Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas

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LIVE – Updated at 15:00

Health authorities are investigating BA.2, a lineage of the Omicron variant, after it was found to have caused hundreds of coronavirus cases in England.

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Some 426 cases of the new sub-variant have been identified in England, with 146 in London and 97 in the South East, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said. This compares with the previous total of 53 cases detected up until 10 January.

Unlike the original Omicron variant, which accounts for the majority of cases in the UK, BA.2 does not have the specific mutation that was used to first track and compare it against Delta last month.

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Meanwhile, new data suggests that the total number of Covid cases in the week after Christmas was almost triple the official figure recorded on the government’s Covid-19 dashboard.

The government reported an average of 173,400 new cases a day from 26 December to 1 January. But the Office for National Statistics estimates the true figure was likely around 479,100 a day.

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Key Points

  • BA.2: Omicron sub-variant ‘under investigation’
  • Post-Christmas Covid case total was nearly triple official figure, says ONS
  • Government ‘considers pausing’ NHS vaccine mandate
  • Ireland lifts most Covid restrictions
  • Austria approves bill to make Covid jabs compulsory for all adults
  • France to ease Covid restrictions from next month
  • Covid disrupts aid flight to tsunami-hit Tonga
  • First flight lands on Covid-free island – lockdown follows

True number of daily cases after Christmas was nearly half a million, says ONS

14:43 , Liam James

New cases of Covid-19 in the UK averaged nearly half a million a day during the week after Christmas, almost three times the official figures, new analysis suggests.

Health agencies have urged caution about interpreting the regular case numbers published on the government’s Covid-19 dashboard, following changes in rules about testing.

The government reported an average of 173,400 new cases a day from 26 December to 1 January.

But the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates the true figure was likely 479,100 a day.

The sharp difference in totals reflects just how many new cases are being missed in the dashboard figures, which count only those people who have reported themselves as having tested positive for the virus.

This means the numbers are affected by how many people take tests and report their results.

By contrast, the ONS figures are based on analysis of nose and throat swabs taken from a representative sample of more than 150,000 people in private households.

The same people are sampled every week, regardless of whether they know they have Covid-19 or have reported a positive result.

The ONS then produces estimates of the likely number of new cases of coronavirus across the country.

Covid vaccine given in hot tub as doctors cater to ‘complex health needs’

14:20 , PA

A hot tub is the latest unusual location for a Covid-19 vaccine as NHS teams strive to increase uptake of the jab.

Coronavirus vaccines have already been given out at sport stadiums, shopping centres and Heaven nightclub in London.

It has now emerged that a person with additional learning needs was given a Covid-19 jab at home in a hot tub – an example of efforts made to make sure people feel safe when getting vaccinated.

Dr Nikki Kanani, GP and deputy lead for the NHS Covid vaccination programme, said: “We’ve seen some incredible stories of people coming forward because they’ve had an approach that is just much more tailored for them.

“So many people can go down to their community pharmacy, their general practice team, to a vaccination centre to get protected, but for others it’s a little bit more complicated.

“I’m so proud of our teams, for example in Portsmouth where they’ve gone out and vaccinated people with quite complex health needs.

“One individual was vaccinated at home in his hot tub because he has additional learning needs and it was a way of making sure that he felt safe and secure as he got his vaccination.”

Three new studies back up booster jab protection evidence

13:55 , Liam James

Three new studies have added to evidence that booster vaccines are highly effective in protecting against the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

The studies, led by US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), show that a third dose of an mRNA vaccine –Pfizer, and Moderna – provides 90 per cent protection against hospitalisation from the virus.

The findings – among the first to come out of the US on booster doses – support studies taken in Germany, South Africa and the UK.

NHS workers ‘have a duty’ to get jabbed, says vaccine deputy

13:31 , Liam James

A leading figure of the UK’s vaccine rollout has said NHS workers “have a duty” to get jabbed.

Frontline staff must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by 1 April – meaning they must have had their first vaccine on 3 February.

But it was earlier reported that the government was considering suspending the mandatory vaccine policy after the Department for Health and Social Care estimated that as many as one in 20 NHS workers could remain unvaccinated by that date.

Dr Nikki Kanani, deputy lead for the NHS vaccination programme, was asked if the health service could cope with losing so many workers

She said it was very important that NHS workers were “protected”, adding: “Mandatory vaccination is a government policy but as healthcare professionals we all have a duty to make sure that we are protected, to make sure that our colleagues and our patients are protected.

“I know that our teams will be doing everything they can to continue to have vaccine confidence building conversations and offering that all important vaccination to staff who are yet to have their first, second or their booster dose.”

‘Stealth Omicron’: Everything we know about Covid variant BA.2

13:08 , Liam James

As UK health authorities investigate the new BA.2 coronavirus variant, Colin Drury rounds up all we know so far about what is being called “stealth Omicron”:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Women report waiting longer for operations and appointments in pandemic

12:45 , Liam James

Women are being forced to wait longer for operations and healthcare appointments in the wake of the pandemic, according to a new report.

Research carried out by the Care Quality Commission, England’s regulator of health and social care, found 53 per cent of women experienced longer waiting times for appointments or healthcare procedures during the Covid crisis.

The report also found three in 10 women experienced appointment cancellations.

More women report grappling with these issues than men – with some 44 per cent of men saying they have experienced longer waiting times for appointments or procedures.

Full report from Maya Oppenheim here:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Russia reports daily record cases second day running

12:20 , Liam James

Russia has reported a new record number of Covid-19 cases as the Omicron variant of the virus spreads across the country.

Daily new cases jumped to 57,212, from the previous record of 49,513 a day earlier. The government’s pandemic task force also reported 681 deaths.Russia has reported more than 325,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic — by far Europe’s worst death toll.

Authorities admit that current surge could end up as the country’s biggest yet but have not announced any major restrictions in the face of it.

China to keep Beijing in emergency mode during Winter Olympics

11:55 , Liam James

Beijing will remain in “full emergency mode” as it continues to report new local coronavirus cases less than two weeks before the start of the Winter Olympic Games.

A total of 27 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms and five local asymptomatic carriers have been found in the Chinese capital since 15 January, officials said.

Cities across China have in recent weeks imposed tougher restrictions to try to control new outbreaks of Covid-19, a task that has also taken on extra urgency as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics at the start of next month.

Mainland China reported 63 new cases on Friday, down from 73 cases the day before.

Hongkongers warned against public gatherings as Chinese New Year approaches amid Covid spike

11:27 , Liam James

People in Hong Kong have been to avoid public gatherings due to a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases.

Carrie Lam, leader of the region, appealed to Hongkongers just over a week before Chinese New Year, usually the biggest event in the public calendar.

Health officials have warned that a coronavirus outbreak will be difficult to control as suspected infection numbers rose in a congested residential area.

Health officials said some 26 confirmed cases were recorded on Saturday, a high figure for the region that has taken a zero-Covid approach. The cases centred on three buildings in the Kwai Chung district in the northwest of the city.

Poland sees record daily Covid cases in ‘fifth wave’ of pandemic

11:04 , Liam James

Poland reported a record 40,876 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday as the Omicron variant takes hold across the country.

Authorities have said the latest wave of the pandemic will drive case numbers higher than ever before in Poland, with estimates of the peak ranging from 60,000 to as many as 140,000 daily infections. Cases have already more than doubled in one week.

Adam Niedzielski, the heath minister, said that Poland was in its fifth wave of the pandemic. New cases fell in December after an autumn surge but they have recently shot back up.

The government has been condemned for its handling of the pandemic. 13 of the 17 members of Poland‘s Medical Council advising the prime minister on Covid resigned last week over what they said was a lack of scientific influence on policy.

Japan tops 50,000 daily Covid cases for first time

10:40 , Liam James

Japan’s daily coronavirus case total exceeded 50,000 for the first time as the Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly.

Tokyo recorded its fourth record number of daily Covid-19 cases in a row with 11,227, more than double the 4,561 logged a week earlier.

Infections nationwide totalled at least 50,200 as almost 30 of Japan’s 47 prefectures set records, broadcaster FNN reported.

New restrictions have been brought in – the first since September – to try and slow the spread. Restaurants and bars are under curfew in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across the country.

While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, few have received a booster shot, which greatly increases protection from Omicron.

Leaked NHS data reveals mental health services are ‘failing’ Black children

10:20 , Liam James

Ethnic minority children and adults continue to be failed by mental health services, as leaked NHS data shows higher rates of detention and lower access to community care during the pandemic, The Independent can reveal.

A leaked NHS report into the use of mental health services by minority ethnic and white patients in 2021 shows that Black and mixed-raced children accounted for 36 per cent of young people detained in the highest-level units, despite representing just 11 per cent of the population.

The figures, seen by The Independent, suggest that children from Black backgrounds also have lower levels of access to support services, with these children making up only 5 per cent of general CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) lists and just one per cent of those accessing community eating disorder services.

Full report from Rebecca Thomas here:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Boris Johnson urges teachers to follow new mask rules

09:59 , Liam James

Boris Johnson has urged teachers who insist masks should still worn in classrooms to observe the change in rules.

The government lifted the requirement for children to wear masks in class on Thursday but headteachers around the country have said they plan to ignore the change due to rising cases of Covid-19.

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

He added: “The prime minister also thinks that the schools should follow the latest guidance.

“We’ve been clear that we removed the requirement for face masks to be worn in classrooms and we will remove advice for face masks to be worn in communal areas from January 27.”

Welsh health students will get money in bid to meet staff demand

09:40 , Liam James

Health and social care students in Wales will be given money to help them complete their studies and begin work.

The £1.8 million support package is to be given to colleges and is intended to attract more learners so the high demand for qualified staff can be met.

Jeremy Miles, the education minister, said the pandemic had “underlined” the need for trained personnel in NHS and social care settings.

“Trained staff are vital to the continuity of our NHS and social care services, which people across Wales rely on every day,” he said.

“Given the pressure on staffing in our health and social care sectors, it is critical we take action to attract more students and support them in completing their courses.”

There has been a decline in the number of students enrolled on health and social care programmes at colleges, which is said to be a result of the impact of Covid on the delivery of courses.

Nicola Sturgeon referred to watchdog for ‘seriously twisting’ Covid stats

09:22 , Liam James

Nicola Sturgeon has been reported to the statistics watchdog on a claim that she “seriously twisted” coronavirus figures.

In Scottish parliament, Ms Sturgeon referred to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data to say England’s infection rate was “over 20 per cent higher” than Scotland’s.

The ONS figures show 5.4 per cent of people in England are infected compared to 4.4 per cent in Scotland.

The English figure can be calculated to be 21.8 per cent higher than Scotland, but the Scottish Liberal Democrats have taken umbrage at the claim because there is just a 0.98 percentage points difference between the two numbers.

In a letter to UK Statistics Authority chair Sir David Norgrove, Lib Dem MSP Willie Rennie wrote: “Public confidence in these statistics must not be put at risk. There must be no bias, spin or manipulation. However, I am concerned that these statistics may have been seriously twisted.”

It is the second time in recent weeks that a senior Scottish government figure has been reported to the watchdog.

Labour previously accused John Swinney, the deputy first minister, of misrepresenting the impact of coronavirus restrictions by suggesting Scotland had a lower Covid rate than England because it had more restrictions.

Government ‘considers pausing’ NHS vaccine mandate

08:40 , Liam James

The government is considering pausing its plans to make coronavirus vaccination mandatory for NHS staff, according to a report, over fears that some 70,000 health service staff could be lost as a result, writes Andy Gregory.

The new rules are set to come into force on 1 April – with the necessary gap between doses meaning that staff who have not received their first jab by 3 February will soon start to receive letters of dismissal.

Both the Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Midwives have separately called upon Sajid Javid, the health secretary, to halt the move voted for by MPs last month, with the former warning it “would be an act of self-sabotage” in light of the staffing crisis plaguing the NHS.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

New Omicron sub-variant ‘under investigation’

08:15 , Liam James

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has designated a new sub-variant of Omicron as a “variant under investigation” as data from other countries suggest it grows faster that the original.

Britain has sequenced 426 cases of the BA.2 sub-lineage, and the UKHSA said that while there was uncertainty around the significance of the difference, early analysis suggested it had an increased growth rate compared to the original Omicron lineage, BA.1.

“It is the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it’s to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge,” Dr Meera Chand, incident director at the UKHSA, said.

“Our continued genomic surveillance allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant.”

BA.2, which does not have the specific mutation seen with Omicron that can help to easily distinguish it from Delta, has not been designated a variant of concern.

UKHSA said that 40 countries had reported the sub-variant, with the most samples reported in Denmark, followed by India, Britain, Sweden and Singapore.

In Denmark, BA.2 has grown rapidly. It accounted for 20 per cent of all Covid cases in the last week of 2021, rising to 45 per cent in the second week of 2022.

Ireland lifts most Covid restrictions

07:55 , Liam James

Ireland has lifted the majority of Covid restrictions.

Among measures to be brought to an end are an 8pm curfew on pubs and restaurants and the need for Covid passes in hospitality, entertainment and leisure outlets.

Live events and sporting events can return to full capacity audiences and guidance advising limits on household visits has been removed.

Workers will return to offices on a staggered basis from Monday.

The relaxation – announced by the government on Friday evening – came into effect at 6am on Saturday.

Only a small number of restrictions remain in place, including the continued requirement to wear masks in settings such as in shops, schools and on public transport; self-isolation rules; and the use of Covid passes for international travel.

In a televised address on Friday, premier Micheal Martin told the nation it was “time to be ourselves again”.

Women waiting longer for operations and appointments in pandemic, report finds

05:00 , Laurie Churchman

Women are being forced to wait longer for operations and healthcare appointments in the wake of the pandemic, according to a new report.

Research carried out by the Care Quality Commission, England’s regulator of health and social care, found 53 per cent of women experienced longer waiting times for appointments or healthcare procedures during the Covid crisis.

The report also found three in 10 women experienced appointment cancellations.

Maya Oppenheim has the full story below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

PM to spend weekend ‘calling wavering Tory MPs’

04:00 , Laurie Churchman

Boris Johnson is reportedly set to spend the weekend in his study at Chequers, his country retreat, calling up wavering MPs and trying to win them over following the Partygate scandal.

Fifty-four Tory MPs must submit letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee to trigger a no-confidence vote, and insiders now believe it is a case of “when, not if” the threshold is passed, according to The Times.

There are reportedly fears inside Downing Street that Sue Gray’s report on lockdown parties could be more damning than first thought.

Mr Johnson’s chief of staff Dan Rosenfield is said to have told colleagues: “We might all need to fall on our swords here.”

More on this below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

PM ‘reinstates Tory leadership team’ amid Partygate scandal

03:00 , Laurie Churchman

Boris Johnson has reportedly reinstated his Tory leadership team and set up a spreadsheet to keep tabs on MPs’ loyalties amid concerns he will face a no-confidence vote over the party scandal.

The prime minister is relying on the group who helped him triumph in the 2019 leadership contest and has started scrutinising every Conservative MP to determine if they are on side, undecided, or eager to kick him out, according to The Times.

You can read the full story below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Royal Mail told it must improve as impacts of pandemic subside

02:00 , Laurie Churchman

Royal Mail has been warned by its regulator it must improve its service as delivery delays left some receiving Christmas post in the middle of January.

Royal Mail has said delivery offices have been struggling due to staff absences related to the Omicron wave and “other local factors”.

In some offices a third of employees have been off sick during the Omicron wave, a Royal Mail spokesperson said.

You can read the full report below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Tory MP to inform police about alleged ‘bullying and intimidation’

01:00 , Laurie Churchman

Senior Tory MP William Wragg says he will inform police about “several” alleged examples of bullying and intimidation, in some cases involving public money.

He has accused No 10 of trying to ‘blackmail’ MPs seeking to remove Boris Johnson following the Partygate scandal.

He now says he will discuss the claims with the Met police.

“I stand by what I have said. No amount of gas-lighting will change that,” he told The Telegraph.

“The offer of Number 10 to investigate is kind but I shall leave it to the experts. I am meeting the police early next week.”

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “We’re not aware of any evidence to support what are clearly serious allegations.

“If there was any evidence to support it, it would of course be looked at.”

A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: “As with any such allegations, should a criminal offence be reported to the Met, it would be considered.”

Andy Gregory has the full story below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Senior Tory MP to meet police over No 10 blackmail claims

Friday 21 January 2022 23:52 , Laurie Churchman

The senior Tory MP who accused No 10 of trying to ‘blackmail’ MPs seeking to remove Boris Johnson is to meet police to discuss his allegations.

William Wragg said he will be meeting a Scotland Yard detective in the House of Commons early next week, raising the prospect police could open an investigation.

It came after Downing Street said it would not be mounting its own inquiry into the claims, despite calls to do so by both Conservative and opposition MPs.

Andy Gregory reports below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

‘Momentous day’ for Ireland’s music scene

Friday 21 January 2022 23:00 , Laurie Churchman

Ireland’s music and entertainment industry is celebrating a “momentous day” after the announcement most Covid restrictions will be lifted tomorrow.

The Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland (MEAI) said it had been 680 days of “adversity, being unable to work in any meaningful way, of financial hardship, and of major mental anguish and despair”.

“As we face this return to normality we are conscious that this will be another difficult journey for the months ahead,” it said.

“Our sector has been decimated and needs to be rebuilt. The pandemic has questioned our value and identity as professionals, and we must challenge that and improve the recognition and quality of our lives as professionals in this sector.

“We face tomorrow with some apprehension, maybe a sense of disbelief, but most of all with hope and optimism that the worst is behind us and brighter days are ahead.”

It said financial support will be needed to help the sector rebuild.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent Musicians playing Irish traditional music at a pub in central Dublin (Reuters)

Ireland’s hospitality sector welcomes end of most Covid curbs

Friday 21 January 2022 22:00 , Laurie Churchman

Ireland’s hospitality sector has welcomed the news that most Covid restrictions are to end from tomorrow.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins said businesses are “breathing a sigh of relief after two years of lockdowns and restricted trading and are excited to trade again”.

“Staff and customer safety will continue to be paramount for the sector,” he added.

Meanwhile the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) said the removal of most restrictions has been “greeted with a huge amount of relief and expectation by publicans and their staff across the country”.

“It really is remarkable to see it all coming to an end,” said VFI chief executive Padraig Cribben.

He added: “The hospitality trade can’t return to rolling lockdowns so government must engage with the sector about meaningful solutions to keep us open.”

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent (PA)

St Patrick’s Day parade will take place after two-year absence

Friday 21 January 2022 21:30 , Laurie Churchman

A St Patrick’s Day parade will take place in Ireland in March after a two-year absence.

The annual celebration of Ireland’s patron saint moved online for the last two years as the country battled the coronavirus pandemic.

But following the announcement of the removal of most Covid restrictions in Ireland, Minister for Tourism Catherine Martin confirmed a physical parade will take place in 2022.

“I can confirm there will be a parade on St Patrick’s Day after two years of an absence, we will have a physical parade and actually the department is funding over two million euros in the events for that day and there will be strong online content as well,” she said.

“All of this is being worked on, we’ve been doing contingency plans behind the scenes but we’re delighted now that a physical parade will take place and we will announce the details on that shortly.”

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent A man dressed as St Patrick during celebrations in 2018 (PA)

Which Covid measures are still in place in Ireland?

Friday 21 January 2022 20:59 , Laurie Churchman

Almost all Covid restrictions will be lifted in Ireland tomorrow, but a few measures are still in place.

Masks must still be warn in all locations where they are currently required.

People must still self-isolate after testing positive for the virus.

The Covid-19 pass for international travel will remain, due to the prevalence of Covid-19 in other countries.

Protective measures will also remain in place in primary and secondary schools.

This will be reviewed at the end of February, when all children aged five to 11 will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

For a full summary, see our report below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Taoiseach: ‘We need to see each other again’

Friday 21 January 2022 20:11 , Laurie Churchman

Taoiseach Micheal Martin struck an upbeat tone in his address to the nation, saying it was time for people in Ireland to see one another again.

He said: “Spring is coming. I don’t know if I’ve ever looked forward to one as much as I’m looking forward to this one.

“Humans are social beings and we Irish are more social than most.

“As we look forward to this spring, we need to see each other again. We need to see each other smile. We need to sing again.

“As we navigate this new phase of Covid, it is time to be ourselves again.”

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent Taoiseach Micheal Martin (PA)

Covid not over in Ireland, Taoiseach warns

Friday 21 January 2022 19:47 , Laurie Churchman

Taoiseach Micheal Martin says the vaccination programme in Ireland has been transformative. But he warned the pandemic is not over.

“It will still require all of us to be vigilant,” he cautioned.

He said there is likely to be a temporary rise in infections following the easing of restrictions, but the impact would be limited by the scale of vaccination in the population.

He added: “I can’t promise you there won’t be further twists in this pandemic requiring different decisions in the future but I do know this, solidarity with each other and trust in science has got us to where we are today and will get us through whatever else this virus may throw at us.”

Nearly all Covid restrictions to be lifted in Ireland from tomorrow

Friday 21 January 2022 19:25 , Laurie Churchman

Almost all Covid restrictions will be lifted in Ireland from 6am on Saturday, the country’s premier Micheal Martin has confirmed.

The only rules to remain in place will the wearing of masks, self-isolating after testing positive for the virus, and Covid passes for international travel.

A phased return to the workplace will begin from Monday, while normal hours will resume in the hospitality industry this weekend.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin told the nation it was “time to be ourselves again”.

But he warned the pandemic is not over yet.

You can read the full story below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Latest UK Covid hotspots revealed as almost all areas record drop in cases

Friday 21 January 2022 19:14 , Laurie Churchman

The latest Covid hotspots have been revealed as cases continue to drop across nearly all parts of the UK.

Newry, Mourne & Down in Northern Ireland has the highest rate in the UK, with 2,997 new cases in the seven days to 17 January – the equivalent of 1,649.7 per 100,000 people.

This is down from a rate of 1,942.5 for the seven days to 10 January.

Newport has the highest rate in Wales (682.7, down from 1,167.2); and East Lothian has the highest rate in Scotland (679.3, down from 1,147.4).

Just two areas have recorded a week-on-week rise in rates: Broadland in Norfolk (up from 1,011.9 to 1,061.2) and Winchester in Hampshire (1,018.9 to 1030.8).

Ian Jones has the full story below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Omicron sub-variant takes hold in Denmark

Friday 21 January 2022 18:33 , Laurie Churchman

In Denmark, the new Omicron BA.2 sub-variant has risen rapidly. It accounted for 20% of all Covid cases in the last week of 2021, increasing to 45% in the second week of 2022.

Initial analysis made by Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut (SSI) showed no difference in hospitalisations for Omicron BA.2 compared to BA.1.

SSI researcher Anders Fomsgaard said he did not yet have a good explanation for BA.2’s rapid growth, adding he was puzzled rather than worried.

“It may be that it is more resistant to the immunity in the population, which allows it to infect more. We do not know yet,” he told local media.

He added there was a possibility people infected with BA.1 might not be immune from catching BA.2 soon after.

UKHSA probing virulence of Omicron sub-variant

Friday 21 January 2022 18:12 , Andy Gregory

The UKHSA is investigating the potential virulence of the new Omicron sub-lineage, BA.2.

“It is the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it’s to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge as the pandemic goes on,” said the agency’s Covid-19 incident director, Dr Meera Chand.

“Our continued genomic surveillance allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant.

“So far, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether BA.2 causes more severe illness than Omicron BA.1, but data is limited and UKHSA continues to investigate.

“Case rates remain high throughout the UK and we must remain vigilant and take up vaccinations. We should all continue to test regularly with LFDs and take a PCR test if symptoms develop.”

Early analyses of new sub-variant ‘suggest increased growth rate’ from original Omicron type

Friday 21 January 2022 17:56 , Andy Gregory

According to the UK Health Security Agency, early analyses of the new BA.2 sub-variant “suggest an increased growth rate compared to BA.1” – the original Omicron iteration.

However, growth rates have a low level of certainty early in the emergence of a variant and further analysis is needed, the government agency said.

Hundreds of cases of Omicron sub-variant detected in England

Friday 21 January 2022 17:39 , Andy Gregory

Some 426 cases of the new Omicron sub-variant have been discovered in England, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

The sub-lineage known as BA.2 has been designated a variant under investigation, the health agency said.

The areas with the largest number of confirmed cases are London – with 146 – and the South East, with 97. Data for the devolved administrations will soon follow, the UKHSA said.

At least 40 countries have detected the sub-variant, the UKHSA said, with the first sequences submitted to an international database coming from the Philippines. Most samples have been uploaded from Denmark, (6,411), while India, Sweden and Singapore have also uploaded more than 100 samples.

My colleague Laurie Churchman has more details on this breaking development here:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Watch: Kiribati island is no longer Covid-free after first flight lands

Friday 21 January 2022 16:05 , Emily Atkinson

Council workers support medical staff on wards at under-pressure health board

Friday 21 January 2022 15:53 , Emily Atkinson

Council workers are helping medical staff on the wards as a health board’s hospitals face “exceptional” demand, officials said.

NHS Lanarkshire said staff from North and South Lanarkshire councils will help staff across its three acute hospitals which are under strain due to Omicron cases, workforce shortages caused by staff absences and general winter pressures.

Council staff have been given training and will be helping on the wards with tasks such as supporting the movement of patients and general housekeeping duties.

Lucinda Cameron has the details here:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
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Russian authorities report record number of infections amid Omicron surge

Friday 21 January 2022 15:35 , Emily Atkinson

Russia reported record-breaking coronavirus infection figures on Friday amid a surge in cases authorities have blamed on the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova on Friday said “intensive spread of the omicron variant” and said the authorities “expect it to become the dominating” variant driving the outbreak.

The country reported 49,513 new infections on Friday — the highest number of cases since the start of the pandemic.

UK daily Covid cases closer to half-a-million per day in week after Christmas, ONS suggests

Friday 21 January 2022 15:20 , Emily Atkinson

Daily coronavirus case numbers in the UK were around three times what the official government figures had shown in the week after Christmas, averaging around 500,000 a day, estimates suggest.

From 26 December to 1 January, the average number of new Covid cases as per the government’s dashboard was 173,400.

But an analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the true total was closer to 476,100 every 24-hours.

It is assumed that the discrepancy is due to the government site only accounting for people who have reported themselves as having tested positive for the virus.

ONS figures are instead accumulated on analysis of nose and throat swabs taken from a representative sample of more than 150,000 people in private households.

With additional reporting from PA

Scotland’s clinical director hails likely end to full national lockdowns

Friday 21 January 2022 15:05 , Emily Atkinson

Scotland’s clinical director has said he thinks the country has seen the back of full Covid lockdowns, but warned there may be some “tricky moments on the road out” of the pandemic.

Speaking on the BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Professor Jason Leitch said: “I don’t think we’ll go back to full lockdowns.

“I can’t tell you for sure – nobody knows for sure – but my reading of the science, the history of pandemics, the global research that’s going on would suggest that the very original days – now some two years ago unbelievably – where we were locked in our houses… I don’t think we’re heading back there.

“But I think we might have tricky moments on the road out, but I’m hopeful today because Omicron is diminishing.”

Travel tests have virtually no impact on spread of Covid variants, study shows

Friday 21 January 2022 14:50 , Emily Atkinson

Covid-19 tests taken by travellers have little to no impact on the spread of new coronavirus variants, recent analysis shows.

To contain the spread of a new variant like Omicron, new restrictions would have be imposed within one day of the strain first being imported to a country, according to research from Edge Health and Oxera, two specialist research consultancies that work with the NHS.

If introduced on day one, the modelling shows, travel restrictions could delay the peak of a new variant’s spread by between two and eight days.

However, the impact of travel restrictions reduced for each day they were delayed, up to day six – after which introducing new tests only delayed the peak by a day.

Lucy Thackray reports:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
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Scotland records 7,000 new coronavirus cases

Friday 21 January 2022 14:35 , Emily Atkinson

Scotland has recorded a further 16 Covid-related deaths and 7,162 new cases, new figures published by the Scottish government on Friday show.

Meanwhile, there were 1,511 people in hospital on Thursday with recently confirmed coronavirus, down three on the day before, with 43 in intensive care, no change on the previous day.

At present, 4,404,268 people have received their first dose of the vaccination, 4,099,222 have received their second dose, and 3,238,127 have received a third dose or booster.

Major incident in London stood down but mayor urges caution over Omicron

Friday 21 January 2022 14:25 , Emily Atkinson

The major incident declared in London last month as Omicron spread across the capital has been stood down.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan took the decision on December 18 to declare a major incident due to the spread of the variant, a rise in patients in London hospitals and the impact of staff absences in frontline services.

Mr Khan said he is standing down the major incident status but warned the city will remain on high alert.

Catherine Wylie has more here:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
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EU health ministers warned to prepare to administer fourth vaccine dose

Friday 21 January 2022 14:08 , Emily Atkinson

European Union nations have been told to make preparations to deliver a fourth dose of the Covid vaccine the moment data shows if is needed amid a surge in cases driven by the highly-infectious Omicron variant.

The EU drugs regulator said earlier week it would be reasonable to give a fourth dose to people with at risk of developing severe symotoms, but more evidence was needed.

“If we see data which is conclusive on whether a fourth dose is needed, we need to be ready to act,” EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told health ministers in a video conference.

Omicron sub variant BA.2 ‘under investigation’ by UK health officials

Friday 21 January 2022 13:40 , Emily Atkinson

A sub-lineage of the Omicron strain has been formally designated as a “variant under investigation” by the UK Health Security Agency.

Just 53 cases of BA.2 have been detected in the UK up to 10 January, the UKHSA said.

Unlike the original Omicron variant, which accounts for the majority of infections in the UK, BA.2 does not carry a unique mutation that was used as a proxy to first track and compare its early spread against Delta last month.

Our science correspondent Samuel Lovett has the story:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Sadiq Khan standing down major incident in London

Friday 21 January 2022 13:25 , Emily Atkinson

The Mayor of London has taken the decision to stand down the major incident declared in London last month amid Omicron fears.

Sadiq Khan declared a major incident in the capital on 18 December due to the fast spread of the variant, a sudden surge in patients being admitted with Covid-19 into London hospitals and health service staff absences.

Mr Khan said: “Our NHS and emergency services have gone above and beyond during an extremely testing period for our city.

“Everyone who wore a mask, took a lateral flow test or followed the advice to work from home where possible, has played their part in reducing the pressure they faced and enabled us to stand down the ‘major incident’ in London today.

“But the virus and the Omicron variant is still with us and daily infection rates are still too high.

He added that Londoners must “all remain vigilant” and to continue to take personal measures to allow the city to “reopen safely”.

“Wearing a face covering remains one of the single most important and easiest things we can all do to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and that’s why I’m renewing my calls for the Government to rethink their plans and keep legislation in place to make them mandatory on public transport.

“They still have a huge role to play in keeping our city open and our friends, family and communities protected.

“Covid-19 continues to pose a significant threat and our hospitals remain under pressure.

“That’s why it’s crucial that Londoners test regularly and report their results, come forward for vaccinations, and continue to wear a face covering when travelling on TfL services, where it remains a condition of carriage.”

Boris Johnson: Teachers must abandon masks as face-to-face education ‘vital’

Friday 21 January 2022 13:19 , Emily Atkinson

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

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

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Watch: Welsh First Minister says UK Government has ‘abandoned science’ in new Covid rules

Friday 21 January 2022 13:00 , Emily Atkinson

One in five adults had difficulty getting lateral flow tests in January – ONS

Friday 21 January 2022 12:35 , Emily Atkinson

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

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

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

Jemma Crew has the details:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Education secretary’s letter on mask-wearing in classrooms ‘unnecessary’ and ‘bizarre’, says teaching union

Friday 21 January 2022 12:10 , Emily Atkinson

A teaching union has called a letter sent from Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to MPs saying he will personally review plans to bring back face masks to classrooms “utterly unnecessary, if not bizarre”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, told the PA news agency: “Schools and colleges who take the decision to keep face coverings as a requirement in classrooms will have… done so following a risk assessment, and with the head using his or her professional judgment and knowledge about what’s best for the school to protect face-to-face education.

“This is a sensible precaution, particularly given we are now in the run-up to national examinations and the issues to education caused by staff and pupil absences.

“That Whitehall would seek to micromanage such decisions seems utterly unnecessary, if not bizarre.”

UK Health Security Agency designates new sub-strain of Omicron as variant ‘under investigation’

Friday 21 January 2022 12:01 , Emily Atkinson

The #OmicronVariant sub-lineage known as BA.2 has been designated as a variant under investigation. The number of BA.2 cases is currently low, with the original Omicron lineage, BA.1, still dominant in the UK and further analyses will now be undertaken. https://t.co/254m2rwJN5

— UK Health Security Agency (@UKHSA) January 21, 2022

Senior Tory MP to meet Met Police over No 10 blackmail claims

Friday 21 January 2022 23:45 , Laurie Churchman

The senior Tory backbencher who accused No 10 of trying to “blackmail” MPs seeking to remove Boris Johnson is to meet police to discuss his allegations.

William Wragg said he will be meeting a Scotland Yard detective in the House of Commons early next week, raising the prospect police could open an investigation.

It came after Downing Street said it would not be mounting its own inquiry into the claims, despite calls to do so by both Conservative and opposition MPs.

Andy Gregory has the full story below.

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Newcastle’s European fixture against Toulon cancelled due to Covid-19 issues

Friday 21 January 2022 11:46 , Emily Atkinson

Newcastle’s European Challenge Cup game against Toulon on Saturday has been cancelled due to coronavirus cases at the Gallagher Premiership club.

Tournament organisers European Professional Club Rugby said Newcastle had informed them they were not in a position to fulfil the fixture at Stade Felix-Mayol.

The Falcons said nine positive Covid-19 tests had been recorded following Newcastle’s European Challenge Cup trip to Biarritz seven days ago.

Andrew Baldock reports:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

More people working from home than before Plan B restrictions introduced in England – ONS

Friday 21 January 2022 11:30 , Emily Atkinson

Around a quarter of working adults worked exclusively from home from 6 to 16 January, latest figures show.

According to the latest survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 26 per cent of people stayed away from offices over the 10 day period – representing an increase of 14 per cent during the 1 to 12 December 2021 period, before the introduction of Plan B measures.

First flight lands on Covid-free island – now the island is no longer Covid-free

Friday 21 January 2022 11:15 , Emily Atkinson

The island of Kiribati had managed to stay Covid-free for the entirety of the pandemic – but when the first flight touched down last Friday, two-thirds of the passengers onboard tested positive for the virus.

The independent island nation in the Pacific Ocean, population 119,000, reopened its borders on 10 January for the first time in 10 months.

A Fiji Airways flight from Fiji to the Kiribati capital of South Tarawa on 14 January was the first aircraft to land after the reopening.

But on-arrival testing showed that 46 of the 54 people onboard were infected with Covid-19. Authorities say the travellers are well and in quarantine.

Lucy Thackray has the details:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Germany could see daily Covid figures surpass 400,000 by mid-February, sources claim

Friday 21 January 2022 10:55 , Emily Atkinson

Sources close to Germany’s health minister have told Reuters that the country could see at least 400,000 daily Covid cases by mid-February.

It comes as Germany reported a record 140,160 new coronavirus cases on Friday.

The sources also claim Karl Lauterbach said in a discussion with government officials that the number could surpass 600,000 new cases per day if the booster shots were less protective.

Northern Ireland: Another 36 Covid-linked deaths recorded in weekly update

Friday 21 January 2022 10:45 , Emily Atkinson

Thirty-six deaths linked to Covid-19 in Northern Ireland have been recorded in the latest weekly update.

The figure represents an increase of 10 fatalities on the 26 deaths that occurred in the previous week, according to data compiled by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra).

The latest deaths, registered in the week ending January 14, take the total number of coronavirus-linked fatalities recorded by Nisra to 4,100.

David Young has more here:

Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
© Provided by The Independent

Poland reports record-breaking daily Covid figures

Friday 21 January 2022 10:36 , Emily Atkinson

Poland is set to report a record-breaking 36,665 daily coronavirus cases on Friday, a deputy health minister has said, as a fifth wave of the virus driven by Omicron takes hold.

According to Reuters, authorities have wanred the EU is set to face case numbers to heights yet unseen in Poland.

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

Only a week ago, daily cases were just topped 16,000.

Retail sales suffer worst Christmas on record amid Omicron fears

Friday 21 January 2022 10:25 , Emily Atkinson

Retailers endured their worst December drop-off on record last month as the Omicron variant tore its way through the UK.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recorded a 3.7 per cent month-on-month slump, marking December as worst hit month since last January, when Britain faced a new lockdown.

Heather Bovill, ONS deputy director for surveys and economic indicators, said: “After strong pre-Christmas trading in November, retail sales fell across the board in December, with feedback from retailers suggesting Omicron impacted on footfall.”

She added: “With encouraging signs that the Omicron outbreak may have turned a corner and the government’s Plan B restrictions due to be lifted next week, retail sales may recoup a bit of this fall in January and probably all of it in February and March.

“That said, with the UK’s cost of living crisis looming, we expect a weakening in the consumer recovery to dampen retail sales further ahead.”

Lateral flow test take-up increased by 42% on period prior to Plan B measures

Friday 21 January 2022 10:10 , Emily Atkinson

Latest results from our Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (6 to 16 Jan 2022) show 61% of adults reported taking a rapid lateral flow test in the past seven days.

This is up from 42% in the period prior to England’s Plan B measures (1 to 12 Dec 2021) https://t.co/KXQdnhyi1F pic.twitter.com/dD3CjaAWgs

— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) January 21, 2022

In pictures: Mask burning event held in Oregon to protest Covid mandates

Friday 21 January 2022 10:00 , Emily Atkinson

Protesters gathered in Portland, Oregan, to burn face coverings during a demonstration against mask mandates.

The ‘Mask BBQ’, so named by organisers the Free Oregon group, attracted crowds both in favour of the protest, and swathes of people against it.

  • Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    (Getty Images)
  • Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    (Getty Images)
  • Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    (Getty Images)
  • Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    (Getty Images)
  • Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    (Getty Images)
  • Dehli to lift curfew after drop in Covid cases

    Friday 21 January 2022 09:45 , Emily Atkinson

    Dehli is preparing to remove the weekend curfew and start a gradual reintroduction to office work after a recent drop-off Covid cases, a city official today announced.

    The number of new cases in India’s capital has more than halved from a peak of 28,867 on 13 January.

    New figures show that 80 per cent of coronavirus beds across the city’s hospitals were unoccupied.

    “In view of the declining cases of corona, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal approved the proposal,” the official told Reuters when asked if the weekend curfew would be lifted.

    Covid passes to stay in place in Wales until at least 10 February

    Friday 21 January 2022 09:34 , Emily Atkinson

    The first minister of Wales said the use of the passes would be reviewed in mid February.

    Speaking on Sky News this morning, Mr Drakeford said: “(Covid passes) will stay in place for a bit longer than some of the other protections we put in place in order to make sure that Wales goes on having a smooth path out of the Omicron wave that hit us so very badly over Christmas and early in the new year, but which in line with the modelling seems to be receding very quickly as well,” he said.

    Asked if February 10 could be the end of the Covid pass, he said: “I think it’s conceivable, but by no means guaranteed.

    “We’ve just seen in the last week or so how fast things can change with this virus and February 10 is still three weeks away.

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

    Mark Drakeford says he does not wish to see the use of Covid passes continuing “in perpetuity”.

    Toyota production in Japan hit by parts crunch from COVID-19

    Friday 21 January 2022 09:00 , Emily Atkinson

    The shortage of parts caused by the coronavirus pandemic is further denting production at Toyota Japan’s top automaker.

    Production at 11 plants in Japan will be halted Friday, Saturday and next Monday, Toyota Motor Corp. said.

    That comes on top of reductions planned for February that were announced earlier. Those reduction will be on various days at eight of its 14 plants in Japan, including assembly lines making the Prius hybrid and Lexus luxury models.

    Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    © Provided by The Independent

    Government ‘long since abandoned’ Covid figures in devising measures, says Drakeford

    Friday 21 January 2022 08:45 , Emily Atkinson

    The UK government has “long since abandoned” the science on coronavirus figures when setting regulations, first minister of Wales has said.

    Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Mark Drakeford said: I don’t think there’s any doubt at all the UK Government has long abandoned any sense that it is following the science.

    “It is a government desperately mired in difficulties of its own making, and is forever on the lookout for a headline that will distract people’s attention from the awful mess that it finds itself in.”

    When asked if he believed the differences between restrictions in the two countries would cause problems for the people of Wales, he replied: “People have had to manage those differences, right through the pandemic.”

    Mr Drakeford continued: “My job and the job of my cabinet is to take the medical and scientific advice, we have to make the decisions that we think go on keeping Wales safe.”

    With additional reporting from PA

    Pakistan reports record-breaking Covid case numbers

    Friday 21 January 2022 08:35 , Emily Atkinson

    Pakistan has reported over 7,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day – the highest daily number of infections since the pandemic began.

    23 deaths were also reported in the last 24 hours, according to data from the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC), which is overseeing the pandemic response.

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

    Watch: Relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions agreed by NI executive

    Friday 21 January 2022 08:25 , Emily Atkinson

    Face coverings to remain mandatory on public transport in London, says Mayor

    Friday 21 January 2022 08:15 , Emily Atkinson

    One really important note that must not be missed as Plan B is lifted:

    Face coverings will remain mandatory on TfL services unless you’re exempt.

    We cannot risk undoing all the hard work we’ve done to stop this virus in its tracks. Please keep wearing your mask.

    — Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (@MayorofLondon) January 21, 2022

    Hong Kong police to deal with people who attempt to block Covid hamster cull

    Friday 21 January 2022 08:05 , Emily Atkinson

    Hong Kong police will handle owners who refuse to hand over their hamsters to authorities amid a drive to cull nearly 2,000 hamsters after 11 tested positive for coronavirus at a pet shop.

    Officials on Tuesday asked pet owners to hand over hamsters they purchased in the last four weeks to be euthanised.

    The order has been met with public uproar, with thousands offering to adopt the unwanted rodents. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam called the retaliation irrational.

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

    “If the people concerned continue with such action, or fail to return the hamsters taken away, the AFCD will stringently follow up and hand it over to the police for handling,” the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said.

    Kwasi Kwarteng: Schools should follow ‘clear’ government guidance on face coverings

    Friday 21 January 2022 07:55 , Emily Atkinson

    Schools should follow the official guidance on mask-wearing, the business secretary has said.

    Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News: “The guidance from the Prime Minister is very clear: that we won’t need to be wearing masks.”

    It comes after education secretary Nadhim Zahaw said he will personally vet any plans to bring back masks in schools in areas hit by Covid spikes.

    With additional reporting from PA

    Irish Cabinet to consider recommendations to ease Covid-19 restrictions

    Friday 21 January 2022 07:45 , Emily Atkinson

    The Irish Cabinet will meet later to consider recommendations from health chiefs to end most of the state’s Covid restrictions.

    It is understood that the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has recommended restrictions around hospitality can be lifted, including the 8pm curfew and ending the requirement for a Covid pass to enter premises.

    Nphet met on Thursday evening and issued a series of recommendations in a letter to ministers.

    They include that live venues and sport venues can return to full capacity, an end to restrictions on household guests and a phased return to work.

    Rebecca Black reports:

    Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    © Provided by The Independent

    Japan to introduce curfews on hospitality in Tokyo from Friday

    Friday 21 January 2022 07:29 , Emily Atkinson

    Japan will introduce a curfew on bars and restaurants in Tokyo and a number of other areas from today in a bid to stem the spread of the Omicron variant.

    According to the Associated Press, the new variant of Covid-19 has been causing major case surges in metropolitan areas across the country.

    The Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures have been subject to similar restrictions since early January. Today’s announcement will see 16 areas under the same measures – equal to one third of Japan.

    UK’s move to scrap Covid restrictions leave clinically vulnerable as ‘collateral damage’, charities warn

    Friday 21 January 2022 07:20 , Stuti Mishra

    Leading charities have spoken out against the government’s scrapping of Covid-19 measures warning that clinically vulnerable people have been made “collateral damage for political considerations.”

    Those representing thousands of clinically vulnerable people have warned the government’s decisions to scrap Covid-19 restrictions leaves people “marginalised” and warned there was a risk to five and 11-year-old vulnerable children who are yet to be vaccinated.

    The removal of Covid-19 restrictions next week will mean masks are no longer mandatory, the government will no longer ask people to work from home, while Blood Cancer UK has called for the government to do more to support immunocompromised people such as giving them priority testing.

    Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
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    Adele postpones Las Vegas residency due to ‘delivery delays and Covid’

    Friday 21 January 2022 07:05 , Stuti Mishra

    Adele says “she’s embarrassed” as she announced in a teary-eyed Instagram video she has been forced to reschedule all of her Las Vegas shows.

    The British-born Easy on Me singer postponed her exclusive new residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace Hotel just 24 hours before its opening night.

    “I’m so sorry, but my show ain’t ready,” she said in the video posted to Instagram on Thursday.

    The entertainer said that all of the shows would be rescheduled, and blamed it on “delivery delays and Covid”.

    Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    © Provided by The Independent

    Son kills himself over guilt of exposing father to Covid

    Friday 21 January 2022 06:46 , Stuti Mishra

    A California woman said that her teenage son took his own life after he felt guilty for the death of his father who died of Covid-19.

    Stephanie Reyes, 37, said that she and her whole family had contracted Covid in August last year. Her husband Anthony, 46, died in September due to complications arising from the disease.

    “At the end of August, my family and I contracted Covid and within a matter of days, I lost my husband,” Ms Reyes said to Fox LA.

    However, after a few months, Ms Reyes found that her son had ended his life when she found his bedroom light on at 4am.

    Full story:

    Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    © Provided by The Independent

    India plans Covid vaccine trial on lions, leopards

    Friday 21 January 2022 06:30 , Stuti Mishra

    Zoos in India are planning to roll out a Covid vaccine trial on resident lions and leopards, the Times of India newspaper reports.

    The trial will be conducted on 15 animals in six zoos across the country using a vaccine developed by ICAR-National Research Centre on Equines (NRCE)

    .The vaccines will be administered in two doses with a gap of 28 days after which the animals will be monitored for antibodies.

    The trial will begin once it has received final approval from the central government, the report said.

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

    India records over 300,000 Covid cases for second consecutive day

    Friday 21 January 2022 06:18 , Stuti Mishra

    India has reported nearly 350,000 cases of Covid-19, another eight-month high after it reported over 300,000 cases on Thursday, as an Omicron-fuelled third wave blazes through the country.

    As many as 703 people have died of Covid during the past 24-hour period, according to the latest health ministry data. The daily positivity rate for testing nationally is up from 16.41 per cent to 17.94 per cent, while the weekly positivity rate was recorded at 16.56 per cent.

    The total Covid cases in the country have reached 38.57 million. The overall count of the highly infectious Omicron variant reached 9,692 today with 29 states reporting cases – though only a tiny fraction of cases are being genomically sequenced.

    China’s locally confirmed Covid cases fall to two-month low

    Friday 21 January 2022 05:59 , Stuti Mishra

    China’s daily locally confirmed cases have fallen to a nearly two month low.

    According to data released on Friday, the country recorded only 23 domestically transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms in the last 24 hours, down from 43 a day earlier.

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

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

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

    The drop comes after a national strategy to quickly curb flare-ups forced worst-hit cities to lockdown affected communities and cut business activity.

    Covid disrupts aid flight to tsunami-hit Tonga

    Friday 21 January 2022 05:09 , Stuti Mishra

    An Australian aid flight to tsunami-hit Tonga was forced to return to base due to a positive Covid-19 case onboard, a defence official said on Friday.

    The Australian aid flight had left Brisbane on Thursday afternoon but it was forced to turn around mid-flight after it was notified of a positive case of Covid, an Australian defence spokeswoman said.

    All crew had returned negative rapid antigen tests before departure, but PCR tests later showed a positive result.

    The supplies were moved to another flight that took off on Friday.

    Tonga has only reported one positive case during the pandemic and has been Covid-free for a long time. It has a strict border control policy and is requiring contactless delivery of aid that began arriving by plane on Thursday.

    Saturday’s volcano eruption and the tsunami that followed has left Tongans struggling to find clean drinking water with their island homes shrouded in volcanic ash.

    France to ease Covid restrictions from next month

    Friday 21 January 2022 04:45 , Stuti Mishra

    French prime minister Jean Castex announced on Thursday that the government will lift most of its Covid-19 restrictions in February, although the need for a vaccine pass and indoor mask-wearing will remain.

    The vaccine pass will come into effect on Monday, Mr Castex said at a press conference. People will no longer be allowed to show a negative test to enter restaurants, bars, theatres, museums and stadiums or travel on trains — only proof of vaccination will be accepted.

    “(The pass) … is necessary if we want to preserve and increase our vaccination coverage in the event of new variants,” Castex said on Thursday. The so-called vaccine pass “clearly puts constraints on the unvaccinated,” he said.

    Starting on 2 February, stadiums, arenas and other large-capacity venues will be allowed to operate at full capacity again. Home-working obligations will be lifted, though it will still be encouraged, and masks will no longer be required outdoors, as is currently the case in many cities.

    “We are unquestionably in a new phase of the epidemic,” said the prime minister.

    Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    © Provided by The Independent French Prime Minister Jean Castex gives a press conference on the ongoing Covid-19 situation, in Paris, on Thursday (Getty Images)

    Austria approves bill to make Covid jabs compulsory for all adults

    Friday 21 January 2022 04:12 , Stuti Mishra

    Austria’s parliament on Thursday approved a Covid-19 vaccination mandate for all eligible adults, the first of its kind in Europe.

    The parliament voted 137 to 33 in the favour of the mandate after a seven-hour discussion.

    It goes into effect from 1 February. Those who do not adhere to the mandate will be slapped with a fine of €600 (£500). Fines could reach 3,600 euros if people contest their punishment and full proceedings are opened.

    Exempted from the mandate are pregnant women, individuals who for medical reasons cannot be vaccinated, and people who have recovered from a coronavirus infection in the past six months.

    Officials say the mandate is necessary because vaccination rates remain too low.

    Health minister Wolfgang Mueckstein, speaking in parliament on Thursday, called the measure a “big and, for the first time, also lasting step” in Austria‘s fight against the pandemic.

    “This is how we can manage to escape the cycle of opening and closing, of lockdowns,” he said, saying it is about fighting not just omicron, but any future variants that might emerge.

    “That is why this law is so urgently needed right now.”

    As of Wednesday, 71.8 per cent of the population of 8.9 million was considered fully vaccinated.

    Covid news – live: New BA.2 variant ‘under investigation’, as cases nearly hit 500,000 a day after Christmas
    © Provided by The Independent Lawmakers voted 137 to 33 in favor of the measure, which will apply to all residents of Austria aged 18 and over with some exemptions (AP)

    Good Morning!

    Friday 21 January 2022 03:55 , Stuti Mishra

    Welcome to The Independent’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Stay tuned for rolling updates and statistics.

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