Mark Drakeford refuses to name date for lifting restrictions in Wales

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Mark Drakeford
Mark Drakeford

Mark Drakeford has refused to give a date for lifting restrictions in Wales, despite the UK Government’s announcement earlier this week that its Covid Plan B will be lifted in England.

The First Minister said at a Welsh government briefing: "When people talk about freedom days and doing things where there's no reverse gear and so on, I think they're just flying in the face of the facts of this global pandemic.”

"We want to do this as soon as we can and as soon as it's safe to do so."

Mr Drakeford continued: "Am I going to offer people in Wales a set of artificial deadlines, peering into the future in a way that neither I or anybody else can know what the circumstances of the time would be? I'm not going to do that.”

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced that almost all Covid restrictions would be lifted in England, with face masks no longer mandated anywhere from Thursday 27 February.

05:34 PM

Today in brief

That's all from us on the Covid blog, but here's a look back at today's key developments:

The Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said that people should return to the office and learn to live with coronavirus, after the Government announced the lifting of its Covid Plan B on Wednesday.

Downing Street also urged teachers who insist masks are still worn in lessons to follow the rules that no longer require their use in classrooms.

However, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford accused the UK Government of not following the science by lifting restrictions and refused to set out a date for when Covid measures would be ended in Wales.

The major incident declared in London last month as omicron spread across the capital has been stood down by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

And finally, the estimated range of England's "R" number has fallen to between 0.8 and 1.1, the UK Health Security Agency said, suggesting that new Covid cases are now likely to be shrinking.

Scroll down for more Covid updates from today.

05:29 PM

Ireland to scrap almost all Covid restrictions from tomorrow

Ireland is to scrap almost all its Covid restrictions from tomorrow, including restrictions on hospitality, limits on sporting events and the requirement for proof of vaccination at indoor venues, a senior minister said.

The government will retain a requirement for people to wear masks on public transport and in shops until the end of February and some measures in schools, Justice Minister Helen McEntee said following a government meeting.

05:25 PM

A lost generation: fears India’s long-running school closures will hit long-term development

A teacher in Mumbai conducts online learning in an empty classroom while schools remain closed -  INDRANIL MUKHERJEE /AFP 
A teacher in Mumbai conducts online learning in an empty classroom while schools remain closed - INDRANIL MUKHERJEE /AFP

Draconian Covid lockdowns mean many children have missed out on large chunks of education and will never return to school, report Joe Wallen and Will Brown.

India has long been touted as the world’s next major economic superpower. It has achieved remarkable growth – over 270 million Indians were pulled out of poverty between 2005 and 2015, according to the United Nations Development Programme – have helped make it the world’s fifth-largest economy.

And its youthful population – more than half its citizens are under the age of 25 – meant it was set for further expansion.

However, experts fear that benefits from this demographic dividend are now under threat. India’s draconian Covid lockdowns mean many children have missed out on large chunks of education, many will never return to school and the already huge gap between rich and poor has become even wider.

In March 2020, schools and other education institutions closed their doors and by August 2021 many students still hadn’t returned to their classrooms.

Read the full story here.

05:08 PM

Revealed: UK and WHO working on global system to update Covid shots

The Telegraph understands the process, being discussed by regulators and the WHO, will be based on flu jab 'strain updates', reports Sarah Newey.

Experts from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) joined a meeting with agencies from Europe, the US and beyond last week, where early plans for closer collaboration on variant-proof Covid jabs were discussed.

The WHO is expected to be central to this process, emulating a system currently used to decide on “strain updates” for flu shots, which are updated every six months.

Discussions come amid mounting concerns that a fragmented approach to future-proofing Covid shots would be counterproductive, reduce manufacturing capacity, exacerbate vaccine hesitancy and worsen already vast imbalances in access to jabs worldwide.

While data suggests current vaccines are less effective in the face of the highly mutated omicron variant, shots still provide a very high level of protection against severe disease.

Read the full story here.

04:47 PM

Covid death rates fell over Christmas as ministers debated new restrictions

Death rates from Covid fell significantly in December while the Government was deciding whether to bring in new restrictions, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed, Sarah Knapton reports.

Monthly mortality data show that there were 56.3 Covid deaths per 100,000 in England last month with the virus on the death certificate, compared to 69.3 per 100,000 in November.

Separate ONS and King’s College London infection data also reveal that cases are now declining in most areas of Britain.

Experts said that it was now clear that the UK will not experience the thousands of daily deaths modelling scenarios showed, and said lessons must be learned from how the omicron variant was dealt with before Christmas.

Read the full story here.

04:37 PM

Families forced to cancel half term holidays because of ‘restrictive’ Covid pass rules

Children who have one vaccine dose and are not yet eligible for their second are 'effectively grounded' from travel, reports Lizzie Roberts.

Families have been forced to cancel half term holidays because of “restrictive” vaccine passport demands.

Children aged 12-15 who are fully vaccinated are unable to use the NHS App, and therefore cannot access their vaccination record.

Countries including France, Italy and Spain require over-12s to be double vaccinated or face additional restrictions compared to their vaccinated parents, such as quarantine or daily testing.

Families can request a NHS Covid Pass letter for double jabbed under-16s, from the NHS 119 helpline or online, which contains a QR code that can be used for travel.

But children who have had one dose and are not yet eligible for their second, for example because they have had a recent Covid infection, have been left in limbo and are “effectively grounded” from travel, families and MPs have said.

Read the full story here.

04:18 PM

UK reports 95,787 new Covid cases and 288 deaths

04:10 PM

Bangladesh shuts schools as Covid cases surge

Bangladesh has closed all schools and colleges for two weeks to counter an "alarming" rise in Covid infections, just four months after ending a school closure which lasted for more than a year.

The south Asian country reported 11,434 new cases on Friday, the biggest single-day jump since August 9.

"We are seeing an uptick in infections in schools and colleges. This is really alarming," Health Minister Zahid Maleque told reporters.

He added that public gatherings like political rallies and religious functions involving more than 100 people had been prohibited, although the duration of the ban was not immediately clear.

The healthcare system would be overwhelmed if the situation deteriorates further, Mr Maleque said, adding more than a third of the hospital beds in the capital, Dhaka, have already been occupied by coronavirus patients.

Bangladesh has so far administered at least 151 million doses of vaccine since an inoculation drive began a year ago, with 47 per cent of the population having had two shots.

03:49 PM

Latest weekly figures for the R number

03:25 PM

'Half a million' new Covid cases each day over Christmas, ONS estimates

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

It comes as health agencies have urged caution about interpreting the regular case numbers published each day for the UK, following changes in rules about testing.

An average of 173,400 new cases of coronavirus per day were recorded from December 26 to January 1, according to the Government's Covid-19 dashboard.

But the true number of cases was likely to be nearer 479,100 a day, according to estimates by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The sharp difference in totals reflects just how many new cases of Covid-19 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 are coming forward for tests, have chosen to report their test results, or who are taking a test because they know they have coronavirus symptoms.

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.

03:22 PM

Sadiq Khan stands down ‘major incident’ over Covid in London

London
London

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.

Mr Khan said: "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.

"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.”

03:03 PM

Former Credit Suisse boss attended Euros final as well as Wimbledon on quarantine-busting London trip

Sir Antonio Horta-Osorio, the former Lloyds chief and Credit Suisse chairman, attended the "super-spreader" European Championship football final last summer when he should have been in quarantine, it has emerged.

The banker stood down from the Swiss bank this week following an investigation that found he broke quarantine regulations last summer when visiting London to watch the Wimbledon final.

It has now emerged that Sir Antonio went from the tennis in Wimbledon to the football in Wembley on the same day.

More than 5,000 people caught Covid at the Euros final and semi-finals last summer, with health officials saying the "super-spreader" events showed how quickly the virus could spread.

Read the full piece from Lucy Burton here.

02:48 PM

France's Constitutional Council clears vaccine pass with certain conditions

France's Constitutional Council approved with conditions the government's planned vaccine pass, which will require that people over 16 have a certificate of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants or cinemas.

One condition was that the pass would not be required to attend political meetings. The council also ruled that it should end as soon as it is no longer necessary.

Up until now, unvaccinated people could enter public venues with the results of a recent negative Covid test.

This will no longer be the case from January 24 onwards, when the vaccine pass will be enforced.

02:22 PM

New Covid cases likely to be shrinking as England's R number drops

The estimated range of England's "R" number has fallen to between 0.8 and 1.1, the UK Health Security Agency said today, adding that cases are likely shrinking.

An R number between 0.8 and 1.1 means that for every 10 people infected, they will on average infect between 8 and 11 other people. Last week the range was 1.1 to 1.5.

The daily growth of infections was estimated at between -6 per cent to +1 per cent, a big fall of the previous weeks range of +1 per cent to +5 per cent. The UKHSA said the figures represented the situation in England 2-3 weeks ago.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister announced the end of Covid Plan B measures, including mandatory face masks in England, as he looks to live with the virus after a peak in cases caused by the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

02:18 PM

In pictures: Covid around the world

Buddhist monks wearing face masks take a test for the liturgical Pali language in Bangkok, Thailand
Buddhist monks wearing face masks take a test for the liturgical Pali language in Bangkok, Thailand
A paramilitary soldier receives a vaccine in Karachi, Pakistan
A paramilitary soldier receives a vaccine in Karachi, Pakistan
Residents queue to undergo nucleic Covid tests during a light snowfall in Anyang in China's central Henan province 
Residents queue to undergo nucleic Covid tests during a light snowfall in Anyang in China's central Henan province

01:46 PM

Drakeford: Face masks and self-isolation rules to stay in Wales

Mark Drakeford told a Welsh Government briefing that self-isolation rules for everyone who tests positive for coronavirus will remain in place, as will mask-wearing in most public indoor places.

"The next review of the coronavirus regulations, including all the protective measures we have in place, will be in three weeks' time," the First Minister of Wales said.

"The arrival of the omicron wave at Christmas was another unpleasant twist in this long-running pandemic.

"We have weathered this storm together in Wales by following the rules and all the measures, which have kept us safe over the course of the last two years.

"Unfortunately, this pandemic is not over yet. Coronavirus is still with us.

"But we can look to the future with renewed hope that brighter days are ahead.

"We are moving back to alert level zero but we will retain some important protections to give us all the confidence we need to live our lives."

01:33 PM

WHO advisory panel recommends extending use of Pfizer vaccine to 5 to 11-year-olds

The World Health Organisation's advisory panel has recommended extending the use of a reduced dosage of Pfizer and German partner BioNTech's vaccine to children aged five to 11 years old.

The recommendation comes after WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunisation held a meeting yesterday to evaluate the companies' vaccine. The vaccine is currently recommended for use in people aged 12 years and above.

The recommended dosage for the younger population is 10 micrograms instead of 30 micrograms offered to those 12 years and older.

"This age group (5-11) is in the lowest priority use group for vaccination except for children who have co-morbidities," SAGE chairman Alejandro Cravioto said.

The panel also recommended that booster doses of Covid vaccine should be administered four to six months after the completion of the primary series, in high-priority groups like older adults and health workers.

01:00 PM

PM: Schools should follow updated guidance to allow children to have a 'normal' education

Boris Johnson has urged teachers who insist masks are still worn in lessons to follow the rules that no longer require their use in classrooms.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Children have been one of the hardest hit as a result of the disruption throughout the pandemic and we recognise the impact it has had on their education.

"The Prime Minister believes it is vital that children are receiving face-to-face education and can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom and 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."

12:27 PM

Scrap the unreliable daily Covid data updates before people become addicted to them, say experts

There have been calls to phase out the statistics as it emerges that up to 70 per cent of virus patients in hospital are being primarily treated for other problems, reports Sarah Knapton.

Covid data updates on the Government’s online dashboard are becoming increasingly unreliable, experts have warned, as it emerged up to 70 per cent of coronavirus patients in hospital were primarily being treated for other problems.

Some also believe daily coronavirus statistics should be phased out in the coming months, amid fears people are becoming "addicted" to the figures.

Latest statistics from NHS England showed that in the East Midlands, just 533 (29 per cent) of the 1,817 people included in coronavirus hospital data were being treated primarily for the virus.

Read the full story here.

12:10 PM

Why some will never ditch the masks – and think they’re better than you for it

Face mask
Face mask

Even if our two tribes – mask devotees and mask burners – don’t go to war, history suggests face coverings are unlikely to disappear quietly, writes Harry de Quetteville.

How to celebrate the end of Plan B Covid restrictions? Deleting your Covid app hardly seems thrilling. Racing back to the office, not exactly the party you were after. How about reaching deep into your pockets, your car’s glove box, your knicker drawer – wherever you keep them – fishing out your facemasks… and binning them?

Doubtless there will be those who go further, gathering their masks – elastic saggy, Liberty prints crumpled and encrusted after hundreds of unwashed wearings – piling them into a little pyre and, as Jimi Hendrix did to his guitar 55 years ago, dousing them with lighter fluid and setting them ablaze.

And who could blame such pyrotechnically inclined souls, after the last two years, for such a barmy ritual – a rite of passage from grim days gone by to more hopeful times ahead?

But not so fast. Unstrike that light. Hendrix might have found joyful freedom in his conflagration, face suffused with a kind of ecstatic liberty, but I’m afraid you ain’t seen the last of masks yet.

Read the full piece here.

11:46 AM

Austria becomes first EU country to make Covid vaccinations mandatory

Austria's parliament has approved making Covid vaccinations mandatory for adults from next month, becoming the first European country to do so despite a wave of protests opposing the measure.

Tens of thousands have demonstrated against mandatory vaccination in regular weekend rallies since the measure was announced in November in a bid to drive up the country's vaccination rate.

All parties, except the far-right, supported the measure, with the new legislation passing yesterday with 137 votes in favour and 33 votes against it in the 183-seat parliament.

"It is adopted with the (necessary) majority," Doris Bures, second president of the National Council, said.

To date, 72 per cent of Austrian residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus - in line with the European Union-wide average of just more than 70 per cent, but several percentage points below regional neighbours such as Italy and France.

Under the new law, which takes effect on February 4, those holding out against the jab can face fines of up to 3,600 euros ($4,100) from mid-March after an initial "introductory phase".

The government initially wanted to cover everyone aged 14 and older, but now the measure only applies to adults, except pregnant women and those with a medical exemption.

11:32 AM

German health minister warns of possible tripling of Covid infections by mid-February

Germany reported a record 140,160 new coronavirus cases today, as the country's health minister warned it could see at least 400,000 per day by mid-February.

That figure would be reached under an optimistic scenario in which booster shots provide very good protection, Karl Lauterbach said in a discussion with state government leaders.

The number could climb to more than 600,000 daily new cases if the booster shots were less protective, Reuters reported.

Mr Lauterbach also said he expected the numbers in intensive care in hospitals to increase significantly over coming weeks.

More than 116,000 people have died in Germany in connection with the coronavirus. A week ago, Germany reported 92,223 new daily cases.

11:18 AM

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

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

Some 22 per cent 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 difficulties experienced were when ordering on the Government website for home delivery (68 per cent) and collecting from pharmacies (60 per cent).

The majority (85 per cent) said the difficulties did not stop them from doing anything they had planned.

The ONS analysed responses from 3,293 people between January 6 and 16 as part of its Opinions and Lifestyle survey.

It found 61 per cent of adults said they had taken a lateral flow test in the last week - up from 57 per cent in December 15 to January 3.

It is also up from 42 per cent in the period before Plan B measures were introduced in England.

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

11:05 AM

Sunetra Gupta: Why it's time to end Covid self-isolation

By interfering with the maintenance of herd immunity, measures such as self-isolation actually increase the risk to the vulnerable, argues Prof Sunetra Gupta.

With the omicron variant, we know that the fatality rate will be dramatically lower whether or not it has diminished in virulence, because most of what we are seeing is re-infections or vaccine breakthroughs.

This strongly endorses the immediate lifting of restrictions given their devastating consequences, and focusing policy instead on the vulnerable. The low risk of infection among the vulnerable arises from the maintenance of herd immunity through constant reinfection; any measure that interferes with this actually increases their risk.

Read the full piece here.

10:48 AM

Travel tests have almost no impact on spread of Covid variants

Walk through Coronavirus Testing Centre at Stansted Airport
Walk through Coronavirus Testing Centre at Stansted Airport

Travel tests have virtually no effect in preventing the spread of Covid variants from abroad unless restrictions are introduced within a day of the strain first being imported to the UK, according to a scientific analysis, reports Charles Hymas.

The research found any travel restrictions could only delay the peak of a new variant by between two and eight days – but this would only be effective if they were imposed as the variant was first brought in.

Each additional day of delay after that reduced the impact to the point that, by day six, it only held back the peak by a day, according to the modelling by Edge Health and Oxera, a specialist research consultancy that works with the NHS.

It took 16 days for the UK to detect and react to the omicron variant after it had already arrived, suggesting any tests would only be introduced long after they could have any effect in delaying the peak of the virus.

Read the full story here.

10:32 AM

Russia reports record daily Covid cases amid omicron surge

Russia has reported a record number of new coronavirus infections over the previous 24 hours, a government tally showed, with officials warning of surging cases driven by the omicron variant.

A government website reported 49,513 new infections in Russia, which is already one the world's worst-hit countries by caseload, surpassing the previous record set in November of 41,335.

The number of cases across Russia has risen sharply in recent days, with authorities predicting an imminent surge due to the fast-spreading omicron variant.

The new record set comes one day after Moscow - the epicentre of the outbreak in Russia - said it had seen its highest number of new cases.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that the country had two weeks to prepare for a surge in cases, calling for more testing and vaccinations.

10:28 AM

Kwasi Kwarteng: ‘Face masks not needed in schools’

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 Zahawi said he will personally vet any plans to bring back masks in schools in areas hit by Covid spikes.

10:16 AM

Germany's governing Greens facing criminal investigation over Covid bonuses

Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is among those facing the criminal investigation - ALEX BRANDON 
Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is among those facing the criminal investigation - ALEX BRANDON

Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is among those under investigation for allegedly awarding themselves special working-from-home bonuses, reports Justin Huggler from Berlin.

Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into leaders of the German Green Party over coronavirus bonuses they paid themselves.

Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, and Robert Habeck, the vice-chancellor and business and climate minister, are among six party members under investigation.

They are being investigated on suspicion of breach of trust after they awarded themselves €1,500 (£1,245) special bonuses to cover the cost of working from home during the pandemic. If found guilty, they could face up to five years in prison or a fine.

Read the full story here.

10:05 AM

Schools defy Boris Johnson as they insist face masks must stay in class

Over 100 headteachers have already written to parents to say children will continue wearing masks in lessons despite eased restrictions, reports Camilla Turner.

Headteachers are defying the Government over face masks in the classroom as dozens insist they will remain in place.

More than 100 schools have already written to parents to say that children must continue wearing masks in lessons, despite the Prime Minister’s announcement that the measure is no longer necessary.

The Education Secretary insisted on Thursday that “all schools” should banish face masks so that children can “enjoy a normal experience” in the classroom.

He warned that Department for Education (DfE) officials will contact headteachers who are refusing to drop masks and explain why they must go.

It comes after union leaders reacted with anger at the new guidance on masks and accused the Prime Minister of flouting his “duty of care” to teachers.

Read the full story here.

09:50 AM

Mark Drakeford accuses UK Government of not following the science by lifting restrictions

The First Minister of Wales has accused the UK Government of hastening the end of Covid restrictions in England to escape negative headlines around parties at Downing Street during lockdown.

He said the contrast between his country's approach to lifting the measures and that of England "has been pretty stark this week".

"I'd have to say, anybody watching what has gone on in Westminster will know that those announcements are not driven by the science," Mr Drakeford told Sky News.

"They're not part of a carefully thought-out plan, they're just an effort by UK ministers to find a different headline from the one that has dominated the news."

He continued: "Here in Wales, we are in a better position than that - our Government is able to go on making sensible, cautious planning decisions rooted in the science and in keeping people in Wales safe.

"I think the contrast between our two positions has been pretty stark this week."

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