Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise' Omicron, lab tests show

LIVE – Updated at 16:28

Latest figures come amid concern over spread of Omicron variant; Pfizer says third jab increased antibodies by factor of 25.

 

16:28

Austria has cancelled its famous Vienna Opera Ball for the second year running over the coronavirus pandemic, the government said.

Keeping the February 24, 2022 date would have sent “the wrong signal” as the country is only to start emerging from a partial lockdown this Sunday, state secretary for culture Andrea Mayer said.

“The Opera Ball is typically the kind of event at which social distancing is impossible,” she told the Austrian news agency APA.

The ball, a major event in Austria’s cultural calendar attended by the country’s political and economic elites as well as foreign celebrities, was also cancelled last year over the Covid-19 pandemic.

South Africa to offer Pfizer booster shots to over-18s

16:25

South Africa has approved Pfizer’s coronavirus booster shots for over-18s, as the Omicron variant dominates rising new infections.

The South African Health Products Authority said in a statement that it was authorising a third vaccine dose “in individuals aged 18 years and older, to be administered at least six months after the second dose”.

Severely immuno-compromised children aged between 12 and 17 years can be given a third shot at least 28 days after their second dose, it added.

The statement came hours after BioNTech and Pfizer announced that two doses of their vaccine may not be enough to protect against the highly-mutating Omicron variant which is causing global concern that it can transmit faster than previous strains.

In preliminary results released on Wednesday, the pharmaceutical companies stressed their jab “is still effective in preventing Covid-19, also against Omicron” after a third shot.

Preliminary results from a small study in South Africa suggested there was up to a 40-fold drop in the ability of the antibodies from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to neutralise Omicron, compared to the earlier Beta variant of coronavirus.

With a cumulative tally of 3,051,222 detected infections and 90,002 deaths, Covid has hit South Africa harder than any other country on the continent.

 

16:22

The Omicron variant of Covid has been detected so far in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and the United States, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). It said Covid infections were increasing in Canada and Mexico’s Baja California.

UK reports 51,342 new Covid infections and 161 deaths

16:20

UK figures show 51,342 new people had a confirmed positive test result reported on 8 December 2021.

Between 2 and 8 December, 339,861 people had a confirmed positive test result, an increase of 11.3% compared to the previous week.

There were 161 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for coronavirus.

 

16:19

Italy has reported 17,959 Coronavirus cases, up from 15,756 on Tuesday.

Elsewhere, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia contrinue to see an increase in cases, while Ecuador, Chile and Argentina saw a drop.

 

16:13

Governments should urgently reassess their national responses to Covid-19 and accelerate their vaccination programmes to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

The global spread of the variant suggests it could have a major impact on the pandemic, and the time to contain it is now, before more Omicron patients are hospitalised, he told a news briefing.

“We call on all countries to increase surveillance, testing and sequencing,” he said. “… Any complacency now will cost lives.”

 

15:43

A bereaved relative of two Covid victims has called into question the ability of the UK prime minister Boris Johnson to continue to lead his nation through the pandemic after the allegations his staff breached rules designed to stop the spread of Covid.

Jane Roche, whose father Vince Pettitt and older sister Jocelyn Pettitt died within a week of each other in April last year, spoke after the prime minister responded to her case being raised in Parliament by urging her to get herself a booster jab.

Her MP Jack Dromey had said she was “devastated and appalled” at the allegations a party had taken place in Downing Street while the rest of the country was following the prime minister’s instructions to lock down.

Johnson apologised and replied: “I urge her and everybody else to get their booster jab and look after themselves.” Roche subsequently told the PA news agency:

I’m not happy with the heartbreak he has already caused.

Telling people to go and get their booster jabs is a kick in the teeth. I feel he is constantly letting us down … I have looked after myself, and so have thousands of others. We don’t need him telling us what to do.

It’s insensitive – very insensitive, but then I’m used to him making wrong decisions.

 

15:34

We reported earlier that BioNTech and Pfizer said a three-shot course of their vaccine was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test.

Now the former company’s chief executive has told reporters the interval between the second and third doses can be reduced to at least three months to enable better protection in the crucial winter season.

Ugur Sahin said new data would prompt a discussion about bringing the third shot of its currently available vaccine forward.

We believe this is the right way to go. It is very clear that our vaccine for the Omicron variant should be a three-dose vaccine.

 

15:29

There have also been four additional cases of the Omicron variant in Wales, the UKHSA said, and the first three cases reported in Northern Ireland. Across the UK in total, there have been 131 additional cases, bringing the total number of confirmed Omicron cases in the UK to 568, the agency said.

 

15:18

In the UK, a further 115 cases of the Omicron variant have been reported across England, the UK Health Security Agency said. It brings the total number of confirmed Omicron cases in England to 448, the agency said.

Third shot of Pfizer vaccine can neutralise Omicron variant, company says

15:15

BioNTech and Pfizer said on Wednesday a three-shot course of their Covid-19 vaccine was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test and they could deliver an Omicron-based vaccine in March 2022 if needed.

In the first official statement from vaccine manufacturers on the likely efficacy of their shot against Omicron, BioNTech and Pfizer said that two vaccine doses resulted in significantly lower neutralising antibodies but that a third dose of their vaccine increased the neutralising antibodies by a factor of 25.

Blood obtained from people that had their third booster shot a month ago neutralised the Omicron variant about as effectively as blood after two doses fought off the original virus first identified in China.

“Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” Pfizer boss Albert Bourla said in the statement.

Though the necessity remains unclear, the companies said they would continue their effort to bring an Omicron-specific Covid-19 vaccine to market, which they kick-started when the new lineage first raised global concern among scientists on 15 November.

Significant breaking news: Pfizer says 3 doses of its current Covid vaccine (2 original shots plus booster) provide as much protection vs Omicron as 2 shots provided against the original variant. Dow futures spike to up 140.

— Becky Quick (@BeckyQuick) December 8, 2021

Summary of key events

15:14

The latest stories around Coronavirus from around the world:

BioNTech and Pfizer said on Wednesday a three-shot course of their Covid-19 vaccine was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test and they could deliver an Omicron-based vaccine in March 2022 if needed. In the first official statement from vaccine manufacturers on the likely efficacy of their shot against Omicron, BioNTech and Pfizer said two vaccine doses resulted in significantly lower neutralising antibodies, but that a third dose of their vaccine increased the neutralising antibodies by a factor of 25.

• The Omicron variant has been reported in 57 nations and the number of patients needing hospitalisation is likely to rise as it spreads, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday. The WHO, in its weekly epidemiological report, said more data was needed to assess the severity of disease caused by the Omicron variant and whether its mutations might reduce protection from vaccine-derived immunity.

Germany records highest daily Covid deaths since February

Germany recorded the highest number of deaths from Covid-19 since February on Wednesday as it battled to stop a fourth wave of the pandemic.

• A total of 69,601 new infections were reported, 2,415 more than the same time a week ago, and another 527 people died – the highest number since 12 February – to bring the total to 104,047, the Robert Koch Institute for disease control said.

South Korea will consider expanding home treatment of coronavirus patients, a health official said, as both new daily infections and severe cases hit record highs, putting hospital capacity under strain. Infections in the country have skyrocketed after the government began to ease restrictions under a so-called “living with Covid-19” scheme in November.

• The EU expects European plants to produce 3.6bn shots in 2022

Vaccine plants in the European Union are expected to produce 3.6bn Covid-19 shots next year, out of a global output of more than 20bn, two senior EU officials said.

Nigeria’s health minister said some Covid-19 doses donated by rich western countries had a shelf life that left only weeks to administer the shots.

 

15:12

US stock index futures edged higher after Pfizer and BioNTech said a three-shot course of their Covid-19 vaccine was shown to have a neutralising effect against the new Omicron coronavirus variant in a laboratory test.

Shares of Pfizer rose 1.0% in premarket trading. The drugmakers added that, if needed, they can deliver an Omicron-based vaccine in March 2022.

“This is really the first positive news in terms of the potential effectiveness of existing vaccines,” said Rick Meckler, partner at Cherry Lane Investments in New Vernon, New Jersey.

“Anything that suggests we’re not headed for a period of a return to the problems we had earlier this year is a positive for most stocks.”

Travel stocks recouped earlier declines, with Norwegian Cruise Line and Alaska Air Group rising 2.6% and 1.9%, respectively.

Futures tracking US stock indexes had pared gains earlier in the day after reports said Britain could implement tougher Covid measures, including advice to work from home, as early as Thursday in a bid to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

 

15:04

Britain has urged private Covid test firms to stop exploiting travellers, after a former competitions chief said the market was a “rip-off jungle”.

“We’ve been clear it is unacceptable for any private testing company to take advantage of holidaymakers,” the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement.

“The government has taken action to drive down the cost of tests for international travel.”

The call came one day after Britain rolled out new travel curbs to try and prevent transmission of the Omicron variant.

The price of private Covid testing has fallen considerably this year in the face of pressure from the government and the travel industry.

However, Lord Andrew Tyrie, former chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority, labelled the market a “rip-off jungle”.

Tyrie told the BBC on Wednesday that “misleading online advertisements, overpricing (and) unacceptably poor service … are still widespread” in the market.

“To allow this to continue over the peak Christmas period would be scandalous,” he warned.

 

15:04

In the UK, the prime minister’s office at Downing Street would not be drawn on whether plan B measures – stricter rules to deal with the Omicron variant – were due to be put in place.

An official spokesman said Johnson had taken part in a “standard meeting” on Wednesday where he was presented with the latest data on coronavirus. He said: “We would set up any changes should they be required in the normal way.”

Asked whether people should go into work on Thursday, he added: “The restrictions are as set out, there are no restrictions on that, and as we have throughout we will update should any changes be necessary.”

Omicron spreading through UK ‘much faster’ than other variants, prime minister says

12:50

In the UK, Boris Johnson said that the Omicron Covid-19 variant was spreading much faster than other mutations.

During prime ministers questions, he was asked by the Labour leader, Kier Starmer, about reports of a Christmas party at No 10 during last year’s lockdown.

He replied that the focus should be on the spread of the concerning new Covid variant, Omicron, which he said was infecting people at a “much faster” rate than previous iterations of the virus.

 

12:08

Countries considering introducing vaccine mandates in the fight against Covid-19 must ensure they respect human rights, the UN rights chief said, stressing that forced vaccination was never acceptable.

Speaking to a Human Rights Council seminar via video message, Michelle Bachelet warned there were significant rights considerations that needed to be taken into account before making vaccination compulsory.

Any “vaccine mandates must comply with the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination”, she said, according to a transcript.

“In no circumstances should people be forcibly administered a vaccine.”

 

11:31

The first person in the world to be given a fully-tested Covid-19 vaccine, 91-year-old Briton Margaret Keenan, urged people on Wednesday to get vaccinated, one year on from her shot.

Keenan described receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on 8 December 2020 as the “best thing that has ever happened”.

“It was wonderful. I cannot believe it now, what happened at the time… I’m so happy I got the jab,” Keenan, known to friends as Maggie, said in a broadcast clip to mark the anniversary.

“I encourage everyone to have it.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson has highlighted Britain’s early success in rolling out Covid vaccines and said it is why he was able to reopen England’s economy in July.

He is now urging officials to scale up the country’s ongoing booster programme to a similar level as the initial rollout in light of concern over the new Omicron variant, which has also seen him reintroduce some mask mandates and travel restrictions.

 

11:25

In the UK, a new set of coronavirus restrictions including orders to work from home and the introduction of vaccine passports is being considered to deal with rising cases and the spread of the Omicron variant.

Downing Street sources insisted “no decisions have been made” but there is widespread speculation that further measures could be imminent.

A prominent member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned that a full UK-wide lockdown to deal with the threat of the Omicron variant cannot be ruled out, although the current threat posed by the strain remains unclear.

Any move to impose fresh restrictions would be viewed with suspicion in Westminster at a time when Johnson is under pressure over allegations No 10 staff breached lockdown rules by holding a Christmas party last December.

 

11:24

I am going to caveat this as ever by saying that most experts agree that it is too early to tell what impact the Omicron variant will have on vaccination efforts. However, Reuters is carrying a somewhat bleak analysis that has emerged from virologist Sandra Ciesek of the University hospital Frankfurt.

Stressing that she has posted only selected findings and a paper hasn’t been presented yet, she has said exposing the blood of vaccinated individuals to different virus variants, she found that the ability to mount an antibody response to Omicron in people who had three shots of BioNTech/Pfizer was up to 37 times lower than the response to Delta.

An antibody response to Omicron half a year after a two-shot regimen of Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna or a mixed course of AstraZeneca/BioNTech was not even measurable, Ciesek added.

“The set of data underscores that it makes sense to develop a vaccine that is adapted to Omicron,” Chiesek tweeted, adding that no conclusion could be drawn about protection against severe disease.

 

11:23

A quick snap from Reuters here, that the Philippines will ban travellers coming from France to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant, the presidential office said.

The ban, which applies to everyone who has been in France in the past 14 days, runs from 10-15 December. This adds to an earlier ban on travellers from South Africa and 13 other countries to prevent Omicron, which has yet to be detected in the Philippines.

Today so far

11:23

The main political Covid story of the day in the UK continues to be the fallout from the allegations that Downing Street staff held a Christmas party last year, contrary to the Covid regulations at the time.

A series of senior ministers spent a week strenuously denying it took place, and then last night a video emerged which appeared to show Downing Street staff a couple of days after the party laughing and joking about it.

I should add that in the last few minutes there has been a lot of chatter from political journalists that an announcement on imposing further Covid restrictions in England in the run-up to this Christmas is being mooted for today or tomorrow.

Andrew Sparrow has our live coverage of the politics side of that over on our UK blog.

Related: ‘They’re laughing at you’: Labour steps up pressure on Boris Johnson over No 10 Christmas party – UK politics live

On this live blog, I’m just about to be replaced by my colleague Sarah Marsh. She will be bringing you the latest Covid developments around the world, plus any of the non-political Covid lines from the UK, around the Omicron variant and booster jab programme and so forth. Here’s what we’ve been reporting so far today:

  • It is the first anniversary of the first vaccination against Covid, and it has been announced that the booster jab programme in England. Every adult aged 40 and over and all those in high-risk groups will be able to arrange their Covid booster jab to take place three months after their second dose. However, amid the Christmas party scandal, both health secretary Sajid Javid and vaccines minister Maggie Throup pulled all their media appearances.
  • Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer has said he expects to see a “rapid increase” in cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant before Christmas.
  • The former chairman of the UK competition regulator has condemned the market for PCR tests for travellers, describing it as a “rip-off jungle”.
  • Germany has recorded its highest number of deaths from Covid-19 since February. However, the country’s seven-day incidence rate of cases per 100,000 people continued to fall, declining to 427 from 432 on Tuesday.
  • The Philippines will ban travellers coming from France to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant.
  • Japan has reported its fourth case of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
  • South Korean authorities are urging people to get vaccinated as case rise in the east Asian nation generally regarded as having dealth with the pandemic well. Daily cases exceeded 7,000 for the first time on Tuesday, the government reported on Wednesday, heaping pressure on hospitals.
  • Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, says it will halve the output of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 shot from next week as it had no fresh orders from the government.
  • Leading scientists in the World Health Organization and the US have said the Omicron variant appears to be no worse than other coronavirus strains – but have warned that more research is needed to judge its severity.
  • WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said that while it is likely more transmissible than previous variants, Omicron is also “highly unlikely” to completely evade vaccine protections.
  • Virologist Sandra Ciesek of the University hospital Frankfurt, on the other hand, has published data that appears to show a weakened immune response from vaccinated blood cells when faced with the Omicron variant. The study has not been peer-reviewed or formally published.
  • In Australia, prime minister Scott Morrison has urged Gerard Rennick to listen to medical experts after the Liberal senator labelled the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11 “completely irresponsible”.

 

10:26

It is an ill-wind that blows no good, and there are at least some members of the Conservative party today using the government’s discomfort over the Downing Street Christmas party allegations to take the opportunity to push their agenda.

Charles Walker, the MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, has repeatedly railed against Covid restrictions. He told Times Radio this morning that these developments probably means the end of mandatory restrictions in England. He said:

I think now that, going forward, any measures will be advisory. I think it would be very difficult to enshrine them in law and then once again ask our poor police forces to enforce them.

To be very proscriptive about this now, particularly as we’ve had such a successful vaccine rollout … is much more difficult, and was always going to be much more difficult. And the events of the last 24 hours make it probably almost impossible now.

Walker was the Tory MP who threatened to protest against lockdown restrictions earlier this year by carrying a pint of milk around with him at all times.

 

10:25 Paul Karp

In Australia, prime minister Scott Morrison has urged Gerard Rennick to listen to medical experts after the Liberal senator labelled the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11 “completely irresponsible”.

Rennick has experienced a meteoric rise in reach on Facebook, adding 70,000 followers in a little over a month, as he shared stories of vaccine adverse events he admits he can’t be sure are “100% accurate” and videos of anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne.

Since the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved Pfizer for kids on Sunday, Rennick has lashed out over “serious concerns” about the sample size of clinical trials and again refused to vote for government legislation, this time warning he will do so until the approval is revoked.

At a Covid-19 committee hearing on Tuesday senior health officials rejected Rennick’s claims vaccinations amount to “experimenting” on children and pointed to the US experience of administering 5m doses of Pfizer to children aged five to 11 as evidence it is “worthwhile, safe and effective”.

Read more of Paul Karp’s report here: Scott Morrison tries to rein in Gerard Rennick after senator says Pfizer for children is ‘completely irresponsible’

Related: Scott Morrison tries to rein in Gerard Rennick after senator says Pfizer for children is ‘completely irresponsible’

 

10:25

UK health secretary Sajid Javid has just been tweeting about the increased rollout of booster jabs in England.

Alan White, the editor-in-chief of Politics Home, had a suggestion for him:

They should tell people about this on TV. https://t.co/5E8AiWPxHj

— Alan White (@aljwhite) December 8, 2021

 

10:25

In the UK, Robert Halfon, who is chairman of the Commons education committee, appears to be the most senior MP to have come out with a statement about the Downing Street Christmas party story.

PA Media quotes him telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I certainly think that those who were doing the video should apologise for the insensitivity of it when people were suffering and struggling all through that time.”

He stopped short of calling for the prime minister to apologise.

Halfon also said the fact that the Department for Education held a social gathering of staff last December was “pretty grim”.

“I feel seriously upset about what went on in the Department for Education in my own area,” he said. “They have admitted that there was a party. I think that’s pretty grim given that children were being sent home, schools were being shut down.”

“And I think that the new secretary of state, who cares deeply about these issues, should call those in and hold whoever was responsible … hold them accountable.”

 

10:24 Helen Pidd

If you are rushing to book your booster jab in England today, a note from my colleague Helen Pidd:

The NHS put out a press release last night saying that “people aged 40 and over, along with those in high-risk groups, will be able to book in for their life-saving Covid booster jab three months after their second dose as the NHS vaccine programme is extended today”.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, was tweeting about the move this morning, encouraging people to go online today to book.

Yet 40-somethings trying to book their booster have been frustrated this morning as it emerged the NHS vaccine booking service hasn’t yet got the memo. You can still only book in for an imminent third jab if your second dose was 152 days ago (five months), as per the old rules. A message on the site says: “The booking system is currently being updated.”

 

10:23 Mark Sweney

The former chairman of the UK competition regulator has condemned the market for PCR tests for travellers, describing it as a “rip-off jungle”.

After the return of the requirement to take the tests on return from abroad, Lord Tyrie accused the government of once again allowing the companies offering PCR tests to manipulate the system by making them available at unrealistic prices.

“For this policy to get into a mess once might be seen as a misfortune but for it to resurface again after all the warnings over the summer would have to be described as carelessness,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It was a scandal waiting to happen and it’s now happened and it needs very urgent action.”

Last week, the Guardian revealed that a slew of the cheapest deals on PCR tests had been removed from the government website amid concerns travellers were being misled by companies advertising the coronavirus testing service for less than £1.

Read more of Mark Sweney’s report here: Covid PCR test market a ‘rip-off jungle’, says ex-chair of competition regulator

Related: Covid PCR test market a ‘rip-off jungle’, says ex-chair of competition regulator

 

10:22

Russia’s official Covid numbers have continued their glide down since the country had an enforced week’s holiday at the beginning of November. They recorded 30,752 cases in the last 24 hours, and 1,179 deaths. Cases peaked at just over 40,000 on 6 November.

Here’s an updated map showing how caseloads vary across Europe.

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer: ‘we will see rapid increase’ in Omicron cases

10:22

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer has said he expects to see a “rapid increase” in cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant before Christmas.

Sir Michael McBride was speaking after the first three cases of the Omicron variant detected in Northern Ireland were confirmed on Tuesday evening. He said all three confirmed cases are linked to travel and there is not thought to be community transmission of the variant yet.

However, PA Media reports Sir Michael said there are likely to be more cases than currently identified. He said measures are being taken to try to delay community transmission of the variant, but that is is “absolutely inevitable”.

“I think it is absolutely the case that we have more cases in Northern Ireland at present than we have currently detected given the fact that we have community transmission in other parts of these islands, given the freedom of movement of people in these islands which is really important for so many reasons,” he told the BBC’s Stephen Nolan Show.

“I think what we will see is a rapid increase in the number of cases identified in the coming days in the run-up to the Christmas period.

“What appears to be happening is this virus is getting established very, very quickly in communities where the Delta variant has already been established and it may be the case that in the next period of time that we see this new Omicron variant replacing the Delta variant as the dominant variant in the United Kingdom, in these islands and indeed eventually globally.”

 

10:22

Japan has reported its fourth case of the Omicron coronavirus variant, TV Asahi said on Wednesday. The fresh case was a man in his 50s who had stayed in Nigeria, the network reported.

Reuters reminds us that the Japanese government has enforced tighter border controls against the Omicron variant.

 

09:42

Andrew Sparrow has launched our UK politics live blog. I expect he is going to be very busy this morning – and then there is PMQs at noon to ratchet it up. You can find that here.

Related: ‘They’re laughing at you’: Labour steps up pressure on Boris Johnson over No 10 Christmas party – UK politics live

I will be continuing with the latest coronavirus news worldwide here, and I’ll also bring you any top Covid-related lines from the UK. I’ll leave the politics to Andrew.

 

09:00

Here’s my colleague Archie Bland’s review of how the British press have been covering the Downing Street Christmas party storm this morning. Well, most of them anyway.

Related: ‘A sick joke’: what the papers say about the No 10 Christmas party video

 

08:47

In Scotland yesterday, the first minister Nicola Sturgeon urged people to work from home if possible until at least January over fears of the spread of the Omicron variant.

Last night, news broke that a Scottish primary school is closing until next week after Covid cases thought to be Omicron variant were identified among teaching staff. St John’s Primary school in Hamilton is closing because of the impact of the variant on school staff numbers.

 

08:47

Prof Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, has been on the airwaves in the UK this morning saying the Omicron variant was concerning but it was still unknown what its impact will be on severe disease. PA Media quotes him telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Certainly case numbers of Omicron are doubling at least every three days, maybe even every two days at the moment, so it’s accelerating very fast and put that in context, it’s the same if not faster than we saw with the original strain of the virus in March of last year. So it is a concern. It’s likely to overtake Delta before Christmas at this rate, precisely when is hard to say.

Prof Ferguson said the peak of this wave of infection will be in January if no measures are taken to slow it down.

If you don’t do anything at the current time, it will most likely be sometime in January, But I think the key question is whether the country decides to adopt measures to either slow it down or try to stop it and that will critically depend on really the threat it poses in terms of hospitalisations.

There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people’s arms because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat.

So if you imagine a kind of plan B plus with working from home might slow it down – it wouldn’t stop it but it could slow it down, so it’s doubling rather than every two or three days, every five or six days. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it actually is potentially a lot in terms of allowing us to characterise this virus better and boost population immunity.

Lammy: Boris Johnson’s ‘casualness with the truth costs lives’

08:46

In the UK, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, has been doing the media round – unopposed since the government have declined to send anybody to be interviewed today. He told Sky News it was “Boris Johnson’s moment to come clean, to speak the truth. And probably to apologise to the British people.”

He said:

He [Johnson] is the public health lead for our country in chief. If there are people sitting opposite you on the tube, or on the train, not wearing a mask, you can understand why they might say why should I bother when Boris Johnson doesn’t bother? This is important because this cost lives, this recklessness. This casualness with the truth costs lives. We’re facing a very serious mutation of the virus. We may have to have more restriction. That is why this is so serious.

This business of ‘we stayed within the rules, we followed’ the guidance, we all know it’s hogwash. We all know a lie when we see one. And that appears to be what we’re facing today.

 

08:45

Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker, will halve the output of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 shot from next week as it had no fresh orders from the government, its CEO Adar Poonawalla told CNBC-TV18, Reuters report

“I am going to be reducing production by at least 50% to begin with, going forward on a monthly basis, until orders again pick up either in India or the world,” Poonawalla said.

SII is producing 250m doses of the vaccine, which it brands Covishield. The shot accounts for nearly 90% of the 1.3bn total vaccine doses administered in India.

Earlier this year, India prevented the export of vaccines in order to shore up the delivery of its own domestic vaccination programme.

 

08:17

You can’t really do the equivalent on a live blog, but here’s my colleague Peter Walker describing how the BBC’s Today programme have handled not having a UK government minister to interview this morning.

In the absence of any government person on today’s morning broadcast round, Today simply played a medley of ministers over previous days giving ludicrous denials that a Downing Street party happened or broke any rules.

— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) December 8, 2021

 

08:15

Sir Roger Gale is another Conservative MP who has been prepared to go on the airwaves today in the UK. He told Sky News that he had some details of what happened at the alleged Downing Street Christmas party from “a source”. He told them:

The health service could be in trouble, and people’s lives could be at stake. This party, and I’m told by sources that food was taken in, drink was taken in, entertainment was had. And if that is so, that sounds to me pretty much like a party. This is a Barnard Castle moment potentially isn’t it? We cannot say one thing and do another.

A cynic might point out that ultimately nobody was held responsible for their actions over Barnard Castle.

 

08:05

There are some more quotes from Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS trusts. He said there are signs hospital admissions for Covid-19 were increasing.

On the pressure currently facing the NHS, Taylor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

The overwhelming majority of NHS leaders say that the situation is extremely difficult. I think we’re facing the hardest winter the NHS has ever had to face, and the care system as well.

What we’ve got here is a combination of factors: we’ve got the impact of a decade of austerity which left the health service with a depleted workforce and with capital stock in a poor condition; you then add in Covid, and although the numbers are much less now than they were a year ago, we have still got several thousand people in hospital and unfortunately, there are signs of hospitalisation rates increasing.

You’ve then got the backlog of people who didn’t get care, and over the last two years. Not just those people waiting for treatment, but people turning up in emergency departments because they’ve been dealing with an illness for many months, even years, that hasn’t been addressed.

He went on to urge people to celebrate Christmas “modestly”. Asked about the Omicron variant, PA Media quote him saying: “As for the new strain, what we know is that the numbers are growing and although the relationship between the number of people who have the condition and those who end up in hospital has become increasingly attenuated, the fact is if you get an enormous number of people getting the disease, some of those people will end up in hospital and will end up in intensive care unit.”

He added: “I think if you can make changes to your life, which are not huge inconveniences and reduce the risk then you should do so. We all want to have a good Christmas, but it is better, I think, to plan for a modest Christmas and we can achieve it, than to hope that things are going to be better than they are and end up having to kind of abandon your plans a few days beforehand.”

UK government Health secretary and vaccines minister both cancel media appearance

07:58

It is, of course, one year since the first vaccination against Covid was given in England, and also today it has been announced that the booster jab roll-out is being expanded with every adult aged 40 and over in England, and all those in high-risk groups, able to arrange their Covid booster jab to take place three months after their second dose.

You would think that the government would be out crowing about these achievements, but as we have seen health secretary Sajid Javid has pulled out of all his planned media appearances this morning, in the wake of the emergence of video footage last night showing staff at Downing Street appearing to laugh at having held a Christmas party that broke the Covid restrictions.

PA have just snapped that vaccines minister Maggie Throup is also understood to have pulled out of her planned round of regional television interviews. Throup has already been widely criticised for her lack of visibility compared to her predecessor Nadhim Zahawi.

 

07:52

CEO of University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust Prof Andy Hardy has been on Sky News. He described the situation facing the NHS in his area as “tight”.

Beds are always challenge this time of year. I think to put it into context for Covid patients, my hospital has 1,200 beds, of which at the moment 35 are taken up with Covid patients. If we go back to the peak back in January, February of this year, that was in excess of 260. So there are a lot that’s available. It’s tight. It’s always tight this time of year and it’s always a matter of management on a day to day basis. But at the moment, we’re confident that we can deal with what’s coming our way.

Asked about what types of patients they were seeing with Covid, Prof Hardy said:

There’s a few older people, but very clearly we are starting to see an increased proportion of our Covid patients who need hospital treatment, and importantly, critical care intervention, are those who were unvaccinated. And there are a number of those who have been pregnant ladies. And of course we know that can affect both the mum and the baby.

So again, it comes back to the influence of vaccination. It does make a difference. It stops people getting hospitalised. It stops people needing critical care.

He was also asked what he made of information about the Omicron variant, and with the caveat that he said it was early days, he said “early signs are encouraging” about both the severity of illness and the effectiveness of vaccines.

 

07:38

One Conservative MP who has been prepared to go on the TV has been Matt Hancock. Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain about whether there would be security records that might indicate who attended a Christmas party in Whitehall or Downing Street, he said:

Lots of people work in the building. Lots of people come and go from the building. There isn’t a record of who comes and goes, I don’t think, but I don’t know. This isn’t what I was doing at the time.

He was asked if his department – like Gavin Williamson did at the education department – had a Christmas gathering around this time. He said:

Not that I’m aware of, we were working pretty hard.

He was also asked if he was still health secretary, what he would be doing now. He said he would be putting all his efforts into finding out more about the Omicron variant:

I’d want to make sure that we are getting a new vaccine ready for this variant, which the system can now do, we’re told, in 100 days in case the vaccine doesn’t work as effectively, and we need a fourth, which is a possibility.

NHS exec: Downing Street Christmas party ‘blow to morale’ of NHS workers

07:26

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS trusts, said the news of the Downing Street Christmas party was a “blow to morale” among those working in the NHS.

Asked whether the story matters to people running the NHS, Taylor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In any difficult situation we all need to feel that we’re pulling together, that we’re a part of an effort and if it feels as though people have not been playing by the rules, if it feels as though powerful people are not playing by the rules, then there is a blow to morale, it does make it harder to get people to follow the advice. So no, it really isn’t what we need at the moment.”

On what the message should be to the public at the moment, PA Media quote Taylor saying: “We are saying now that masks are mandatory, but we need a really strong message we need to say: ‘The healthcare system is in an emergency situation and is going to be in that situation for several months’.

“And the public need the clearest possible message, and spending a lot of time dealing with what happened last year is not helping get that message across.”

 

07:23

ITV’s Good Morning Britain have mocked the UK govermnet’s refusal to put anybody on the airwaves this morning to answer questions about Downing Street Christmas parties by showing the empty chair in their Westminster studio and saying “We’ll take anyone”, appealing for any Conservative MP to appear. Host Adil Ray said:

It’s not just Good Morning Britain. Apparently most of the broadcasters this morning are still waiting for somebody from the government. But if any Conservative MP, anybody connected to the government is watching, and you would like to take your duty and answer to those people that lost family members … we’ll take anyone. we’ll take anyone anybody.”

‘Anybody from the Conservative party, any MP who feels it is their duty to address the 140,000 people who lost family members in the hospital who followed the rules.’@susannareid100 & @adilray question why no Govt Ministers are available this morning to answer your questions. pic.twitter.com/tt5uPRR5WP

— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) December 8, 2021

Omicron ‘no worse’ than other strains, say experts

07:22

Leading scientists in the World Health Organization and the US have said the Omicron variant appears to be no worse than other coronavirus strains – but have warned that more research is needed to judge its severity.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, the WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said that while it is likely more transmissible than previous variants, Omicron is also “highly unlikely” to completely evade vaccine protections.

“The preliminary data doesn’t indicate that this is more severe. In fact, if anything, the direction is towards less severity,” Ryan said.

Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise’ Omicron, lab tests show
© Provided by The Guardian Michael Ryan of the WHO. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Ryan also said there was no sign that Omicron could fully sidestep protections provided by existing Covid vaccines.

“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation… There’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so” for Omicron, he added, pointing to initial data from South Africa, where the strain was first reported.

Meanwhile, US Covid expert Dr Anthony Fauci echoed the WHO’s view, saying Omicron did not appear worse than prior strains based on early indications – and was possibly milder.

The new variant is “clearly highly transmissible,” very likely more so than Delta, the current dominant global strain, Fauci said.

 

07:22

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme have just confirmed that they were expecting the health secretary, Sajid Javid, to appear on the programme this morning, but that now no minister is available to speak to them.

 

07:21

The latest Downing Street Christmas party development has been called a “bullet to the chest” of families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic.

Dr Saleyha Ahsan, from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, told BBC Breakfast the saga was “an example of how the government have run this from the start: One rule for them and the rest of us have to adhere to different rules.”

PA Media reports that Dr Ahsan, who said she had been working in north Wales at the time of the mock press conference, said: “Numerous people around the country couldn’t spend those precious last few days, hours, minutes with loved ones. It was heartbreaking. In 14 years in the NHS I’ve never seen anything like it.

“And this latest revelation is just a bullet to the chest, it really is. It just demonstrates the lack of regard for the rest of us.”

Dr Ahsan said the saga showed why an independent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic was needed “now”.

 

07:21

Germany has recorded its highest number of deaths from Covid-19 since February. A total of 69,601 new infections were reported, 2,415 more than the same time a week ago, and a further 527 people died – the highest number since 12 February.

However, the country’s seven-day incidence rate of cases per 100,000 people continued to fall, declining to 427 from 432 on Tuesday.

Experts have questioned whether the metric means Germany has passed the peak of this wave of the pandemic or whether the figures are unreliable because some health authorities are so overwhelmed, particularly in the hardest-hit areas.

Reuters notes that the country agreed last week to bar the unvaccinated from access to all but the most essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and bakeries and to ramp up its vaccination campaign.

 

07:01

While we are waiting to see if any UK government minister is prepared to be interviewed this morning, here is a reminder of the current Covid situation in the UK.

Over the last seven days there have been 336,893 new coronavirus cases recorded in the UK. Cases have increased by 12.1% week-on-week.

There have been 857 deaths recorded in the last week. Deaths have increased by 3% week-on-week.

Hospital admissions have decreased by 0.1% week-on-week. At the latest count on the UK government’s own dashboard, there were 7,317 people in hospital in total, of whom 901 are in ventilation beds.

These are the countries affected by England’s travel red list.

 

06:59

Hello, it is Martin Belam here taking over in London from Martin Farrer on what you imagine is going to be a torrid morning for the UK government on the airwaves. However, the latest information I have is that the government hasn’t put anybody up yet for the Sky News 7am interview slot.

I’m sure if someone does appear, they will be pointing to the further roll-out of booster jabs. Every adult aged 40 and over in England, and all those in high-risk groups, will be able to arrange their Covid booster jab to take place three months after their second dose as the vaccine programme widens significantly today.

Related: UK races to deliver booster jabs before Omicron takes hold

However, you know a story has crossed out of the “Westminster bubble” when Ant and Dec are doing skits about it on I’m A Celebrity.

Good evening, Prime Minister! 👀🤭@antanddec #ImACeleb pic.twitter.com/cekIFiwx8N

— I’m A Celebrity… (@imacelebrity) December 7, 2021

Here’s our timeline, from 2 December 2020 when London was moved into tier two restrictions, to 10 December when Gavin Williamson was holding a Christmas party, to 16 December when Boris Johnson urged the public to severely limit Christmas gatherings, to 18 December, the date on which a staff party is allegedly held inside Downing Street, and beyond.

Related: Covid Christmas parties: timeline of government’s alleged festivities

I’ll be bringing you all the latest on that and Covid developments from around the world.

Boris Johnson faces Christmas party fallout

06:37

The biggest Covid story of the day in the UK seems set to be the fallout from the discovery of a video showing Downing Street officials joking about a party allegedly held in No 10 during the height of last year’s lockdown.

In the video of a practice televised press briefing filmed on 22 December, an adviser to Johnson is seen joking with Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s then press secretary, about “a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night”.

Multiple sources have said there was a staff party inside Downing Street on that Friday, which would have contravened strict Covid regulations in place at the time.

Quizzed in the leaked footage, Stratton laughingly says: “This is recorded … This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

Boris Johnson is facing accusations of lying about the issue because he and his aides have repeatedly denied that the event, reportedly held for staff at No 10 in December last year, broke Covid rules or took place at all.

The full story is here:

Related: PM accused of lying after No 10 officials caught joking about Christmas party

One year since first UK vaccination

06:35

It is one year since the first person in Britain was vaccinated against Covid-19 outside clinical trials, launching the biggest NHS vaccination drive in history.

Since 90-year-old Margaret Keenan received the Pfizer jab in Coventry, more than 51m first doses of vaccine have been given in the UK, along with more than 46m second doses and 20m extra doses.

Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise’ Omicron, lab tests show
© Provided by The Guardian Staff at University hospital, Coventry, applaud Margaret Keenan after she was vaccinated on 8 December last year. Photograph: Jacob King/AP

Almost 3,000 vaccine sites have been established across the country, staffed by more than 92,000 NHS staff and over 118,000 volunteers – who have given over 1.9m hours to help protect millions of people at speed.

The NHS is recruiting more staff to help with the new booster scheme – as well as volunteers to help the rollout.

And here is a brief history of the vaccination development:

Related: The history of Covid vaccine development

 

06:13

The financial markets are in the glass-half-full camp when it comes to Omicron with indices roaring ahead in Asia after a strong showing from Wall Street in Tuesday’s session.

The Nikkei in Japan is up 1.4% and the ASX200 in Sydney has closed up 1.25%. The Hang Seng is still down a touch in Hong Kong.

Futures trade points to decent gains in New York again later although the outlook for the FTSE100 has slipped to flat in the last few hours.

Kyle Rodda of IG Markets in Melbourne puts it well when he says “traders seem to be taking it as given that Omicron is of about as much economic significance as a head cold”.

Such ebullience seems a bit premature based upon what’s only some crude data right now, along with a vague assurance from Pfizer that it’s vaccine is partially effective against the new variant. But misguided or not, it’s risk on in markets, with the move higher in equities probably supported by a healthy short-squeeze.

Booster scheme speeded up in England

05:55

Concerns about Omicron have prompted authorities in England to widen the vaccination scheme so that millions of over-40s and all those in high-risk groups will be able to book their booster vaccine from Wednesday.

People had to wait six months after their second shot before they could receive their booster, but the NHS has reduced that to three months in order to try to get ahead of the Omicron curve.

The online booking system for vaccines will be updated in the morning and details will be updated throughout the day, officials revealed on Tuesday night.

Here’s the full story:

Related: UK races to deliver booster jabs before Omicron takes hold

 

05:47

The plot thickens over the Omicron “like” variant announced by health officials in Queensland on Wednesday (see this earlier post).

My colleague at Guardian Australia, Cait Kelly, reports that experts are casting doubt on the claim.

The new Omicron Covid sub-lineage, dubbed Omicron “like”, was identified in an overseas arrival to Queensland from South Africa.

But Prof Peter Collignon, infectious disease physician and microbiologist at the Australian National University, said the new sub-lineage was not a new variant.

“It is mainly at the moment an issue about the technicalities on how they are picked up,” he said.

“If the genes have been deleted, and there’s another lineage where the gene hasn’t been deleted, you may not think it is Omicron when in fact it is,” he said.

Full story here:

Related: Queensland declares ‘world first’ Omicron Covid genetic variation but experts say it is not a new variant

 

05:08

Reuters has an exclusive story that up to one million Covid vaccines are estimated to have expired in Nigeria last month without being used.

Governments on the continent of over one billion people have been pushing for more vaccine deliveries as inoculation rates lag richer regions, increasing the risk of new variants such as the Omicron coronavirus now spreading across South Africa.

Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise’ Omicron, lab tests show
© Provided by The Guardian An advertisement campaigning for vaccination against Covid-19 in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Akintunde Akinleye/EPA

But the story, confirmed by two sources, shows the difficulty of getting the jabs into arms before they expire.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and home to more than 200 million people, fewer than 4% of adults have been fully vaccinated, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

 

04:59 Vincent Ni

Faced with the shifting sands of geopolitics since the pandemic began, China has changed its approach to Africa from one of debt diplomacy to vaccine diplomacy.

Analysts say the shift in approach signifies Beijing’s rethink about its overall strategy on the continent at a time of Covid health emergency and great power competition.

“In a way Xi’s reduced financial pledge is not surprising because we’ve already seen signs in the last couple of years,” says Lina Benabdallah of Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “China has entered a phase of greater caution with regard to Africa. After two decades of heavy state funding, it is beginning to pull the brakes.”

You can read the whole story here:

Related: ‘More cautious’ China shifts Africa approach from debt to vaccine diplomacy

 

04:37

There were another 8,439 cases in India in the past 24 hours for a total of 34.66 millions, according to the health ministry.

 

04:31

The famed Teatro alla Scala in Milan has opened its new season with Verdi’s Macbeth to a fully seated house, despite another wave of Covid-19 forcing other theatres across Europe to close again.

Guests included Giorgio Armani and Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, but the the mood was more restrained than usual for the event that is considered a highlight of the European cultural calendar.

Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise’ Omicron, lab tests show
© Provided by The Guardian Guests at La Scala in Milan applaud Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, and his daughter Laura as they arrive to attend the season’s opening performance on Tuesday. Photograph: Quirinale Press Office/AFP/Getty Images

Venues in Vienna, Dresden and Liepzig have been closed again because of the pandemic.

“When you see so many great theaters closed, I have to say we are lucky to arrive at the premiere,” La Scala’s general manager Dominique Meyer said.

 

04:09

Germany reported 69,601 cases of Covid-19 and 527 deaths in the past 24 hours, according to the Robert Koch Institute, taking the total cases in the country to 6,291,621. There have been 104,047 deaths.

 

04:02

South Korean authorities are urging people to get vaccinated as case rise in the east Asian nation generally regarded as having dealth with the pandemic well.

Daily cases exceeded 7,000 for the first time on Tuesday, the government reported on Wednesday, heaping pressure on hospitals.

here’s the full report by our correspondent Justin McCurry.

Related: South Korea hospitals under intense pressure amid record 7,175 Covid cases in a day

 

03:30

Financial markets appear to have shrugged off concerns about Omicron with stocks rallying all over the world in the past 24 hours.

Shares in Asia have made a strong start to Wednesday’s session as with Japan’s Nikkei up 1.3%, the ASX200 in Sydney up 1.2%, the Korean Kospi up 0.8%, and Shanghai has risen 0.8%. The only laggard is Hong Kong, down slightly, thanks to concerns about US regulations on tech stocks.

Stefan Hofer, chief investment strategist for private bank LGT in Asia Pacific, said: “Markets are very sensitive to any slight new item relating to Omicron, and the absence of bad news is being taken very positively by equity markets, though – and I’m not a scientist – it seems too early to signal an all clear.

“With each new variant, we go through a period of waiting for some signal from the scientific community, which is difficult for markets, but that’s what we got yesterday.”

Omicron ‘like’ variant detected in Australia

03:09

Officials in Queensland, Australia have detected what they described as an Omicron-like variant in a person who arrived from South Africa.

The state also recorded a case of the original Omicron strain in a passenger from Nigeria.

The state’s health minister, Yvette D’Ath, said on Wednesday that scientists in Australia had helped to reclassify Omicron “into two lineages”.

 

03:03

Following on, there are also a couple of reports that there may be different “types” of Omicron.

Our science editor, Ian Sample, reported earlier that scientists have identified a “stealth” version of Omicron that cannot be distinguished from other variants using the PCR tests typically used to get a snapshot of cases.

The stealth variant has many mutations in common with standard Omicron, but it lacks a particular genetic change that allows lab-based PCR tests to be used as a rough and ready means of flagging up probable cases.

The variant is still detected as coronavirus by all the usual tests, and can be identified as the Omicron variant through genomic testing, but probable cases are not flagged up by routine PCR tests that give quicker results.

Read the full report here:

Related: Scientists find ‘stealth’ version of Omicron that may be harder to track

 

02:38

A lot of new information has emerged about the new Omicron variant in the past 24 hours concerning such critical issues as whether it will evade vaccines, how transmissible it is and possible new types of the strain.

While the WHO says the variant will not dodge the existing vaccines (see previous post), Reuters has reported that early data from South Africa shows some evidence that the Omicron variant can partially evade protection from the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.

Researchers found there was about a 40-fold reduction in vaccine-induced antibodies that could neutralise Omicron relative to an earlier strain.

Alex Sigal, a professor at the Africa Health Research Institute, said on Twitter there was “a very large drop” in neutralization of the Omicron variant relative to an earlier strain of COVID-19.

We have completed our first experiments on neutralization of Omicron by Pfizer BNT162b2 vaccination elicited immunity

Manuscript available at https://t.co/rGaEB9GdmS

and should be available on medRxiv in the coming days

— Alex Sigal (@sigallab) December 7, 2021

The lab tested blood from 12 people who had been vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, according to a manuscript posted on the website for his lab. The preliminary data in the manuscript has not yet been peer reviewed.

Blood from five out of six people who had been vaccinated as well as previously infected with COVID-19 still neutralized the Omicron variant, the manuscript said.

“These results are better than I expected. The more antibodies you got, the more chance you’ll be protected from Omicron,” Sigal said on Twitter.

He said the lab had not tested the variant against blood from people who had received a booster dose, because they are not available in South Africa yet.

Top WHO official says Omicron ‘highly unlikely’ to evade vaccines

02:28

A leading World Health Organization official says that Omicron does not appear to cause more severe disease than previous Covid variants, and is “highly unlikely” to fully dodge vaccine protections.

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said that while a lot remained to be learned about the new, heavily mutated variant of Covid-19, preliminary data indicated it did not make people sicker than Delta and other strains.

“The preliminary data doesn’t indicate that this is more severe. In fact, if anything, the direction is towards less severity,” Ryan said in an interview with Agence France-Presse, insisting though that more research was needed.

“It’s very early days, we have to be very careful how we interpret that signal.”

Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise’ Omicron, lab tests show
© Provided by The Guardian A sign outside a vaccine clinic in New York. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

At the same time, he said there was no sign that Omicron could fully sidestep protections provided by existing Covid vaccines.

“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation,” the 56-year-old epidemiologist and former trauma surgeon said.

“There’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so” for Omicron, he said, pointing to early data from South Africa where the variant was first detected that “suggest the vaccine at least is holding up in protection terms”.

 

02:00

The Romanian government will ease some Covid restrictions on Wednesday, including scrapping a night curfew and an obligation to wear face masks outdoors ahead of winter holidays.

Romania reported 1,421 new daily cases and 107 deaths on Tuesday, far off record highs reported in October and early November during its deadliest wave of the pandemic.

Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise’ Omicron, lab tests show
© Provided by The Guardian A Christmas tree made of empty Covid vaccine containers at a vaccination center in Bucharest, Romania. Photograph: Andreea Alexandru/AP

Shops and restaurants will be able close at 10pm from Wednesday night., one hour later than at present. Entry to most non-essential public venues will be allowed not only for those who have been vaccinated or who have recovered from the virus, but also for those who can present a negative COVID-19 test.

Wearing facemasks will continue to be mandatory in public transport and indoor public spaces, but will no longer be required outside except in crowded areas such as markets.

Romania has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the EU, with only 39% of the population having taken it up.

South Korea scrambles to shore up hospitals amid Covid surge

01:45

South Korea’s government is scrambling to bolster the country’s health system amid a surge in Covid cases that has seen the daily tally rise past 7,000 for the time since the pandemic began almost two years ago.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 7,175 new coronavirus cases and 63 deaths for Tuesday, and hospitals are treating a record 840 critical and serious cases.

The prime minister, Kim Boo-kyum, said on Wednesday that hospital capacity was under strain and that he was mobilising additional personnel to oversee coronavirus patients treating themselves at home, and to improve the emergency transfer system to hospitals for those who develop severe symptoms.

Covid live: UK reports 51,342 new infections; three Pfizer shots can ‘neutralise’ Omicron, lab tests show
© Provided by The Guardian Kim Boo-kyum at a meeting of the Covid response meeting on Wednesday in Suwon. Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

Private clinics will also treat COVID-19 patients in addition to large hospitals.

Infections in South Korea have skyrocketed this month after the government began to ease restrictions under a so-called “living with COVID-19 scheme in November.

Kim urged the elderly to get booster shots as over 35% of infections were found in people aged 60 and above, who account for 84% of severe cases. He also urged adolescents to get vaccinated.

South Korea has so far confirmed 38 cases of the Omicron variant. With 80% of cases in greater Seoul, authorities have struggled to secure enough beds for hospitalised patients in the area.

 

01:42

Morning/afternoon/evening wherever you are, and welcome to the new blog covering the latest developments in the pandemic across the world:

Here is a roundup of what’s been happening so far:

  • Daily cases in South Korea have surpassed 7,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the prime minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Wednesday morning, putting hospital capacity under strain as deaths and severe cases rise.
  • Scientists have identified a “stealth” version of Omicron variant which cannot be detected with the routine tests that public health officials are using to track its spread around the world. The stealth variant has many mutations in common with standard Omicron, but researchers say it is genetically distinct and so may well behave differently.
  • A new Omicron variant, known as Omicron “like”, has been identified in an overseas arrival to Queensland from South Africa, the health minister of the Australian state said on Wednesday morning.
  • UK prime minister Boris Johnson is facing accusations of lying after senior No 10 officials were filmed joking about a staff Christmas party last year that would have contravened strict Covid regulations in place at the time. Johnson and his aides have repeatedly denied that the event broke Covid rules or took place at all.
  • The Omicron variant can partially evade protection from the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, according to early data from South Africa. Researchers found there was about a 40-fold reduction in vaccine-induced antibodies that could neutralise Omicron relative to an earlier strain.
  • The African Union has called for an urgent end to travel restrictions imposed on some of its member states, arguing that the measures effectively penalise governments for timely data sharing in line with international health regulations.
  • US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said preliminary evidence indicates that the Omicron variant likely has a higher degree of transmissibility but causes less severe illness, warning it will take a few weeks to reach any definitive conclusions.
  • Millions of people in England will be able to book their Covid booster vaccine on Wednesday as the NHS cuts the qualifying time from six months after a second dose to three.
  • No more than 10 visitors will be allowed in private homes in Norway, and people must keep a distance of at least one metre from anyone outside of their household in new restrictions introduced by the government today.
  • Swedes will face new measures to curb rising Covid infections from Wednesday, including renewed social distancing, home-working and the use of face masks on public transport.
  • EU health agencies say vaccines should be mixed and matched for both initial courses and booster doses. Evidence suggests that the combination of viral vector vaccines and mRNA vaccines produces good levels of antibodies against the coronavirus, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a joint statement.
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Veteran comedian Barry Cryer had a “soft spot” for the theatre where he first performed in 1956, returning regularly over the years. Cryer, who wrote for legends of British comedy ... Read more »

Monty Python's John Cleese joins tributes to his ‘old friend' Barry Cryer

© PA Archive Sony Haven’t a Clue Monty Python star John Cleese has joined famous names from the world of comedy in paying tribute to Barry Cryer following his death ... Read more »

How to download and play Pokémon Legends: Arceus early

© Provided by Dot Esports Pokémon Legends: Arceus has been released in several regions now and some people have been able to get their hands on the game early by ... Read more »

'Understand...' - Journo drops big Everton manager update; 43 y/o now 'very much in contention'

© Provided by Transfer Tavern Norwich, Canaries, Premier League, Frank Lampard David Ornstein has now dropped some big Everton managerial news involving both Frank Lampard and Vitor Pereira. The Lowdown: ... Read more »

PSC tells Obiena, Juico: Reconcile for our country

© The Manila Times PSC Chairman William Ramirez FILE PHOTO “MAGPAKUMBABA kayo. Mag-usap kayo para sa bayan.” This was the message of Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) Chairman William “Butch” Ramirez ... Read more »

Apex Legends' Season 12 launch trailer shows off Mad Maggie's abilities and strange twists to incoming Olympus map

© Provided by GamePur It seems Apex Legends: Defiance, the battle royale’s twelfth season, will have someone who is more than just a legend, as its official launch trailer has ... Read more »

FREE STREAM: Gainbridge LPGA LIVE!

© Associated Press Nelly Korda is looking for her first win of 2022 A star-studded field is gathered in Florida for the Gainbridge LPGA, with all four rounds available to ... Read more »

Miller flies to Beijing Sunday

© Released Miller flies to Beijing Sunday MANILA, Philippines — Philippine Sports Commission chairman William Ramirez and Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham Tolentino yesterday praised Fil-American alpine skier Asa Miller ... Read more »

Man Utd's plan for Anthony Elanga as Ralf Rangnick happy for four players to leave

Three more players could follow Anthony Martial out of Manchester United before the January transfer window closes thanks to Anthony Elanga. Interim manager Ralf Rangnick was previously reluctant to let ... Read more »

England hold key Six Nations meeting in pub after fire forced them from hotel

Joe Marchant has revealed England began the process of rebuilding their midfield from the pub after their Six Nations preparations were hit by an electrical fire. Eddie Jones’ squad scrambled ... Read more »

Blackpool confirm Charlton Athletic transfer agreement

© Provided by Football League World Carabao Cup Second Round – Crewe Alexandra v Aston Villa Blackpool have announced the loan signing of Charlie Kirk from Charlton Athletic and they ... Read more »

UK records another 96,871 Covid cases and 338 deaths as figures stay flat

© PA Wire A woman pauses to look at dedications written on the Covid memorial wall in Westminster, London (Victoria Jones/PA) The UK recorded another 96,871 Covid cases and 338 ... Read more »

Fleetwood's opening 67 at Dubai Desert Classic hints at return to top form

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images Surprise that Tommy Fleetwood has slipped to 43rd in the world – and the fifth-ranked Englishman – owes everything to appreciation ... Read more »

Scientists warn of 'stealth' variant blamed for rise in Euro cases

Covid cases are continuing to recede in the U.S. – down 20 percent over the past week to 615,958 per day – but health officials warn that the next threat ... Read more »

Hodnett extends Munster deal as Goggin and French sign new contracts

© Ben Brady INPHO Hodnett after Munster’s win in Castres. MUNSTER BACK ROW John Hodnett has extended his contract with the province through to the summer of 2024. The 23-year-old ... Read more »

Principals, parents disappointed with DDMA's decision to not open schools in Delhi

© Provided by The Financial Express Though the schools were briefly reopened, they were shut again on December 28 last year in view of the third wave of COVID-19 driven ... Read more »

'I can't live there!' Expat exposes Berlin's problems - ‘inconvenient'

Reddit user 100coffeesaday moved to Berlin three years ago and speaks German fluently. On the social media platform, he’s been active on the Germany subreddit, as well as in expats ... Read more »

Tell us how you plan on celebrating this Lunar New Year

© a.v.Photography/Getty Images Tell us how you plan on celebrating this Lunar New Year As the Year of the Tiger approaches, Insider wants to know how your plans for Lunar ... Read more »

Protests break out in Nepal against China's interference

© IANS Protests break out in Nepal against China’s interference Morang (Nepal), Jan 27 (IANS) Nepali civil society group Rastriya Ekata Abhiyan on Thursday held a demonstration against China in ... Read more »

Malnutrition deaths have reduced in Melghat, Bombay High Court asks Maharashtra govt to prepare long term plan

The Maharashtra government said that instead of the dry ration that was being given to tribals in Melghat, the state government has decided to give hot cooked meals to deal ... Read more »

Bodycam Footage Shows Migrants Flown into NY in Dead of Night: ‘Everything Is Supposed to Be Hush-Hush'

Bodycam footage released through a Freedom of Information Act request shows federal contractors dropping off migrants at the Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., last summer, with one contractor ... Read more »

Clyburn floats South Carolina judge to replace Breyer, says she'd get GOP votes

Mere hours after Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement, Rep Jim Clyburn threw his support behind federal Judge J. Michelle Childs. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz Third-ranking House Democrat James Clyburn ... Read more »

How a frozen bag of peas eased my anxiety and finally gave me a full night's sleep

Frankie Simmons uses frozen peas or ice “between her boobs” and goes back to sleep “in no time.” TikTok We’ve all tried reading a book, deep breathing and counting sheep ... Read more »

Four out of ten elderly people in Norway have felt socially isolated during the pandemic, new survey shows

In a new survey carried out among people over 70 in Norway, 38% say that they have experienced social isolation during the pandemic. For many, the isolation has been stressful. ... Read more »

Covid curbs extended till Feb 28 as positivity rate in 407 districts still above 10%, says MHA

The Union Home Ministry on Thursday extended the existing COVID-19 containment measures till February 28 in view of the wave of infections, driven by the Omicron variant, still raging and ... Read more »

Shweta Tiwari's 'Bra ka size' comment has been ‘taken out of context', says actor Salil Acharya

© Provided by Pinkvilla Shweta Tiwari has landed herself in trouble after she made a statement regarding her innerwear during a press conference where she was promoting her upcoming web ... Read more »

Sara Ali Khan drops romantic still from her next with Vicky Kaushal, see pic

© Provided by Zee News New Delhi: Sara Ali Khan and Vicky Kaushal recently shared a romantic still from their upcoming film directed by Laxman Utekar as they took to ... Read more »

Alia Bhatt congratulates newlyweds Mouni Roy and Suraj Nambiar with a special note: You look so beautiful

After a traditional South Indian wedding ceremony, popular actress Mouni Roy tied the knot with Suraj Nambiar as per Bengali traditions. They had an intimate wedding ceremony in Goa with ... Read more »

Tom Holland REVEALS he hated Benedict Cumberbatch's character in Power of the Dog; Here's why

© Provided by Pinkvilla   Tom Holland recently confessed that he despised his Spider-Man: No Way Home co-star Benedict Cumberbatch in his latest film The Power of the Dog. The ... Read more »

Krushna Abhishek on his rivalry with Kapil Sharma: 'He was the first person to call me when my father died'

© Provided by BollywoodLife.com Krushna Abhishek and Kapil Sharma, who are currently working together on The Kapil Sharma Show, have been rivals for a very long time. They two have ... Read more »

Claudine-Mark Anthony chemistry just like before

Twenty-FIVE years since they parted ways, Claudine Barretto and Mark Anthony Fernandez — one of the hottest love teams of the ’90s — are reunited onscreen for the Vivamax drama-mystery ... Read more »

Kylie Padilla Dedicates A Poem To Herself On Her 29th Birthday: '29 and I forgive myself'

© Provided by Cosmopolitan Philippines Kylie Padilla marked her 29th birthday in a unique way: by writing a poem dedicated to herself. The actress took to IG to share the ... Read more »

Update given on future of West Brom boss Valerien Ismael

© Provided by Football League World Championship – West Bromwich Albion v Preston North End The pressure is mounting on West Brom boss Valerien Ismael and he may be looking ... Read more »
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