cape Town after testing positive. The departure is the team’s fourth attempt at leaving South Africa.

Initially, the touring party attempted to return home prior to the Sunday 4am cut-off point to avoid isolating in a hotel rather than at home. Their second flight was due to fly out on Sunday afternoon. Cardiff Rugby were then hit with the news of two team-mates testing positive with one suspected Omicron case, and they were forced to return to their hotel to isolate.

UK-bound. We’ll see you very soon. pic.twitter.com/bWo8nVVKsS

— Cardiff Rugby (@Cardiff_Rugby) December 3, 2021

 

08:19 Stephanie Convery

In Australia, the Fair Work Commission has ruled a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for all workers at BHP’s Mt Arthur coalmine was unlawful because the company did not consult adequately with its workers.

Approximately 50 mine workers were stood down without pay last month after they were told they would be required to have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine to enter the work site after 9 November, and that they would need to be fully vaccinated by 31 January next year.

The dispute between management of the Mt Arthur open cut coalmine in NSW’s Hunter Valley and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) was escalated to a hearing by the full bench of the Fair Work Commission in November.

Read more of Stephanie Convery’s report here: Fair Work Commission rules BHP vaccine mandate unlawful due to lack of consultation

Related: Fair Work Commission rules BHP vaccine mandate unlawful due to lack of consultation

Black and south Asian people in UK urged to get jabs to cut higher Covid death rates

07:47 Ian Sample

Doctors in the UK have urged unvaccinated Black and south Asian people to get their Covid jabs after new data revealed hospitalisations and deaths are higher in those groups, despite infection rates being lower than in white people.

Infections were higher in many Black and Asian groups during Britain’s first two waves of Covid but recently the pattern has shifted, with infections now more common among white people, even though their death rates remain relatively low.

The data, published on Friday in the final government report on understanding and tackling Covid-19 disparities, suggest that poor vaccine coverage is now a major reason for severe Covid in some black and Asian groups, despite programmes to improve underwhelming vaccine uptake.

Dr Raghib Ali, the government’s independent adviser on Covid-19 and ethnicity, and the author of the report, said evidence gathered over the past year showed that higher death rates seen in ethnic minorities in the first two waves of the pandemic were primarily due to a higher risk of infection, particularly among older people.

Read the full story here.

Related: Black and south Asian people in UK urged to get jabs to cut higher Covid death rates

 

07:46

Sri Lanka’s health authorities on Friday said they have identified the first Omicron patient in the country.

The health ministry said the new Covid-19 variant was identified in a Sri Lankan national who had recently returned from South Africa.

“As a result of our vigilance we have been able to identify an Omicron patient following gene sequencing lab tests. There is no need for us to panic over this. We are dealing with the situation,” Dr Hemantha Herath, deputy director of health services told reporters.

 

07:46

South Africa is facing an “unprecedented rise” in new Covid-19 cases over a short time due to the Omicron variant, top scientist Michelle Groome of South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said on Friday.

Groome told a media briefing that although additional data on the variant detected in the country last month is still needed on the severity and transmissibility of the variant, the country was starting to see infections move from the younger age cohort into older people.

Reuters reports she said it was important for surge preparedness to include paediatric beds and staff as there has been increased admissions among children under four years of age.

 

07:45

Prof Saul Faust is director of the NIHR Clinical Research Facility at University hospital Southampton NHS foundation trust and trial lead on a major study that shows booster vaccines may well offer good protection in the face of the Omicron variant.

He has been on BBC radio in the UK this morning saying it is far too early to know how booster jabs will interact with the new variant. PA Media quotes him saying:

Nobody can tell you with any degree of certainty what the boosters might do, and if they do they’re speculating, actually. What we can say is that samples from the study have gone to the UK Health Security Agency for testing and they’ll be available, we hope, in due course.

He said the levels of antibody that they were seeing from the boosters are “so much higher” than the first two doses.

 

07:25

The other thrust of questioning for Conservative party chair Oliver Dowden on Sky News in the UK was about people stranded in South Africa and unable to return home to the UK because of a lack of hotel quarantine capacity. He attempted to reassure viewers that there would be capacity for anybody wishing to return from the region. He said:

We do have to take the risks associated with this new variant seriously, and the government doesn’t want to impose any more restrictions than necessary. But because of the origins of this virus in South Africa, we had to move rapidly to impose those restrictions on South Africa. That’s why we did it. Immediately. Of course, we’ll make sure that the appropriate facilities are in in place for people. But the reason why we did that, and this whole strategy, is about making sure that we limit the spread of the Omicron variant at this stage whilst we we look at the effects of it.

It isn’t strictly true to say that the variant had origins in South Africa – it was first sequenced and detected there but that doesn’t necessarily mean South Africa was the origin of the outbreak.

Oliver Dowden: ‘keep calm and carry on your Christmas plans’

07:12

Conservative chair Oliver Dowden has planted his flag very firmly in the pro-Christmas party camp in the UK this morning on Sky News. He said:

All of our advice is based on scientific evidence and indeed, the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser attended cabinet when we discussed this earlier this week. That’s why we’ve gone for this balanced and proportionate set of measures.

So it is the case that, unlike previously in England, people will have to wear masks on public transport, and they’ll have to wear masks in retail settings. We’ve very much tightened up the border restrictions.

But beyond that, we believe those are necessary and appropriate steps, but beyond that, people can carry on with their plans as before. So I would say to people, just keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans as already set out.

 

07:04

Hello, it is Martin Belam here in London taking over the live blog for the next few hours. The UK media round is being handled for the government by Conservative chairman Oliver Dowden today. I’ll have any Covid lines that emerge from that – presumably a lot of questions about Christmas parties again.

Here are the latest coronavirus figures for the UK.

Over the last seven days there have been 311,957 new coronavirus cases recorded in the UK. Cases have increased by 2.8% week-on-week.

There have been 848 deaths recorded in the last week. Deaths have decreased by 3% week-on-week.

Hospital admissions have decreased by 6.5% week-on-week. At the latest count on the UK government’s own dashboard, there were 7,644 people in hospital in total, of whom 931 are in ventilation beds.

South Africa entering fourth wave of Covid infections: health minister

06:46

South African health minister Joe Phaahla said on Friday the country was entering its fourth wave of Covid-19 infections due to the Omicron variant, but hospitals were not under threat at this stage.

Phaahla told a virtual media briefing that infections with the new variant were now present in seven out of the country’s nine provinces, and hoped that the variant could be managed without causing too many deaths.

He urged South Africans to be fully vaccinated, saying that was the best protection against Omicron.

Phaahla expressed his “outrage and disappointment” at the countries who have so far initiated travel bans on southern African nations, describing the decision as as “destructive path” that “undermines international cooperation and solidarity”.

Phaahla described the recent rise in Covid cases across the nation as “very steep” with new cases increasing by more than 300% over the past seven days.

“Every area in the country is starting to register high levels of the infection,” he said.

“This variant is indeed highly transmissible including in people who have already been vaccinated.”

Just over 42% of all adults have received at least one vaccination dose in South Africa, Phaahla said.

 

06:31

France confirms nine cases of the Omicron variant on the mainland, the health ministry has said.

We will have more details as the story develops.

WHO urges Asia-Pacific to ready for Omicron surge

05:59

Asia-Pacific countries should boost their healthcare capacity and fully vaccinate their people to prepare for a surge in Covid-19 cases fuelled by the Omicron variant, World Health Organization (WHO) officials warned on Friday.

Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the western Pacific, told a virtual media briefing:

“Border controls can buy time but every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases.

People should not only rely on border measures. What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don’t have to change our approach.”

Kasai said countries must utilise lessons learned from dealing with the Delta variant and urged them to fully vaccinate vulnerable groups and implement preventive measures such as mask wearing and social distancing rules.

 

05:47

The nations with the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns have been broken down by Agence France-Presse.

The United Arab Emirates leads the charge, having already completely vaccinated nine out of 10 of its population.

Close behind are Portugal (87%), Singapore (86%), Qatar (85%), Chile and Malta (84%), Cuba (81%), South Korea and Cambodia (80%).

The countries which fired the starting gun on the vaccination campaigns due to their privileged access to vaccines are now lagging behind.

Britain has jabbed just 68%, Israel 67% and the US 60%.

Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the least vaccinated countries in the world, having jabbed less than 0.1% of their populations.

Eritrea and North Korea are the only two countries who have not vaccinated at all.

Malaysia detects first case of Omicron

05:31

Malaysia has detected the country’s first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant, health minister Khairy Jamaluddin said on Friday.

It was detected in a foreign student who was quarantined after arrival from South Africa two weeks ago.

The 19-year-old woman, who was asymptomatic and had been vaccinated, had tested positive for Covid-19 on arrival in Malaysia, via Singapore, and was quarantined for 10 days before being released on 29 November.

Five other people who shared a vehicle with her prior to her quarantine all tested negative, Reuters reports.

Authorities, however, have asked the student along with eight close contacts to undergo further testing after her earlier test samples were confirmed to be the new variant.

Congo’s fully vaccinated just 0.06%

04:24

The Democratic Republic of Congo is struggling to vaccinate its population, ranking among the least immunised nations in the world.

In a population of 90 million, a mere 0.16% have received one dose – and this falls to just 0.06% for those who have been fully vaccinated, Agence France Presse reports.

In early March, 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, dispatched via the Covax mechanism for poorer countries, arrived in the DRC.

But authorities postponed the start of vaccinations after several European countries suspended vaccination campaigns with AstraZeneca over fears that it caused rare but serious blood clotting.

Rumours flooded social media, claiming that vaccination made people sterile or that Africans were to be used as “guinea pigs” or even killed. The coronavirus was presented as a “white man’s disease” brought into the DRC by travellers.

President Felix Tshisekedi made his suspicions of the AstraZeneca jab widely known.

“I think I was right not to be vaccinated … I had my doubts,” he said, adding that he preferred to wait for other vaccines before taking the plunge.

Many Congolese say they have not been vaccinated “yet” or are waiting to see, but among others, scepticism runs deep.

“They say that vaccines in Europe are not the same as here,” Emmanuel, a 62-year-old police officer, told AFP by way of explanation.

“In my opinion, Covid does not exist,” Fabrice, a 21-year-old architecture student, said, adding he did not even know anyone who has caught it.

Covid live: Switzerland tightens restrictions amid surge in cases; nearly 1m Germans currently infected
© Provided by The Guardian The city of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo seen on 27 November. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

 

03:56

India has just released its daily Covid figures.

A total of 9,216 new cases have been reported in the last 24 hours, according to a ministry of health update.

The nation’s active caseload currently stands at 99,976 – the lowest since March 2020.

Summary

03:50

Here’s a quick rundown of all the key developments that have unfolded over the past few hours.

  • California is reporting its second confirmed case of the Omicron variant in as many days.
  • Two more US states report the Omicron variant. Hawaii says it detected a case in an unvaccinated Hawaii resident with no recent travel history. New York reported five cases.
  • New Zealand’s largest city of Auckland celebrates after emerging from a gruelling 107 days in lockdown.
  • South Korea reports another 4,944 cases of Covid-19 and 34 deaths. The figures are a drop on Thursday’s record of more than 5,200 daily infections as concern grows over the sharp rise in patients with severe symptoms.
  • South Africa reports another 11,535 new cases and 44 deaths – a significant jump from Wednesday’s 8,561 new cases, up from 4,373 the day before and 2,273 on Monday.
  • A continuing outbreak in a Chinese city of Manzhouli on the Russian border has prompted more freight shutdowns as authorities seek to control it. The country reported 96 new Covid cases for 2 December, up from 73 cases a day earlier.
  • China will reduce the time needed for approval of travel by US business executives to no more than 10 days.
  • Germany is reporting a further 74,352 new daily Covid cases and 390 deaths, according to recently released figures from the Robert Koch Institute.
  • Panama and Nepal both join the growing list of countries on Thursday to move to temporarily ban the entry of travellers from eight African countries due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant.

 

03:23

Panama has joined the growing list of countries on Thursday to move to temporarily ban the entry of travellers from eight African countries due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant.

The restriction applies to travellers who have been to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe or Malawi within a two-week period, Panama’s government said in a statement, Reuters reports.

Panamanians and residents of the country who are vaccinated must present a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of arriving in the country, while those who are not inoculated must place themselves in “preventative quarantine,” the government said.

 

03:12 Helen Davidson

A continuing outbreak in a Chinese city on the Russian border has prompted more freight shutdowns as authorities seek to control it.

More than 150 cases have been recorded in the city of Manzhouli since 28 November, centred around the freight hub. On Tuesday it reported another 53 locally transmitted cases. On Wednesday the city, in the northern China region of Inner Mongolia, said it would halt cargo loading and unloading and customs transportation and clearance at the highway port of entry.

The city had already closed several cargo yards as a result of the cases, and flights, trains, coaches, taxis and city buses have been suspended. Schools were moved online, and hospitals have been limited to emergency care only.

Authorities had also imposed controls on city exits, temporarily closed markets and cultural, sports, leisure and entertainment establishments, and put limits on weddings, religious gatherings, and restaurants. The more than 300,000 people who live in the city were ordered to get tested.

Covid live: Switzerland tightens restrictions amid surge in cases; nearly 1m Germans currently infected
© Provided by The Guardian Residents line up for a Covid-19 test following new cases, in Manzhouli. A total of 150 cases have been recorded in the city since 28 November, one of the largest outbreaks in China. Photograph: Reuters

 

03:06

Nepal will ban the entry of travellers who have been in eight African countries or Hong Kong, to curb the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, a government spokesman said on Friday.

The ban, which goes into effect at midnight on Friday, covers people who have been in or transiting through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi and Hong Kong.

Travellers who have been to these countries in the past three weeks will also not be allowed to enter Nepal, and all other international visitors already in transit must spend seven days at their own cost in hotel quarantine, the government said in a statement.

“Nepali nationals are advised against non-essential foreign travel for fear of the new variant,” Home Ministry spokesman Phanindra Pokharel told Reuters.

 

02:58

Germany is reporting a further 74,352 new daily Covid cases and 390 deaths, according to recently released figures from the Robert Koch Institute.

The daily rise brings the cumulative confirmed coronavirus cases in the country to more than six million with 6,051,560 cases.

 

02:49

California is reporting its second confirmed case of the Omicron variant in as many days.

The Los Angeles County public health department says a full vaccinated county resident is self-isolating after apparently contracting the infection during a trip to South Africa last month.

The person’s symptoms are improving without medical care and some people who were in close contact with the traveller have tested negative for the virus and don’t have any symptoms, the department said in a press release.

 

02:32

As global health bodies race to roll out vaccinations, here is a detailed map of how countries across the world compare with vaccination rates.

Auckland, New Zealand, celebrates end of more than 100 day lockdown

02:15

Today marked the first day of eased Covid restrictions in New Zealand’s largest city of Auckland, after a gruelling 107 days in lockdown.

The traffic light system, announced by prime minister Jacinda Ardern in late November, ends lockdowns in favour of restrictions on the unvaccinated.

For the vaccinated, much of life opened up at midnight on Thursday: they could once again invite family and friends into their homes, plan a trip to the gym, drink in a bar, sit in a cafe and drink an espresso.

Our New Zealand reporter, Tess McClure, has the full story here.

Covid live: Switzerland tightens restrictions amid surge in cases; nearly 1m Germans currently infected
© Provided by The Guardian Two women enjoy the first day of eased Covid restrictions in New Zealand’s largest city of Auckland. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Related: ‘Electric vibe’: Auckland celebrates end of lockdown with brunch and traffic gridlock

 

01:59

China will reduce the time needed for approval of travel by US business executives to no more than 10 days, China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, said on Thursday.

Qin told a dinner hosted by the US-China Business Council that Beijing would also work to make Covid-19 testing more convenient and would allow executives to work during quarantine, Reuters reports.

He repeated Beijing’s call for Washington to abolish additional tariffs imposed on Chinese goods by the administration of former President Donald Trump.

 

01:54

Some Covid numbers out of South Africa have just been released.

Another 11,535 new cases and 44 deaths have been reported.

This is a significant jump from Wednesday’s 8,561 new cases, up from 4,373 the day before and 2,273 on Monday.

The Omicron variant has fuelled a “worrying” surge in coronavirus cases in the country and is rapidly becoming the dominant strain, local health officials have said.

Omicron appears to be reinfecting people at three times the rate of previous strains, experts in South Africa previously said.

Covid live: Switzerland tightens restrictions amid surge in cases; nearly 1m Germans currently infected
© Provided by The Guardian People queue to be vaccinated against Covid-19 at the Lenasia South Hospital, near Johannesburg on 1 December as the Omicron variant spreads across the country. Photograph: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP

As of today the cumulative number of #COVID19 cases identified in SA is 2 988 148 with 11 535 new cases reported. Today 44?deaths have been reported bringing the total to 89 915 deaths. The cumulative number of recoveries now stand at 2 850 905 with a recovery rate of 95,4% pic.twitter.com/nVLSRii28v

— Department of Health (@HealthZA) December 2, 2021

 

01:47

More daily Covid updates out of southeast and east Asia have just dropped.

Thailand has reported another 4,912 cases of Covid-19 and 33 deaths over the past 24 hours.

South Korea reports another 4,944 cases of Covid-19 and 34 deaths. The figures are a drop on Thursday’s record of more than 5,200 daily infections as concern grows over the sharp rise in patients with severe symptoms.

 

01:30

Hawaii says it has detected a case of the Omicron variant in an unvaccinated Hawaii resident with no recent travel history, the Associated Press reports.

Hawaii Epidemiologist Dr Sarah Kemble said Thursday that the adult had been infected with Covid-19 a year ago, isn’t currently hospitalised and had “mild-to-moderate” symptoms including headache, body aches and cough.

She wouldn’t identify the patient other to say the person lives on the island of Oahu.

Multiple Omicron cases detected in New York

01:27

Multiple cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in New York, health officials said Thursday, including a man who attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November and tested positive for the variant when he returned home to Minnesota.

In addition to the conventioneer, health officials said tests showed five other people recently infected with Covid-19 had the variant, the Associated Press reports.

They included a person in the city’s Long Island suburbs who had recently travelled to South Africa, residents of Brooklyn and Queens and another case possibly linked to travel.

“No cause for alarm. We just want to make sure that the public is aware of information when we receive it,” said Governor Kathy Hochul.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the geographic spread of the positive tests suggested the variant was undergoing “community spread” in the city, and wasn’t linked to any one event.

Officials in the city of 8.8 million said they expected it would be only a matter of time before the new variant was reported in the city.

“We should assume there is community spread of the variant in our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

As comfort over air travel returns, it’s inevitable that new variants like Omicron will spread from country to country and state to state, said professor Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.

“We shouldn’t panic, but we should be concerned,” she said.

Covid live: Switzerland tightens restrictions amid surge in cases; nearly 1m Germans currently infected
© Provided by The Guardian Passengers ride the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York City as the Omicron variant is detected. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

 

01:10

China has reported 96 new confirmed Covid cases for 2 December, up from 73 cases a day earlier, its health authority said on Friday.

Of the new infections, 80 were locally transmitted, according to a statement by the National Health Commission, compared with 53 a day earlier.

China reported 24 new asymptomatic cases, which it classifies separately from confirmed cases, compared with 13 a day earlier.

There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636. As of 2 December, mainland China had 98,993 confirmed cases.

 

00:45

Hi I’m Samantha Lock and welcome to our Friday Covid blog.

I’ll be giving you a rundown of the latest coronavirus updates as they happen.

Let’s start off with the news that multiple cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in New York, health officials said late Thursday, including a man who attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November and tested positive for the variant when he returned home to Minnesota.

Health officials also said tests showed five other people recently infected with Covid-19 had the variant in the city’s Long Island suburbs as well as Brooklyn and Queens, the Associated Press reports.

Governor Kathy Hochul said the cases were “no cause for alarm” as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the geographic spread of the positive tests suggested the variant was undergoing “community spread” in the city.

  • US president Joe Biden announced a new nationwide coronavirus battle plan.
  • Scientists believe they may have found the trigger behind the extremely rare blood clot complications stemming from the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine.
  • South African officials say the Omicron variant is fuelling an “exponential” rise in Covid cases across the country. The variant was found to account for three-quarters of all the virus genomes sequenced last month.
  • Indonesia tightened border curbs, extended quarantine and will limit movement on strategic toll roads, in a preemptive move to limit the spread of the Omicron Covid variant.
  • Sweden warned it could impose new restrictions as soon as next week.
  • Germany imposes restrictions on unvaccinated and mandatory Covid vaccinations from February, outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced.
  • German health authorities reported the first confirmed case of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the capital Berlin.
  • India detected two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in the southern state of Karnataka.
  • Finland detected its first case of the Omicron variant in a person who had travelled from Sweden.
  • Greece detected its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant on the island of Crete.
  • The European Union’s public health agency predicts the Omicron variant could be responsible for more than half of all Covid infections in Europe within a few months.
  • Omicron may cause more Covid reinfections, South African health experts say.
  • New US rules requiring international air travellers to obtain a negative Covid-19 test within one day of travel will take effect Monday.
  • UK drugs watchdog approved new Covid treatment Xevudy.
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