Covid latest news LIVE: Boris Johnson says pre-departure test rule scrapped from 4am on Friday as Plan B continues

Boris Johnson has given a statement in the Commons on the situation in the UK regarding the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

In it he announced pre-departure tests would be scrapped from 4am on Friday for travellers heading to the UK.

The requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receipt of a negative PCR test will also be scrapped, he told the House of Commons.

Mr Johnson confirmed that the Government would stick with Plan B measures for another three weeks.

It comes as the PM and Angela Rayner clashed at PMQs. Mr Johnson was grilled on the cost of living crisis as Ms Rayner deputised for Sir Keir Starmer, who has tested positive for Covid-19.

Earlier it emerged an estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 31.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures show an estimated one in 15 in England had the virus last week - and one in 10 in London.

Follow the live updates below.

Labour’s Ellie Reeves: Primary pupils wear extra layers because windows left open

21:24 , Anthony France

Labour MP Ellie Reeves said she had seen an email from a school in her constituency “asking for children as young as four to come to school in extra layers so that the windows can be kept open in winter.

“Isn’t the Government’s failure to get to grips with ventilation in our schools just another example of this Government treating our children’s education as an afterthought?”

The MP for Lewisham West and Penge said: “The importance of ventilation in schools was first highlighted in the spring 2020 yet it’s taken until 2022 for the Government to offer just 7,000 air cleaning units when there are well over 20,000 schools and 300,000 classrooms in England.”

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “We’ve got 24,300-plus schools roughly. We’ve sent out 350,000 CO2 monitors. The majority, the feedback has been that they don’t need the air purifiers.

“When we did the modelling we thought they needed 8,000 roughly, which is what we’ve got. The first ones go out next week. That’s the right and proportionate and the cost effective way of dealing with this.”

He added: “We are stewards of taxpayers’ money. We have to be responsible as to how we support schools to remain open.”

More than 20 NHS trusts declare ‘critical incident’ as pressure grows

19:54 , Michael Howie

No 10 has said more than 20 trusts had now reached the alert level where priority services may be under threat, but stressed it was "not a good indicator" of the pressures the health service was under.

The University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust and the North Bristol NHS Trust, which run hospitals including the Bristol Royal Infirmary, the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children and Southmead, said they were at their "highest state of alert".

The North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) said it asked patients with "potentially non-life-threatening" calls to be taken to hospital by a relative if an ambulance was delayed over the bank holiday weekend.

Morecambe Bay NHS Trust and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust were also among those declaring critical incidents.

Travel industry welcomes removal of pre-departure tests

18:57 , Anthony France

Julia Simpson, president of the World Travel & Tourism Council, welcomed the government’s decision to remove pre-departure tests for travellers.

She said: “The removal of pre-departure tests and replacing Day 2 PCRs with more affordable antigen testing will significantly boost the UK travel and tourism sector and help both it and the whole UK economy recover much faster than expected.

“The testing measures being removed never actually stopped infections coming in and were a blunt policy which only damaged the travel and tourism sector.”

MPs to get vote on extending Plan B - No10

18:46 , Anthony France

Downing Street has said MPs would get a vote on extending Plan B measures ahead of their expiry on January 26 if the Government deems restrictions need to continue past then.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We would ensure that any measures, should there be any requirement to extend them, that Parliament would have its say in the normal way.”

Pressed if that is a vote in advance, he said: “Yes we will, on any regulations, you could expect, should it be required.”

Education Secretary: Face coverings in schools ‘help reduce transmission'

18:05 , Anthony France

Children having to wear face coverings in school will “help reduce transmission at a time when rates of infection are high”, the Education Secretary has said.

Nadhim Zahawi explained why the Government had mandated that all children in Year Seven and above in school should wear a mask during lessons, saying: “I know this is something that people feel very strongly about and some people have said that we are wrong to do it. As I have always, and I am going to do this again now, follow the data.”

Facing wails of objection from Conservative backbencher Sir Desmond Swayne, Mr Zahawi continued: “The UKHSA have said this will help reduce transmission at a time when rates of infection are so high with the Omicron variant.

“My department has also looked at some observational data from a sample of 123 schools where face coverings had been in use in the autumn term and found that there was a greater reduction in Covid absence compared to those where students didn’t wear face coverings.”

Describing the situation as “not ideal” and possibly “distracting for children”, the Education Secretary added he had commissioned his department to research the impact of wearing masks on children.

Johnson has regular Covid 19 test - No10

17:05 , Anthony France

Boris Johnson is undergoing “fairly regular testing” for coronavirus, No 10 said.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked how often the PM was being tested for Covid, and said: “He does receive fairly regular testing, particularly depending on where he’s going.”

British Chambers of Commerce: Scrapping pre-departure Covid tests ‘a welcome boost'

16:59 , Anthony France

The British Chambers of Commerce said travel companies would be helped by the decision to scrap pre-departure Covid tests for travellers to England.

Co-executive director Hannah Essex, said: “The easing of testing requirements for travel should provide a welcome boost to a sector that has been among the hardest hit throughout the pandemic.

“But urgent action is needed to address issues with the supply of lateral flow tests to make sure the workforce is not isolating unnecessarily. Too many businesses are telling us that their staff cannot get access.

“We have been told of absence rates of more than 25 per cent at some firms this week, which is having a huge impact on their operations.

“Many are worried this is going to critically impact on supply chains and put pressure on cash flow at a time when economic conditions were already difficult.

“This lack of testing capacity is also adversely affecting the confidence of consumers who want to be assured that they are Covid-free before they go out and meet friends in hospitality and leisure premises.

“The Government must do all it can to address issues around isolation and fully assess the scientific data to make sure it is kept to a safe minimum without adversely affecting infection rates.”

Grant Shapps announces removal of Covid border restrictions

16:47 , Anthony France

The Transport Secretary has tweeted about the removal of measures at the UK border that were introduced in a bid to slow the spread of the Omicron variant last year.

Grant Shapps wrote: “We’re removing the temporary extra testing measures we introduced last year at the border to slow cases of Omicron coming to the UK. Now Omicron is the dominant variant & is widespread in the UK, these measures are no longer proportionate.”

He continued in a thread of tweets: “Fully vaxxed passengers & under 18s will no longer need to take a pre-departure test before returning to England if arriving after 4am Fri 7 Jan. Fully vaxxed passengers & under 18s will no longer need to self-isolate whilst waiting for post-arrival results if arriving after 4am Friday 7 Jan.

“After arrival in England, all fully vaxxed people & under 18s will now only need to take a lateral flow test (instead of a PCR test) if they arrive after 4am Sunday 9 Jan. Free NHS lateral flow tests cannot be used for international travel, to protect NHS capacity.

“If your post-arrival lateral flow test comes out positive, you must self-isolate & take a free NHS PCR test to confirm the result.”

There are more than 17,000 in hospital with Covid - figures show

16:20 , Elly Blake

A total of 17,276 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of January 4, Government figures show.

This is up 58 per cent week-on-week and is the highest number since February 19.

During the second wave of coronavirus, the number peaked at 39,254 on January 18 2021.

There were 2,258 Covid-19 hospital admissions on December 28, the latest UK-wide figure available, up 83 per cent week on week at the highest number since February 3.

Admissions during the second wave peaked at 4,583 on January 12 2021.

Can we rule out lockdowns in the future? Asks former PM

16:18 , Elly Blake

Former Prime Minister has asked what Boris Johnson’s approach will be new variants are identified in the future.

He responded: “We simply cannot go on as a country and as a society by reaching endlessly for lockdown which is their instinct, no matter what the cost.

“We have to remain cautious, and of course I cannot tell the House that we can rule out absolutely everything to protect the public, but I am confident… that we can get through this wave of Omicron with the measures, with the balance and propionate approach we are taking.”

Breaking: More than 190,000 positive infections recorded in the UK on Wednesday

16:10 , Elly Blake

Official data shows 194,747 Covid cases have been recorded in the latest 24-hour period.

There were a further 334 deaths within 28 days of a positive test - but these figures may reflect the data catching up after the festive period.

Vaccination data was not updated due to a delay in reporting England’s figures.

Re-cap of the new measures introduced by PM

15:59 , Elly Blake

Passengers travelling to England will no longer be required to take a pre-departure Covid test from 4am Friday, Boris Johnson has announced.

The requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receipt of a negative PCR test will also be scrapped, he told the House of Commons.

Angela Rayner - Government right to keep Plan B measures going

15:55 , Elly Blake

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has said she supports the Government’s decision to keep Plan B measures going.

“Labour will always put public health before party politics,” she told MPs.

Ms Rayner expressed concern over NHS waiting times and said the health service did not “have the spare capacity to deal with Omicron,” blaming “Tory mismanagement”.

Lockdowns not cost free - PM says

15:51 , Elly Blake

Prime Minister said the Government “does not believe we need to shut down this country again”.

Boris Johnson said the UK was taking a “balanced and proportionate way to live with Covid without taking our guard down”.

He laid out measures the Government was taking to avoid further restrictions including the Nightingale NHS surge hubs and regular testing.

People will no longer have to take a PCR test if they take a positive lateral flow test, he said.

Travel restrictions are having a limited impact on the transmission of Omicron, he said, so the Government will be scrapping the requirement for pre-departure tests for arrivals to the UK.

He called on people to get their vaccinations to “save lives and keep this country open”.

Plan B to continue for another three weeks

15:48 , Elly Blake

The Prime Minister is now making a statement on the Omicron variant.

He paid tribute to everyone working in the NHS and in social care, “for all they have done” to get Britain boosted.

The Get Boosted Now campaign has doubled the rate of vaccination from 450,000 to more than 900,000 a day, he said.

“As a result we have a higher level of booster protection than all of our European neighbours.”

“This level of protection means we are in a very different position than in previous waves”, however he urged caution as hospital admissions are “rising rapidly” he said.

He said over 218,000 Covid cases reported yesterday were of “concern” and said it could continue to put pressure on the NHS.

The Cabinet has concluded that the UK should stick with Plan B for another three weeks - with working from home to continue where possible.

Labour MP calls for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) rise

15:39 , Elly Blake

Labour MP Andy McDonald told MPs that “millions of workers are being forced to choose between isolating and putting food on the table”.

He asked Boris Johnson PM “how on earth does he expect working people to survive on £96 per week when they get sick”.

“Will he commit here and now to raising it to the level of the real living wage?” he asked.

Boris Johnson responded by saying that SSP is “up to 75 per cent more generous if you have to self-isolate” under a measure taken to help workers at the beginning of the pandemic.

“We are determined to do what we can to help people” through the pandemic Mr Johnson added.

MP gives emotional plea to continue care home visits

15:34 , Elly Blake

MP Liz Saville-Roberts told the Commons that her mother has diagnosed with dementia after having a stroke a year ago.

“I was called to sit with her on Monday because of a Covid staff shortage, but I fear that myself - like many of our constituents in similar circumstances - are likely to be separated indefinitely when she is moved into a nursing home,” the Plaid Cymru MP said.

Ms Saville-Roberts said many care homes visits are still being denied and asked if the Prime Minister agreed that everyone has a right to family life.

Boris Johnson said he extended his sympathies to Ms Saville-Roberts and acknowledged the difficulty of the restrictions put on care homes.

“We do have to try and strike a balance and keep residents safe,” the PM notes, adding that three nominated people can visit a resident.

“I understand the particular stress and anxiety that (Ms Saville-Roberts) difficulties are causing,” he added.

Commons Speaker calls for Ed Balls instead of Ed Davey - much to the delight of the House

15:27 , Elly Blake

During a brief moment of light entertainment, House of Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has called for former Labour minister Ed Balls to speak, instead of the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey.

This saw one of the biggest giggles of PMQs, with MPs erupting into laughter that filled the Chamber.

“Balls is the word,” Boris Johnson quipped during his response to Sir Ed Davey.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford says there is a ‘cost of living crisis'

15:25 , Elly Blake

SNP Westminster Ian Blackford has accused the Prime Minister of steering the country into a “Tory poverty crisis”.

He told MPs: “We’ve had the year of Tory sleaze, now we’ve got the year of Tory squeeze to household budgets,” citing tax hikes and soaring inflation under the PM’s leadership.

“Under this Prime Minister, the UK has the worst levels of poverty in north-west Europe,” Mr Blackford said.

He asked if the Prime Minister would match the Scottish Government and introduce a £20 child payment across the UK?

Boris Johnson replied by saying he was “talking total nonsense”.

“This is a government that is absolutely determined to look after the poorest and the neediest, which is what the chancellor did with all his packages,” he said.

Labour: PM got it ‘so wrong’ on the issue of inflation

15:20 , Elly Blake

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the Prime Minister of getting it “so wrong” on the issue of inflation.

Ms Rayner, who is standing in for Sir Keir Starmer after the Labour leader tested positive on Wednesday, said: “In October the Prime Minister said that fears about inflation were unfounded, but working people across the country are starting the New Year facing rising bills and ballooning prices, so how did he get it so wrong?”

Boris Johnson replied: “Of course I said no such thing because inflation is always something that we have to be careful about, but what we are doing is making sure that we protect the people of this country throughout what is unquestionably going to be a difficult period, and that’s why we are ensuring that we’ve lifted the Living Wage by record sums, we make sure people have cold weather payments, making sure that they have the warm homes discount…

“The most important thing we can do to look after people during this very difficult time is to ensure that we take the balanced and proportionate approach that we are, to ensure that we’re able to keep our country and our society going and that is exactly what we are doing.

“That is why we doubled down on the booster programme and that is why we are sticking with Plan B, that’s the right approach for the country.”

PM - We are taking balanced, proportionate approach to keep economy going

15:19 , Elly Blake

The Prime Minister has accused Labour of wanting more Covid restrictions.

He told MPs that when “Omicron presented itself, What did they go for? They went for the lever of more restrictions.”

Boris Johnson defended his approach, saying opting for boosters was the “balanced and proportionate” approach for the country to take.

Rayner clashes with PM over rising energy bills

15:15 , Elly Blake

Angela Rayner has accused the Conservatives of “increasing taxes to the hardworking people of this country”.

She said that “any decent government would find a way to help British families” when energy bills are due to rise again in April.

Noting that some Conservative MPs have supported the opposition’s call for further economic support to be provided, she asked if Mr Johnson would step up.

In response, Boris Johnson listed what existing support is being offered to ease the financial burdens households are facing.

He then retorted that Labour “can’t be trusted on the economy”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson fielding questions from MPs

15:05 , Elly Blake

The Prime Minister started by urging anyone who has not yet got a Covid vaccine to come forward and get one.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner thanked frontline workers who were working under “incredibly hard” circumstances and asked about inflation and rising living costs.

 (House of Commons)
(House of Commons)

She asked: “In October, the Prime Minister said that fears about inflation were unfounded, but working people across the country are starting the New Year facing rising bills and ballooning prices. So how did he get is so wrong?”

Mr Johnson responded: “Inflation is always something that we have to be careful about but what we are doing is making sure that we protect the people of this country throughout what is unquestionably going to be a difficult period and that’s why we are ensuring we’re lifting the living wage.”

He added that the most important thing he could do was to “protect the people of this country” during what will undoubtedly be a difficult period.

He said: “The most important thing we can do to look after people during this difficult time is to take the balanced, proportionate approach that we are.”

“We are sticking with Plan B, that’s the right approach for the country,” he added.

Boris Johnson about to take questions from MPs - but not Keir Starmer

14:59 , Elly Blake

The Prime Minister is due to take questions from MPs at 3pm.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will not be attending as he is self-isolating after testing positive for Covid for a second time.

Scotland changes testing rules and cuts isolation period for asymptomatic

14:45 , Josh Salisbury

Scots who test positive for Covid-19 will be able to leave self isolation on day seven if they return two negative lateral flow tests and do not have symptoms, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.

The change will come into effect from midnight on Wednesday, while the rule is already in place in England.

Ms Sturgeon also confirmed that asymptomatic Scots who return a positive lateral flow test will no longer need to confirm their result with a PCR.

From Thursday, those who test positive will be asked to isolate immediately and register their result online so contact tracing can take place.

Ministers today also announced the move in England.

Ms Sturgeon said: "The safest thing to do at this stage is treat a positive lateral flow test as confirmation of Covid.

"This allows us to maximise testing capacity and ensure a speedier start to the process of contact tracing and advice."

1 in 20 had virus in past week in Scotland and Wales

14:39 , Josh Salisbury

Around one in 20 people had a positive test in both Scotland and Wales in the week to December 31, while in Northern Ireland around one in 25 people were thought to have had the virus.

Wales’s figure is up from one in 40 in the week to December 23. Scotland’s figure is also up from 1 in 40 people testing positive for the week ending December 23.

The estimates cover those in private households only.

The ONS added: “COVID-19 infections compatible with the Omicron variant continued to increase rapidly across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and Omicron is now the most common variant across all UK countries.”

One in ten Londoners tested positive for Covid in a week - ONS

14:27 , Josh Salisbury

As many as one in ten Londoners are estimated to have had coronavirus in the week ending New Year’s Eve, the latest data reveals.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), around 3.27 million people in England had the virus in the week ending December 31, equivalent to around one in 15 people.

London was the worst affected region during that week, with the South West of England seeing the lowest number of infections with around one in 30 testing positive.

The latest release also reveals that the trend was uncertain for Londoners who are secondary school ages and those aged 25 to 49 years.

This “may mean that infections are no longer increasing among these ages in London,” but the ONS said it is “currently too early to suggest if this is a continuing change in trend.”

‘PM has support of Cabinet for no new measures’ says No 10 spokesman

13:41 , Josh Salisbury

A No10 spokesperson has given their account of today’s Cabinet meeting, saying Boris Johnson told ministers the “next few weeks would be very challenging, particularly for the NHS where the number of people going into hospital because of Omicron will increase”.

“The Prime Minister said the UK’s balanced approach, together with new evidence that Omicron is less severe than Delta, meant it was right to maintain the Plan B measures, with a further review before the regulations expire on January 26,” added Downing Street.

“The Prime Minister said the Government would continue to give the NHS all the support it needs to further manage the pressure it is under.”

Arsenal v Liverpool called off due to outbreak

13:12 , Barney Davis

PCR test scrappage to be reviewed if Covid drops under 1%

13:01 , Barney Davis

UK Health Security Agency’s suspension of follow-up PCR tests for people with no Covid symptoms will be looked at again if the virus drops below 1% for a sustained period of time.

The agency says it previously suspended the requirement between January and March 2021 at a time of high virus prevalence.

The current rate of prevalence is about 4%, according to the Office for National Statistics.

PCR tests for symptomless to be scrapped from Jan 11

12:37 , Barney Davis

Follow-up PCR tests will be scrapped from January 11 for people with no Covid019 symptoms in England.

Currently, anyone who tests positive using a lateral flow test (LFT) has to get a follow-up PCR test to confirm their result.

They will still have to isolate for at least seven days, but only from the date of their positive lateral flow test.

The change could be announced on Wednesday as the Prime Minister argues to his Cabinet they should stick by the Plan B measures in England despite admitting parts of the health service will feel “temporarily overwhelmed”.

French president causes political controversy over language about unvaccinated

12:10 , Josh Salisbury

The French president Emmanuel Macron has caused controversy after telling a newspaper his Covid strategy was to “p*** off” the unvaccinated.

Mr Macron made the remark in an interview with the Le Parisien newspaper late Tuesday, in which he also said unvaccinated people were “irresponsible” and that he planned to make their lives so complicated that they would end up getting jabbed.

The interview was published shortly before parliament was due to resume a debate over new legislation which would make vaccine proof mandatory for access to restaurants, cinemas or even to take the train,

The debate was suspended amid the controversy surrounding Mr Macron’s comments, but is expected to resume later today.

Rail firms: ‘Axing services over Covid staff shortages was right decision'

12:05 , Josh Salisbury

A rail industry body has defended rail firms’ decision to axe hundreds of daily train citing coronavirus-related staff shortages.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) industry body said the introduction of emergency timetables with reduced frequencies would create a more reliable service and fewer short-notice cancellations.

Several firms have now cut the number of trains after working with the Government to create amended timetables because around 10% of rail staff are absent from the workforce.

The new schedules focus on peak travel times to provide trains for key workers, school pupils and people who cannot work from home.

In London, Southern will not serve London Victoria until next week, while CrossCountry has removed around 50 trains a day from its timetables.

Weekly registered Covid deaths continue to fall - ONS

11:07 , Josh Salisbury

Weekly registered deaths involving coronavirus in England and Wales fell in the week leading up to Christmas, new figures reveal.

However, it is still too soon to see any impact in the figures of the surge in Omicron cases.

In the week ending December 24, 591 deaths registered mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

This is the sixth consecutive weekly fall - down 22% from the previous week - and the lowest number of deaths since the week to August 20, when the total was 570.

Coronavirus accounted for around one in 22 (4.5%) of all deaths registered in England and Wales in the latest week.

Ambulance service admits asking patients to get lift to hospital

10:37 , Josh Salisbury

An ambulance service had admitted asking patients to get a lift instead of calling an ambulance over the bank holiday weekend after staff absences.

The North East Ambulance Service said the request only applied to "potentially non-life threatening" calls.

Medical director Dr Mathew Beattie said: "This was an incredibly difficult decision to take, but when patients are waiting an average of an hour for an ambulance that should be responding within 18 minutes, there is a risk for them coming to harm if they cannot get to hospital quickly."

He added that “where safe”, the service will continue to ask patients to make their own way to hospital, but “we would never ask anyone to drive themselves to hospital with a life-threatening illness”.

Labour leader tests positive for coronavirus for second time in three months

10:08 , Josh Salisbury

Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has tested positive for coronavirus a day after a major speech setting out his vision for Britain’s future.

Sir Keir will miss Prime Minister’s Questions at 3pm, with deputy leader, Angela Rayner, facing off against Boris Johnson.

He had previously tested positive for coronavirus on the day of the Budget in October.

This latest positive test will mean it is the sixth period of self-isolation for the Labour leader since the start of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Sir Keir addressed an audience in Birmingham where he promised “straight leadership” based on the values of “security, prosperity and respect” if his party is returned to power.

It may be too late for Covid restrictions to have impact, says expert

09:48 , Josh Salisbury

It may be too late to introduce any new Covid restrictions that would have a meaningful impact, an expert has suggested.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), told BBC Breakfast that imposing restrictions was always better when done earlier but had to be weighed up against the effect they have on society.

"It does look like we may be in a situation where - we're getting cases very, very high - but there's early evidence that things might be turning around in London," he said.

"The problem, of course, is that if you're thinking about introducing controls, once you're beyond the peak of the infection, then that has much less effect.

However, Dr Tildesley would not agree to saying it was definitely too late for restrictions, adding it was unclear the epidemic had peaked.

Hong Kong bans flights from UK over Omicron outbreak

09:14 , Josh Salisbury

Hong Kong has banned flights from eight countries, including the UK, for two weeks amid the Omicron outbreak.

On Wednesday morning, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the banned countries were Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, Philippines, UK and US. Flights will be banned from January 8 for two weeks.

Lam was speaking as the authorities launched a city-wide search for the contacts of a Covid patient and ordered a Royal Caribbean “cruise to nowhere” ship to return to port early, where nine passengers on the vessel were identified as Covid contacts.

You can read our full story on the development here.

NHS boss: I could support changes to PCR testing rules

09:09 , Josh Salisbury

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said he would support relaxing rules around PCR follow-up tests if it is backed up by scientific evidence.

Asked if he would support the change for the asymptomatic, Mr Taylor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “As long as it is based on the science, because on the one hand we do need to try to get staff back to work as soon as possible.

“Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate - any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing.

“But on the other hand, if staff come back into hospital and are infectious, that’s completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can’t be led by politics or blind hope - it has to be led by the science.”

Information about virus ‘potentially lost’ if PCR requirement dropped - expert

08:51 , Josh Salisbury

Information about the virus itself could potentially be lost if the requirement for a confirmatory PCR test is relaxed, an expert has said.

However, Dr Mike Tildesley added that lateral flow tests were very accurate at recording a positive test, saying it was “very, very important” people continue to record their test results.

Dr Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), told BBC Breakfast: "Of course, with a PCR test what happens is a number of those can get sent away for sequencing and then you get more information regarding the virus itself.

"So, that sort of information may potentially be lost, but only a subset of those PCR tests are sent away for sequencing anyway, so, hopefully, we won't be losing the levels of information that we already have in this country that enables us to identify variants and so forth."

Minister hints at changes to testing rules as 'lateral flow capacity trebled’

08:24 , Josh Salisbury

A record number of lateral flow tests were mailed to people on Tuesday, a government minister has said, as she hinted at changes to testing rules.

Care minister Gillian Keegan hinted Wednesday that while there is no official news as yet on testing rules, “you may be able to expect some news - I don't know when.”

It comes amid speculation that the requirement for a confirmatory PCR test after testing positive on a lateral flow test could be dropped.

She added that capacity of lateral flow tests have been increased.

“So for January and February, we have 350 million lateral flow tests,” she said. “So hopefully that should sort out some of the short-term supply issues that we’ve had where people have had to wait a little bit to get their packs.

New variant detected in France with 46 mutations

08:15 , Josh Salisbury

A new Covid variant with 46 mutations has been detected in France.

The B.1.640.2 variant, named the “IHU” variant by researchers, was first spotted in southern France and is linked to travel to Cameroon, according to a pre-print study.

Researchers based at the IHU Mediterranee hospital in Marseille said the new variant was linked to a vaccinated man who had recently returned from Cameroon three days before to his home in south-eastern France.

However, experts stress that new variants are discovered frequently, and that it is too early to “speculate” on the severity or transmissibility of the so-called ‘IHU’ variant.

United States sets new world daily cases record

07:31 , Josh Salisbury

The United States reported nearly 1 million new coronavirus infections on Monday, the highest daily tally of any country in the world.

This nearly doubles the previous U.S. peak set just a week ago as the spread of the Omicron variant showed no signs of slowing.

The 978,856 new infections recorded on Monday included some cases tallied on Saturday and Sunday, as many states do not report over the weekend.

In response to the high case numbers nationally, Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest school district, said it would cancel classes on Wednesday after the teachers' union voted in favor of a return to remote learning.

Care homes ‘begin restricting visits over workplace absences’

07:12 , Josh Salisbury

Care homes are struggling with staff shortages, with some limiting visits as a results, according to reports on Wednesday morning.

Around 11,000 care home workers are off because of Covid reasons, according to data reported the Guardian, with around 90 care home operators declaring ‘red alerts’.

This status means staffing ratios have been breached. Industry figures also told the Times newspaper on Wednesday that some care homes have already begun restricting visits over Covid staff shortages.

However, Jenny Morrison, of campaigning group, Rights for Residents, said workforce absences made it even more “crucial” for care home operators to “accept the help and support that many relatives give.”

Bid to 'relax isolation rules to stem staff shortages’

06:54 , Josh Salisbury

Covid testing rules could be relaxed in a bid to stem staff shortages causing disruption in many key services, according to reports.

Millions of people who test positive on lateral flow devices could be told they do not need to take follow-up PCR tests, reports the Telegraph.

This would mean a sooner start to the the official start of isolation for hundreds of thousands people, as currently many have to wait until a positive PCR test if asymptomatic.

The reported proposal would limit PCR tests to those with Covid symptoms, allowing people who are asymptomatic to return to work more quickly.

06:48 , Josh Salisbury

Good morning, and welcome to the Evening Standard’s coverage of coronavirus developments throughout the day.

Some of the top stories this morning are:

- Boris Johnson vowed to stick with ‘Plan B’ measures in England and ride out the Omicron wave last night despite cases surging past 200,000 a day for the first time.

- A 60-year-old man has been charged with criminal after a reported anti-vaccine protest took place outside the Health Secretary’s London home.

- France registered 271,686 daily Covid-19 infections on Tuesday - its highest recorded tally - confirming its position as the country in Europe hit most by the virus.